Posted: March 31, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12 | Tags: avalanche, Lake Louise, Sheol Valley
It’s been two weeks now since an avalanche buried two people in Sheol Valley south of Lake Louise. A party of four went for a ski tour, making their way to Surprise Pass. Crossing a large gully feature on the south face of Mt. Fairview, an avalanche started at the top of the slope and carried two of the party over one thousand vertical feet to the bottom of Sheol Valley, which separates Sheol Mt. from Mt. Fairview and Saddle Mt, and drains into Paradise Valley. This incident made news right away in a season that has seen avalanches on the front pages of many newspapers, but it hit especially close to home once we realised that the two who were caught in the slide were a Lake Louise ski patroller and the wife of another.
The party of four, all of whom are experienced backcountry skiers and have years of ski patrolling and guiding under their belts, drove up towards the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and parked in the public lots close to the lake. The route to Surprise pass starts by following the summer hiking trail to Saddleback Pass, then continues around to the south side of Mt. Fairview into Sheol Valley and up to Surprise Pass, which lies between Mts. Aberdeen and Fairview and leads down to the Plain of Six Glaciers hiking trail. The route starts in the forest, emerging just below the final approach up to Saddleback Pass. From there, the route follows tree-line and makes its way around to the south-facing side of Mt. Fairview, which is where the first avalanche slope of the route is located.
The slope is a long gully feature that starts near Fairview’s peak and runs all the way to the bottom of Sheol Valley. It is typically a cross-loaded feature, meaning it gets filled by wind-transported snow from the side rather than from over the top. This means the skier’s right side of the gully has more snow than the left, at least in the part that receives the wind-blown snow.
The group had done some test snow profiles and had been discussing the stability of the snowpack the whole way up, and when they reached the gully feature, they judged it suitable to cross and decided to do so one by one. Skier 1 crossed the slope with no trouble. Skier 2 crossed as well, and was waiting behind the first skier for the other two to cross. As Skier 3 began to cross the slope, a fracture line appeared along the skier’s right flank of the slope and zipped with lightning speed almost to the top, where the snow began to slide. All of a sudden the entire slope was in motion, and Skiers 2 & 3 were hit by the snow already sliding quickly down from above. The two skiers were carried over a kilometre through small trees and open slope, ending up far apart from each other once the sliding snow hit the valley bottom and spread into a fan.
Skier 2 heard the fracture as it started, and barely had time to react before the snow began to move. She recalls trying to self-arrest, but was unsuccessful. Her only other memory was of trying to clear a space in front of her mouth with her hands as the debris came to a stop . She ended up at the bottom of the slope, face down and completely buried by snow.
Skier 3 was also carried the entire length of the slope, but on the skier’s left side. When the debris stopped moving, she was face up and partially buried. Her head, arms, and legs were out of the snow, and she was able to dig herself out and begin the search for her companion as the two skiers who weren’t caught in the avalanche joined her. With their avalanche beacons, they located Skier 2 and started to dig her out. They reached her head, and when they pulled her head out of the snow, she had been buried for around fifteen minutes, which is widely considered the maximum amount of time a person can go without oxygen before suffering irreversible brain damage. She was unconscious and not breathing, and her hands and face were blue from lack of oxygen. As soon as they uncovered her head, though, she began to breathe on her own, though she didn’t regain consciousness right away.
Once Skier 2 was uncovered and awake, Skier 3 complained of a sore neck. Another party member, her husband, also noticed her bleeding from an injury on her face and from an avulsion on the top of her head. The others immediately used extra clothing to fashion a cervical collar to stabilize her neck, and got her to lie down on a pair of skis to keep her rigid and unmoving. With the party out of immediate danger, the husband made his way back to the Fairmont hotel to call for help.
Shortly after, a helicopter with rescue crew was dispatched to the scene, and two ambulances made their way to the parking lots by the lake to use as a staging area. All party members were flown out, with the two buried parties being taken to the hospital in Banff. Skier 3, with the neck injury, was transported by STARS air ambulance to Foothills hospital in Calgary. It was later confirmed that she had six fractured vertebrae – three in her neck. The doctors there expressed amazement that she was not paralyzed given her injuries.
