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Avalanche risk a concern as 70+ cm of snow blankets Rocky Mountains

Click to play video: 'Heavy holiday snowfall prompts special avalanche warning for Rocky Mountains' Heavy holiday snowfall prompts special avalanche warning for Rocky Mountains
WATCH: A snowstorm covered the Rocky Mountains with over 70 centimetres of fresh snow over the weekend. While that means more white stuff to play in, the snow also means a higher risk of avalanches in the mountains. Tiffany Lizée explains – Dec 23, 2019

Much to the delight of powder hunters, a snowstorm over the weekend dumped up to 100 centimetres of fresh powder on to parts of British Columbia and Alberta, just in time for the holidays.

Unfortunately, the thick and fluffy layer of new snow means a higher risk of avalanches in the Rocky Mountains. Crews have been doing avalanche safety control since Friday but experts say it’ll take several days for the snowpack to gain strength.

Unofficial snowfall totals from Friday morning to Sunday morning as recorded by Environment Canada and volunteer weather stations:

  • 103 cm in Allison Pass, B.C.
  • 97 cm in Merritt, B.C.
  • 79 cm in Lake Louise, Alta.
  • 75 cm in Kananaskis Valley, Alta.
  • 64 cm* in Banff, Alta.
  • 40 cm* in Canmore, Alta.

*recorded from Friday morning to Saturday afternoon; official weekend totals expected to be higher

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READ MORE: Avalanches in Canada: A look at the types, sizes and safety tips

Essential gear

Avalanche Canada‘s list of essential gear includes an avalanche transceiver, 320 cm long probe, shovel and transceiver interference.

READ MORE: Airbag pack saves Whistler snowboarder caught in avalanche

According to Avalanche Canada, gear plays a critical role in avalanche safety and everyone in your group should carry these three things: an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe.
According to Avalanche Canada, gear plays a critical role in avalanche safety and everyone in your group should carry these three things: an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe. Photo courtesy: backcountrysafety.com

If you’re heading into the backcountry, it also recommends carrying avalanche airbag packs, and because cell service may not be available, an emergency communication device like a satellite messenger or satellite phone.

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Click to play video: 'Calgary man runs from avalanche in Rockies' Calgary man runs from avalanche in Rockies
Calgary man runs from avalanche in Rockies – Dec 9, 2019

Trip planning and preparing

Doug Latimer, a veteran ski guide and alpine expert, recommends taking time to plan and prepare before heading into the mountains.

Latimer recently released an interactive e-book, Avalanche: The Guide’s Guide to Safer Travel in the Mountains, to help improve avalanche safety.

Here are a few of the simple steps Latimer suggests:

  1. Check the avalanche hazard and weather forecast before heading out
  2. Use the avalanche terrain exposure scale to determine appropriate trips based on the avalanche hazard
  3. Put together a basic outline of the trip: number of participants, expected time of return and description of the vehicle at the trailhead
  4. Send your trip plan to a friend or family member

A simplified trip planning excerpt from the e-book — which includes checklists for personal and group travel, information on route planning and additional resources — is available here.

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Click to play video: 'Holiday snow creating hazardous conditions for Alberta, BC backcountry users' Holiday snow creating hazardous conditions for Alberta, BC backcountry users
Holiday snow creating hazardous conditions for Alberta, BC backcountry users – Dec 20, 2018

What to do in an avalanche

Avalanche Canada provides a list of avalanche safety courses that are offered by organizations like the Alpine Club of Canada.

READ MORE: Avalanche safety course lowers risk

Experts encourage outdoor enthusiasts to be aware of dangers and know what to do in the case of an avalanche.

A few suggestions by Public Safety Canada on what to do if you become caught in an avalanche:

  • Grab onto something solid like a tree or rock
  • Keep mouth closed and teeth clenched
  • If swept away in snow, try swimming towards the surface
  • Use arm to make an air pocket in front of your face
  • Push other arm towards the surface
  • Relax your breathing
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The National Geographic reports that 93 per cent of avalanche victims survive if dug out within 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, survival rates drop quickly after that, with only 20 to 30 per cent of victims found alive after 45 minutes and a very small number of people survive if buried for two hours.

To stay updated with radar and weather alerts in your area, download the Global News Skytracker weather app for iPhone, iPad or Android.

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