Avalanche School

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Avalanche schoolThe carnage is everywhere. A mass of snow and debris cover the runout zone of an avalanche path on Observation Mountain in Banff National Park. Martin Papillon, a ski patroller from Sunshine Village on backcountry skis, is the first on the scene. Within seconds, his seven partners are busily unpacking shovels, probes and tuning their 457 kHz transceivers to the “receive” position. Papillon hollers instructions as they pass. Sara Jaward, the local Parks warden, rushes to the only sign of life in the disaster area—an upturned ski.

Methodical and co-ordinated, the expertly trained crew is well aware that with no one visible on the surface, the chances of survival are slim. Add on the factors of time—Papillon looks at his watch again, another 30 seconds have gone by—and their probabilities are dropping like a stone.

Jaward shouts; the ski is attached to somebody. Together she and her partner carefully uncover an air hole. While releasing the skier from the snowpack, she rapidly checks vitals. Just breathing, he is too disoriented to release crucial information: How many others were caught in the slide? How long ago were they hit? Were they all wearing transceivers? Within seconds, a member of the group locates another signal, just metres down the fall line. A probe strikes an inert body and the shovellers get to work.

As Papillon orders the rest of the group into an advancing probe line, the first victim suddenly shakes the snow off his collar, stands up and calls off the search. Enter James Blench, legendary ski guide and avalanche expert. The students on the Canadian Avalanche Association’s (CAA) Avalanche Operations Level 1 course quickly gather around the soft-spoken, blue-eyed instructor. Yes, they did their job well—in fact, in record time—however, “watch where you shovel” and “be careful not to compress the snow atop your victim,” he says.

As in every simulation in this life-and-death business, the underlying lesson is you need a thick skin and a passion for detail. Blench’s tone sobers as he drives home the point he has been instilling into his academic offspring for the past two decades: search and rescue is a last resort. The way to stay alive in the alpine is to avoid avalanches completely. But since these students are focused on becoming avalanche professionals, sitting on the fence or riding the couch aren’t options.


It looks like an avalanche of sorts hit the Wilson Room. Crates of electronics, ski equipment, piles of charts, tables, books, pencils and snacks litter the green-carpeted conference space on the basement level of the Lake Louise Inn. It will be like this for the next seven days since it doubles as HQ and dry-land classroom. This is and has been the CAA’s rite of passage for the past 26 years for those wanting to get their chops wet in one of the most exciting and dangerous industries in ski country.

The names of the 24 bed-headed students scribbling in dog-eared notebooks reads out like an immigration almanac of western Canada. There is Andrei Axenov from Moscow, Selena Raven Cordeau from Quebec and Stanislaw Faban from Slovakia. If any, though, it’s Stephanie Sorensen who best typifi es the student profi le. The 20-something undergrad at Fernie’s College of the Rockies has opted for more studies during spring break. She thinks nothing of the personal sacrifice implied in this course: brutally early mornings and long, freezing-cold days in the backcountry—not to mention the $1,250 pocket-breaking tuition fee. Yet she scrimps on the luxuries. Rather than dish out 40 bucks for a hostel bunk, she braves the minus-20-degree big-sky nights tucked into a frost-covered sleeping bag in the back of her beat-up truck.

The rewards from taking this course exceed boosting her suite of professional capacities. Experience here will enable Sorensen to begin making life-and-death decisions in her years ahead in the mountains. Besides, the CAA’s Level 1 is the gateway into the backcountry’s Facebook equivalent for networking top-end ski buddies. And perhaps better still, getting contacts for those highly coveted alpine jobs not only in Canada, but around the world. Canada’s national program has been adopted by Iceland, Japan and New Zealand. Ethan Greaves from south of the border confesses that he enrolled since many U.S. operators value the Canuck’s curriculum over their own.

The instructors, for their part, are the poster boys of the CAA—Mark Bender: ski patroller, avalanche technician and heli, cat and ski touring guide; Ken Bibby: guiding operations manager for Rossland’s Big Red Cats; and Mike Rubenstein: head of Kicking Horse’s avalanche program. And last but not least, there’s Blench, one of Canada’s pre-eminent guides and alpine advisors, with more than 20 years of avalanche R&D, guiding and consulting, along with a passport full of international, big-mountain summits.

Akin to their capacity to thread groups of skiing clients ?awlessly through some of the world’s most tenuous avalanche terrain, these mountain folk are equally nimble thinkers. They shift gears from snow, to pedagogy, to philosophy. But despite the collegial atmosphere here in the Wilson Room, the tone is serious. “Good avalanche safety is the result of logical thinking and action,” Bibby says. “Your business is managing uncertainty, fi lling the gaps. Your decision-making chain depends on information.”

The result is the week’s blood, sweat and tears workload: 5:00 a.m. mornings, long, hard skinups into the backcountry with frozen peanut-butter-sandwich lunches, and mountains of shovelling, snow examination and testing, evening debriefs and after-dinner hardscience study sessions. As for rest, the message is clear: get it when you can.