Skier 2 spent a short time in the Banff hospital, then returned to her home in Lake Louise. She had suffered severe frostbite to her hands, since when the body is deprived of oxygen, the extremities are the first places to stop getting circulation, and her hands froze up right away, later requiring lacerations to relieve pressure from the swelling. Her hands are almost back to normal, and after four or five days of fatigue and soreness, she has returned to work on the patrol. She heads back to her real home in New Zealand in a few days for some much needed relaxation.
Skier 3 spent some time in hospital in Calgary, and has been home now for about a week. She is wearing a halo for the next two or three months to keep her head and neck still while the fractures have a chance to heal. While her recovery will be slower, she will recover, and is expected to return to 100%. She has a few staples in her scalp to treat the avulsion, and had a loose tooth repaired as well.
For the two skiers not caught in the slide, they both knew right away as it happened that this was serious. As soon as the debris came to a stop, they checked above to ensure there was no further possibility of avalanches on that slope, then skied down the slide path to begin the search for the other two. Skier 4, the husband of Skier 3, didn’t allow the fact that his wife was in serious danger to distract him from performing the search safely and according to his training.
We’re all relieved beyond words that our friends and coworkers emerged alive from an event that otherwise could have had a very different outcome. And, while the physical wounds will heal, I can’t imagine this event will be one any of the four will ever forget.
The Google Earth diagram linked to below shows the approximate route to Surprise Pass from the parking area near the Chateau Lake Louise, as well as the avalanche path as it ran that day and the locations of the skiers. All are approximate. The photos below the diagram were taken by Parks Canada wardens from the helicopter that perfomed the rescue.
Click link for diagram —> sheol-valley1
Avalanche start zone, 200m above skiers (photo: Parks Canada)
Top of the avalanche path, looking down into Sheol Valley. Skiers were just above treeline (photo: Parks Canada)
Getting ready to fly (photo: Parks Canada)
Longlining (photo: Parks Canada)
Ambulances wait near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (photo: Parks Canada)
Posted: March 23, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12 | Tags: Lake Louise Ski Patrol, Peter Spear
Sunday March 22, 2009, marked a special day for the Lake Louise Ski Patrol, and for the larger Lake Louise family as well. Peter Spear, a member of the Canadian Ski Patrol System and Calgary resident, patrolled his last day at Lake Louise after an amazing 45 years on the patrol. With knee surgery quickly approaching, Peter though it a good time to hang up his pack. He fully intends to be back on the slopes once the recovery is over, just not in a patrol jacket.
Peter has seen the Lake Louise Ski Area evolve from two little and separate ski areas into what it is today, and is full of amazing stories about how it was to patrol over the decades. For example, he estimates that over those 45 years he drove 130,000km to and from Calgary, and has ridden a total of seventeen lifts in various places and incarnations at Lake Louise. Peter was also the one who resolved the mystery of where the Paradise Pocket avalanche path got its name when I wondered about it in an earlier post (Avalanche Areas Below Tree-Line).
Much to my delight, Peter has agreed to spend a bit of his recovery time writing about his time patrolling at Lake Louise so that I can post it here. His great memory and deep involvement with the ski area will provide lots of interesting stories, and I look forward to being able to help him share them. His presence on the Ski Patrol will be missed, but we look forward to seeing Peter on the slopes of Lake Louise in the near future.
Posted: March 23, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12 | Tags: Lake Louise, Spring
Even though we had a week or so of spring back in January, it really felt like it on Saturday at Lake Louise, as sunny skies and warm temperatures combined with over 10cm of new snow to make for fantastic conditions and a great day on the slopes. Despite the weekend crowd suggesting otherwise, there were fresh tracks to be found well into the day. As much fun as it is to be out skiing in the middle of a snowstorm, having great visibility with the soft new snow makes it hard to have a bad day.
Skiers make their way along the Corridor, with Larch in the background.
Boomerang has lots of fresh tracks for those willing to hike for them.
Along with the new snow came a period of natural avalanche activity just outside the ski area boundary. A dramatic example was in an area called the National Geographics (or “Geos” for short) – the collective name for the south-facing gullies on an outlying ridge of Mt. Richardson, visible from the ski area boundary at the top of Boomerang. Each one of those gullies avalanched on their own during the night.
