Avalanche conditions in parts of the U.S. have seen a high number of deaths this season, with 22 fatalities so far compared to 23 for the entire 2019-2020 season according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Centre.
While conditions in the U.S. are currently very dangerous, with at least 15 deaths since the start of February, conditions in Western Canada are very different right now according to Avalanche Canada.
“Conditions are not the same here as they are in the Central U.S. – the central U.S, Colorado and Utah are a very different snowpack than what we’re experiencing in our regions this winter,” said Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada.
“The winter here in the interior of British Columbia is pretty normal,” he said.
Klassen said that the 2020-2021 season had a long way to go so it was hard to know whether it was a tough year for fatalities just yet, especially with increased back country users.
“In the broadest of brushstrokes, historically March is the time of year where we see the most fatalities. But some years we see hardly any, in other years there’s significant numbers. The thing I would say is there’s still lots of winter left. We’re barely halfway through winter and if there are more and more people going into the back country, it’s more important than ever for people to keep an eye out for each other,” he said.
Increased back country use due to the pandemic has been highlighted as a potential cause for the higher numbers of fatalities in the U.S., but Klassen said it was hard to know whether the pandemic was driving more people into the outdoors in Canada.
“Anecdotally, what we’re hearing from people is that parking lots are more full than usual, (there are) more tracks than usual, ski shops are selling out of skis, snowmobile shops are selling out of snowmobiles – so those are probably indicators that there’s more people going out, but as for actual numbers, its impossible to tell for sure.”
Simon Piney of Fernie Search and Rescue (SAR) said that locally, there were plenty of indicators for more back country use.
“I think COVID has its part to play in everything – more and more people are being encouraged to be outside socially distancing and be away from the crowd, and that means we’ve seen a lot more people in the back country than we normally expect to see.”
Piney said that around Fernie, conditions had proven to be challenging with the variations in temperature leading to some unstable layers of snow.
“Our snowpack (around Fernie) is not so dissimilar to what is happening in Utah – it’s certainly a concern of ours. There was a slide up on Mount Fernie the other day that was triggered by some skiers.
“But we’ve been fortunate that we have not had members of the public involved in them at this stage. That’s encouraging.”
Piney said that despite the challenging conditions, so far Fernie hadn’t seen much in the way of dangerous incidents.
“(It’s) hard to know whether we’re lucky or smart. The reality is things tend to go in cycles – what happens is a series of bad incidents happen and then everyone pulls in their horns a little bit and becomes a bit more cautious. Then nothing happens for a while and people become a bit braver again.
“Our winter season started with a few high-profile incidents. Not here in Fernie, but just generally in Western Canada. That may have started our cycle a little more cautiously than we normally do.
He added that with the COVID-factor playing in, many that are going into the back country to recreate are thinking more about how they can avoid triggering a rescue.
“People don’t really want to cause a rescue. I know nobody goes out with that in mind, but the reality is rescues are more challenging in times of COVID, and I think a lot of people don’t want to be the people who cause that type of response to happen. There’s a lot of people going out to play, but they’re going out to play more conservatively.”
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