Blench fills me in on the details while motoring north on the Icefi elds Parkway toward Jasper. Snow is one of the most complex structural materials under study. Not only are no two snow crystals alike, they have an uncanny ability to change and transmute into new forms as snow falls in successive layers. What this means is the snowpack is the rain, the sunshine, and day and nighttime temperatures not just today, but all winter long. “Remember that nasty downpour back in mid-December? You’ll find it buried here,” he says pointing out to the glaciated peaks outside his Subaru. Add in the factors of incline, terrain and what lies beneath—rock, grass, plants—and each will have its own thermal and frictional properties and resulting effect on the snow. And don’t forget to consider the size of the crystals, the breathing of the snow (yes, it breathes) and add in the crystal density, and you have the makings of one of the most technical equations you’ve ever tried to wrap your head around. The complexity isn’t lost on Blench, who prophesizes that within the next few years, this course could be at the heart of a bachelor’s degree in Snow Science.

This has everything to do with the fact that the CAA has some lofty minds backing it, in particular from some of Canada’s most prestigious institutions, including the universities of British Columbia, Calgary and Simon Fraser, and the National Research Council. The interest in avalanches goes beyond academics and skiers. In fact, every year industry pitches in several million dollars, making it the largest of its kind in the Americas. How important is it? Look no further than the mountainous corridors of the Trans-Canada Highway, the Canadian National Railway or our economy of winter tourism.

One of the fundamental links between the ivory towers and the people’s safety are CAA graduates. Every year some 550 students participate in its mobile classrooms scattered through western Canada and Quebec (see avalanche.ca and click on “professional training schools”). Beyond being a mandatory step for those in avalanche terrain—alpine ski guides, ski hill professionals, Parks public safety workers and those involved in resource extraction—it’s just the beginning of an elaborate, years-long, mentorship-styled professional avalanche training developed by the CAA. Alumni must then gain 100 work days of experience alongside skilled and experienced professionals before being permitted admission to Avalanche Ops Level 2. Graduates of this two-week-long course are then eligible to become professional members of the CAA. They join a team of highly trained forecasters throughout the nation pooling their observations on the CAA’s daily information exchange called InfoEx, the go- to online information resource by and for avalanche experts around the country.

The ideal workspace for avalanche professionals is neck-deep in hand-dug pits in the heart of avalanche terrain. The week’s curriculum—the students have shovelled, sifted, measured and examined mountains of it—makes that more than abundantly clear. While almost featureless to the casual observer, on a deeper micro-analysis the snowpack converts into a storybook of the winter’s climactic history and thus fodder for prediction and decision-making. Akin to reading core samples of a tree, understanding the snowpack takes some simple instruments—a loupe, thermometer, shovel, crystal screen and a probe-like ruler—and meticulous attention to detail. For in a world where the failure of human perception is the most common cause of death, taking painstaking empirical details has become a lifeline.

Nearing the end of the course, I catch up with good-natured Martin Papillon digging out a straight line pit. “Essentially we’re hoar hunters,” the redhead with the bushy beard laughs, but then gets serious as he brushes his test plot with measured accuracy. Deep down, near the frozen earth, he shows me the traces of a late-October thaw. Farther up, the November rain event. “And here,” he points to the giant facets, sugar-like snow crystals under his magnifying loupe, “is the result of that nasty December rain.” Put together, the bottom layer of the snowpack resembles 30 cm of sugar—that much-loathed depth hoar— an unseen, easily collapsible and slippery foundational layer that resisted bonding all winter long. Located deep in the snowpack and in the crusts, these facets were the essence of this past winter’s shaky snowpack. The very same that, combined with poor decision-making, killed 16 people—up slightly from the 10-year average of 14 fatalities.

By nightfall of day six, the understudies have cleared off the mountain and congregated in the hall to prepare for the final test, a three-hour pit practicum along with a two-hour written exam. The communicative processes and dedication to precision among the students show that the CAA has been successful in at least two of its longstanding objectives: to provide both good science and open communication. The seriousness that the students display in their preparations shows that the weight of responsibility of their coursework goes far beyond simply passing. The exam has become a portal of duty.

Flying back to Vancouver, the candy-white Rocky Mountain peaks blur by, stacked in tidy north-south rows almost begging to be explored. I see the numerous cars parked by the side of the road. Almost certainly there are people putting on their skins and looking for some fresh turns. The scene belies the fact that we are penetrating the wilderness at a rate and in ways inconceivable not long ago. This trend will permute into new and exciting directions that we cannot yet foresee. And therein lies the conundrum: in a world of probabilities, the numbers do the talking. The more skiers in the backcountry, the more potential for disaster. Yet, the message of the CAA is that the freedom of the hills is part of our national heritage. The answer doesn’t lie in closing off the backcountry. Rather, we need to encourage more people to learn how to enjoy it safely. Skiers are part of a larger knowledge society. And knowledge isn’t just power. In the wild it can be the difference between life and death.

For training programs in B.C., Alberta and Quebec, contact The Canadian Avalanche Association

Marty McLennan
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