And yet, despite all of this activity, people are still venturing into closed avalanche areas or going outside the boundary into places that probably aren’t all that safe. One closed area that got traffic was the Ptarmigan Chutes. I stopped a few people as they were about to duck the closure right next to a “Closed” sign. They explained that they had ridden the Summit platter and asked the patroller at the top what West Bowl was like, and were told that they’d be crazy to go there given the touchy conditions. They heeded the patroller’s advice, which is encouraging, especially since they did not have any rescue gear with them.
However, they decided that they’d head over to the Ptarmigan Chutes and ride the closed area there. They barely broke stride when ducking the fence, and when I called them back and got their story, I was amazed that they had gone so far as to ask a patroller about conditions, then completely ignored the implications and went into another area – this time an avalanche closure and arguably more dangerous, since the entire slope had been exposed to the warm sun all day. In the end, I don’t think they understood why places are closed, but they seemed to respect the fact that they could not enter avalanche closures, and went on their way.
There is plenty of good skiing to be found inside the area boundary for those with no interest in leaving it, and with more snow forecast to fall this week, things continue to look up.
Posted: March 19, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12
Avalanches have been a hot topic this season, thanks to the screwy weather that has contributed to less-than-ideal snow stability not only in the Canadian Rockies, but in many places all over North America. Recent events in the Lake Louise area have also shown that avalanches can strike anywhere and anyone, no matter the level of preparedness.
On my days off I heard of an avalanche that occurred in Shoel Valley, across the Bow Valley and a few kilometres south of the Lake Louise Ski Area. Preliminary news reports said that a party of four was involved in an avalanche, with two of the party members becoming caught in and buried by the slide. I new that when I returned to work I would get the details of the incident, but was unprepared to discover that the involved party consisted of friends and coworkers, and that the two who were buried were lucky to escape with their lives. I’ll post more about their trip in the next few days.
In the meantime, despite a winter’s worth of news reports describing the destruction wrought by avalanches and no shortage of available information describing the touchy snowpack of this season, there are no shortage of people out there who still insist on going to dangerous places despite all these warnings.
Yesterday (Tuesday), the Ski Patrol received report of someone with a missing ski requesting a courtesy ride from around the base of Paradise chair. The guest was reluctant to give too much information, and when asked by the patrol where he may have lost his ski (so that if it turned up later they could return it), he didn’t seem worried and gave a vague answer.
Later in the day, it was reported that an avalanche had occurred in Corral Creek, which is on the east end of Richardson’s Ridge and not far outside the ski area boundary. This area is visible to those using the trail to Skoki Lodge, and also from the Larch area. The reporting person confirmed they saw one set of ski tracks going into the slide area, and one set of footprints (actually more of a track in the deep snow) coming out and back towards the ski area. It was then realised that the person requesting the courtesy ride was likely the same one who triggered the avalanche in Corral Creek, and had lost his ski in the slide.
Assuming that’s the case, this skier left the ski area boundary, which he was allowed to do. He had avalanche rescue gear with him, but was alone, and all of that equipment would have been useless to him if he was buried in an avalanche. There would also be no one to report the burial, making rescue and any chance of survival a long shot.
Another concern is that he did not report the avalanche, even with a perfect opportunity to do so. Reporting is common practice, both inside and outside the ski area boundary, as it helps the avalanche control department better manage their activities and also gain some insight into how people make decisions in these types of events. So, when the avalanche forecaster was informed of the Corral Creek slide, it was not yet confirmed that tracks were seen coming out of the avalanche debris, which would indicate that the sole skier was able to get out on his own.
The park Warden Service was called, and they assembled a rescue team with dog and started to make their way to Corral Creek. The Lake Louise dog team and other patrollers were also mobilized. Once confirmation of the exiting tracks was received, the search was called off. By not reporting the avalanche, the skier put at risk those who would come to rescue him. For example, the rescue team would almost certainly need to go onto the avalanche debris field to rescue the skier, but since only 15% or so of the whole slope had avalanched, there was still lots of “hangfire” left that would need to be controlled before they could do so. We also lost a chance to get valuable information about the experience.
Meanwhile, over on Larch, two people ducked a rope and went right past an avalanche closure sign at the top of the chair and began the march up towards Elevator Shaft. By the time a patroller spotted them, they were way up the slope. About half way up, they veered right and started making their way up to the top of the south-west slopes of Lipalian Mountain. They started down a slope above an avalanche slide path called Lipalian 4, the top of which was scoured and had a few rocks poking through. When they reached the rocks and prepared to enter the slope below, an avalanche released below them and ran the whole length of the slope – a size 2 avalanche, enough to bury a car. The two made their way down, and ended up back inside the area boundary. Neither had avalanche rescue gear.
Over on Summit, two skiers were peering into the Dogleg, which is an out-of-bounds run near West Bowl. They tested the slope right at the top, and released a size 2 avalanche, running the full length of the path. Obviously, these skiers decided to go elsewhere.
Poachers, for whatever reason, have decided that skiing in avalanche closures must now be okay, as we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of people venturing into places they’re not allowed. People are also heading into some out-of-bounds places completely unprepared and with no knowledge of safe travel in avalanche terrain. For example, four snowboarders were witnessed riding down the centre of an untracked West Bowl, all in a bunch and jumping off of whatever features they could find. They were not carrying any rescue gear, and if one didn’t know otherwise, it appeared as though they were trying to get the slope to avalanche. Luckily, they did not succeed.
It’s days like these that remind us of the challenges involved in educating the skiing and riding public. We’ll continue to do our best, but we need cooperation and participation from anyone thinking about going into closed or out-of-bounds areas.
Posted: March 15, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12
With 7 cm or so of new snow overnight Friday, skiing at Lake Louise was surprisingly good on Saturday, with higher amounts of snow in leeward aspects making things nice and soft for the weekend crowds. The day was mostly overcast, but even so, visibility was unexpectedly good, and the occasional (and brief) windows of sunlight that showed up made for some fantastic runs if you were able to time it right.
Saturday night saw a few more centimetres of snow, so there’ll be a nice soft cover on top of what we got yesterday. Forecasts are calling for more snow tonight and then off and on through the week. As is usual for Lake Louise, you’ll find more snow on leeward slopes (backside), and in many places the temperature crust from January is quickly becoming a distant memory. Temperatures are currently around -11C at mountain-top, which is a nice change from earlier in the week, and are expected to remain unchanged for the next few days.
Enjoy the great skiing!
Posted: March 14, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12
The cold has finally left, and along with more seasonal temperatures, snow has arrived as well, earlier than the forecasts predicted. Mountain-top temperatures at 0700 were -9C, and we recorded -7C at our Pika weather plot, located uphill of the base of Paradise chair.
As for overnight snowfall, we had received about 5cm as of 0700 this morning, and a couple more have been added since then. The forecasts, while not predicting heavy snow, are saying we should expect the bulk of the forecasted snow tonight and tomorrow morning. No matter what happens, we have new snow, and conditions are better for it.
Posted: March 13, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12
Thursday at Lake Louise was a day of change, as the frigid temperatures of earlier in the week dissappeared over the course of yesterday and last night, and we were all happy to arrive at the resort this morning to see that the mountain-top temperature was a balmy -9C, and that snowflakes were beginning to fall. Depending on which forecast you look at, it looks like we can realistically expect 10cm of snow in the next few days, and those with a little more optimism may see the potential for 20cm.
We’ll certainly take anything that comes our way, as recent winds and bits of snow have improved skiing like only they can at Lake Louise, and the crust that has prevailed since the warm weather in January just keeps getting more buried and harder to find. Whatever snow we get in the near future will help make it all but disappear.
Even though it’s snowing lightly now (0830), it wasn’t forecasted to start until later today, so unless the forecasters are way off, we’re not expecting any serious accumulation over the course of today. Click on the two Lake Louise weather links on the right to see what the experts are saying, and have a great weekend!
Posted: March 11, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12 | Tags: Lake Louise Ski Patrol
As the temperature plummets back to familiar territory this season, we are reminded of one of the good things that comes from very cold weather – fewer injuries. This can largely be attributed to the fact that there are fewer people out skiing on cold days, but there are other reasons, too. On cold days, people go slower so they don’t experience too much wind chill, and colder snow is sticky, making it harder to go normal speeds. At the same time, patrol coverage has to be the same as it usually is, since getting to an injured skier quickly and therefore reducing their exposure to cold is crucial.
On any given day at Lake Louise, you’re likely to observe a guest being brought down the mountain in one of our thirty patrol toboggans, and while it may seem a safe bet to assume the guest is injured, there is, to the surprise of many, an equal if not greater chance that they are not in fact hurt, but have broken equipment, or are too tired, too scared, too frustrated, too cold or otherwise unable to continue. Rather than make our guests find their own way to the base, transportation of non-injured guests, or “courtesy rides”, is a service we provide to try and make a day that may not be going that well for someone a little better.
During a typical ski season at Lake Louise, the Ski Patrol will deal with anywhere from 1500 to 2000 injuries. Of these, the vast majority are what we call “green” injuries; that is, stable, likely to remain so, and a visit to a doctor is probably unnecessary. Things like sprained knees, small cuts or abrasions, and even stable leg fractures fall into this category. Next up the scale are “yellow” injuries, which are stable, but there exists a chance that things will change in the next forty-five minutes to an hour. Ambulances are called in these situations, and back injuries requiring backboarding, less stable fractures, and altered levels of consciousness are examples of yellow injuries. Finally, we have “red” injuries, which are unstable and deteriorating. Ambulances are always called, and helicopters may be used as well. Unconsciousness, fractures of major bones (femur, etc), and compromised breathing will get the red designation.
Helicopters can be used for a number of reasons. If transporting the patient by toboggan to the base is not possible (too painful, not fast enough, etc), a helicopter will be used to sling the injured party to our infirmary at the base, where they will be stabilized and transferred to ambulance for the trip to Banff. Contrary to popular opinion, helicopters take as long as ambulances to get to the resort, since they come from Canmore, and the pilot needs to go through a pre-flight routine every time he flies, which takes time as well. It’s getting back to Banff, and sometimes Calgary, that the helicopter really shines, making the trip in fifteen minutes or less, as opposed to a forty-minute drive. Another disadvantage to helicopters is that the paramedics have little room to do their thing in-flight. If the patient is at all unstable, they’ll transport by ground and have all the tools and space they need in the ambulance.
In order to provide thorough coverage at Lake Louise, the patrol each day is divided into four teams, each one responsible for one section of the mountain. Injuries tend to occur to beginner and intermediate skiers and riders, and because most of the runs accessed from Glacier and Grizzly lifts are rated green or blue, this area is the busiest for accidents, and gets the largest patrol team. Another team is stationed at the top of Paradise chair for all runs accessible from that lift. Summit has another team, and while the section they cover is the largest of the four, they also experience the fewest number of accidents. And, last but not least is the team on Larch, which is responsible for runs leading from Ptarmigan and Larch chairs.
It’s quite rare for a patroller to happen upon an injury while making their rounds. Almost all injuries and requests for courtesy rides are reported to other staff, usually lift operators. The information, such as location, description, and nature of injury, are relayed to patrol dispatch, who then calls the patrol team responsible for the area. Except for Larch, there’s always a patroller at the top of each area doing a hut duty so that they can get to any spot in their domain quickly, and with the equipment they need (the Larch patrollers have a snowmobile that allows them quick access to all spots in their area). That’s why you’ll see patrollers at the tops of Summit, Paradise, and the Grizzly Gondola. If you don’t, they’ve just left for an accident, and their backup should be arriving soon to cover their hut. Dispatch will always call the patroller on hut duty to respond to an injury report, though if another patroller is closer they can call them off and respond themselves.
The resort’s main infirmary is Whisky Patrol, which is located near the base of the old Olympic chair. It has four regular beds and a trauma bed, which has easy access to all the special equipment we have and are trained to use. Whisky Patrol also contains the staff locker room and patrol office. Next to the base of Larch chair is Temple Patrol, which, with two beds, is a smaller version of Whisky Patrol. Patients and courtesy rides who end up at Temple Patrol are taken to the main base area by company vehicle traveling down Temple Road, which runs parallel to the Ski Out. This vehicle also facilitates transfers to the Lake Louise Medical Clinic, which is helpful for things like relocating dislocated shoulders and applying stitches. They have no X-ray, however, so all suspected fractures head straight to Banff.
We have a great relationship with the Lake Louise Medical Clinic. Dr. Brian Page holds court there, and comes to a morning patrol meeting once a week to discuss significant injuries and answer any questions the patrollers might have. Lake Louise is unlike many other large resorts, since our closest hospital is not that close, and patrollers must be prepared to treat patients for close to an hour if waiting for an ambulance to come from Banff. Many resorts have clinics or ambulance service right at the base of their mountain, which helps to ensure a quick and smooth transfer.
So, you may ask, what are the craziest injuries we’ve experienced here? While that may be a conversation best left for a lift ride with a patroller, it’s probably safe to say that if you can think of it, we’ve seen it, plus a whole bunch more. Let’s leave it at that as we wish for the warmer temperatures to return.
Posted: March 8, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12 | Tags: avalanche closure, out of bounds
People are beginning to hear about the two avalanche-related fatalities at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden, B.C., and while I don’t want to add too much to the rivers of ink that will likely flow as a result of this tragic accident, I was disappointed to see that a Calgary newspaper failed to make the distinction between out-of-bounds and a permanent avalanche closure, using both descriptors to describe where these two skiers were when the avalanche struck. They were not out-of-bounds, but were in a permanently closed avalanche area.
When there were avalanche-related fatalities in Whistler in January, I posted an article about this issue, specifically as it applies to Lake Louise. It’s copied below:
“Closed” vs. “Out-of-Bounds” (Jan. 2, 2009)
With avalanche fatalities making news on a number of fronts lately, it seems a good time to outline the policy at Lake Louise with regards to boundaries and closures, and what the differences are between the two. And while I suspect that most of those reading this blog have a good familiarity with these aspects of the resort, it’s still probably a good idea to provide a reminder.
Most relevant to our operation were the two fatalities in Whistler, one each in separate avalanches on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. News reports stated that each person had entered an “out-of-bounds” area, but also that both areas, while normally open during good snow years, were closed due to poor conditions – namely, high avalanche hazard and a minimum of control work. In our neck of the woods, out-of-bounds and avalanche closures are two separate things, and people need to be aware of those differences.
One of the things that makes public education a challenge is that there is no single universal policy in the ski industry when it comes to dealing with these areas. In some places, those leaving the resort boundary are subject to criminal prosecution. Others allow you to leave the resort, but make it clear that those requiring assistance or rescue will be responsible for the total cost. Given that many serious injuries require the use of a helicopter, patients could find themselves faced with a bill in the thousands of dollars.
Because Lake Louise is located in Banff National Park, the situation here is somewhat unique in the industry. Since those skiing at the Lake have entered the national park with a park pass, that pass covers any sort of rescue that may be required. This includes hikers who injure themselves far from the trailhead, and climbers who get stuck high on the mountain. (Having said that, those who make a habit of getting into enough trouble to require rescue may find themselves faced with the bill. This should prevent people from just assuming that a helicopter will come and whisk them off the mountain at the first sign of trouble).
Officially, the resort boundary dictates who will perform a rescue – inside is ski patrol, outside is Parks Service. Unofficially, the ski patrol will assist with backcountry issues close to the boundary, and the parks service will assist inside the boundary if their help is requested. This results in a great working relationship between the resort and the public safety wardens.
At Lake Louise, out-of-bounds means just that – any area that lies outside our operational boundary, which is marked with orange rope and bamboo fencing, and is identified with orange signs stating “Ski Area Boundary – Not Patrolled”. Our entire boundary is open, meaning there is no restriction with regards to when or where someone can leave the resort area to enter the backcountry (as long as they don’t travel through an avalanche closure to do it). At the same time, anyone considering a backcountry trip needs to realise that there can be a whole new set of hazards and implications involved with their decision.
First and foremost is the fact that no avalanche control is performed outside the resort boundary (except in a few cases where out-of-bounds terrain has the potential to avalanche into in-bounds terrain). So, even though a piece of backcountry terrain has the same characteristics (slope angle, aspect, elevation, etc) as somethings in-bounds, it has not received any of the ongoing control work that makes terrain safe for skiing.
Related to avalanche control work is skier compaction. The more traffic a piece of terrain gets, the more the snowpack gets compacted and pounded into the mountain face, adding to stability. Within the boundary we have a very good idea of the amount of skier compaction that has occurred on any given run. This is not the case for terrain outside the boundary, meaning that the stabilising effects of skier traffic are mostly unknown.
Another thing to consider when traveling outside the boundary is that rescue can take much longer to perform. Within the resort, assistance is only minutes away. In the backcountry, the rescue effort can be much more involved, and rescuers must ensure their own safety when approaching the site, especially in avalanche terrain. A serious injury such as a broken femur can be life-threatening, and if it takes a few hours for the injury to get reported and the patrol to locate the site and perform a rescue, it could be hours the patient does not have.
Avalanche Area Closures
Within and separate from the resort boundary are areas identified as avalanche zones. These are areas, mostly in the alpine, that the avalanche forecaster has deemed to be unsafe for skiing. Like the boundary, these areas are marked with orange rope and bamboo fences, but have different signage. These signs are stop sign-shaped, and use mainly red and white markings with the text “Closed – Avalanche Danger”. Unlike the boundary, entry into these areas when closed is not negotiable nor open to interpretation. Not only could the terrain be unsafe, but the patrol may be performing avalanche control work with explosives.
Entry into avalanche closures can be dealt with in a few ways. Generally, we aim for an “education, not alienation” approach when talking with “poachers”. However, if a poacher appears to have a bad attitude or lack of appreciation for why the terrain is closed, or if they appear unwilling to learn from the experience, then pass removal is the usual outcome. Season or multi-day pass holders must successfully complete an avalanche quiz at the end of their suspension in order to have their pass returned.
CLOSED! (tracks belong to patrollers – or those studying for a quiz)
Poachers almost never have any understanding of avalanche hazard and how it relates to weather or snowpack development, nor do we expect them to. We expect that people trust our experience and decision to keep terrain closed due to hazard, and that they obey all posted signage. A good example of poor knowledge came from one poacher who claimed “Well, it was open last year and it was okay then!”.
Anyone who rides Paradise chair already knows the most heavily poached spot on the mountain – the ER 4/5 fenceline (the fact that poachers are visible to a chair full of people never seems to occur to some of them). The common excuse we hear is “I was just inside the fence, how dangerous could it have been?”. We then explain that:
- by placing tracks in a closed area, you send the message to others that the terrain is open to be skied (sucker tracks).
- you endanger the lives of those who may be skiing below in open terrain.
- you endanger the lives of those who would come to your rescue in the event you got into trouble.
- you may have been by the fence, but the next person will go in further to get their fresh lines, and so on until people are skiing right in the heart of an avalanche slope.
In the end, all we can hope is that people respect the closures in place within the resort boundary, and that those traveling outside the boundary be prepared. The Ski Patrol at Lake Louise is always available to answer your questions. If they can’t, they’ll point you in the right direction to find out all you need to know.
Public education is the biggest challenge when dealing with these issues, and innaccurate reporting does nothing to help those who are trying hard to provide a safe skiing experience for all, and for those who choose to leave resort boundaries.
Posted: March 5, 2009 Filed under: Winter 2011-12
Anyone who’s been around the Bow Valley long enough knows what an upslope storm is – it’s when a system comes from the east, rather than from the west/southwest like it does 95% of the time. An upslope system is usually characterized by huge snowflakes, among other things, and when I woke up this morning in Banff to see these large flakes blowing around, and when I heard reports that highways around Airdrie were closed, I was pretty sure we were in the middle of one.
The big question for skiers when there’s an upslope is: How far west is this going? As I drove out of Banff heading to Lake Louise, the huge flakes and blowing wind made driving a serious adventure, as visibility was close to zero. Shortly after passing Castle Junction, the intensity eased off a bit, and I wondered if Lake Louise was going to benefit from the snowfall.
When I arrived at work, there was about 5cm of new snow on the ground at the base area, and the snow is still falling as of 0730, and is expected to continue into the afternoon, although not in huge amounts. The mountain-top temperature has dropped 10C in two hours (!), and currently sits around -20C. The wind is just starting to blow in from the northeast, so if you’re coming to enjoy the new snow, don’t forget to dress warm!
Lake Louise - 0830 Thursday