The weekend I went to Canmore to do my avalanche training, bulletins for the area were rated as high. Red flags and alarm bells were going off for all experienced backcountry adventurers and the go-to websites (The Canadian Avalanche Centre and Parks Canada) warned, “A deep natural and human-induced avalanche cycle continues. An increase in avalanches is expected Saturday with warming and increased sun. … Please avoid all avalanche terrain.”
That’s more than enough danger to warn off inexperienced backcountry adventurers, and though our group of five Edmontonians was bound for this exact terrain, it was with guide Olivia Sofer of Wild Trips to do our Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 course. The adverse conditions in fact provided us with a real-time learning ground. This was no best-case scenario, but rather a time to see what is dangerous and learn to minimize our risk.
My husband Mike was eager to increase our snow knowledge. He’s been lured by adventures at Battle Abbey (where Sofer and her family run a winter lodge accessible by helicopter) and suspected I might enjoy breaking away from the resort experience and heading into the wilds.
I’ve always been attracted to the backcountry in summer months—the quiet trails, the smell of pine pitch and picking wild strawberries. But the thought of travelling through uncontrolled mountainous terrain in winter scared me. I’d mostly skied at resorts where avalanche control and first aid are handled by trained professionals. But, as Yamnuska Mountain Adventures writes of its introductory backcountry course, “With unlimited potential for ski lines and descents, the backcountry is where the heart of every true skier resides.” And that was true for our group of five. We all wanted to glean more knowledge so we could expand our skiable terrain options.
Day one of the AST Level 1 course is a classroom day. We drove to Canmore late Thursday night and crashed at the Alpine Club of Canada clubhouse. Mountain Equipment Co-op offers free rentals of probes, transceivers and shovels for anyone taking their avalanche safety course. All renters have to do is show their certificates upon return. Alternately, it’s $25 for a weekend rental (Thursday to Sunday)—great encouragement for backcountry lovers who want to be safe out there.
On Friday, Sofer led us through a wide array of info, from visuals on how an avalanche beacon transmits, to analyzing photos to pick out hazards and plan hiking lines, to trip planning and what to bring. We even watched a clip from a documentary that showed friends talking about an avalanche that nearly took them out. I was nearly in tears watching them recount the terror they experienced as they were swept into and buried beneath a large avalanche. Broken bones, blood staining the snow red—the course did a good job at sufficiently alarming us, but in a good way. It’s easy to focus on the rush you hope to feel as you see a fresh powder field rather than the potential for, well, death.
The next day as Mike and I drove to Bow Summit where we’d spend our field day (in high-risk terrain), the mountains looked different to me. I was no longer perceiving them from a hiker’s perspective, but instead by focusing on the fluid element of snow.
It’s an intimate thing to look at a mountain’s terrain—her rolls and contours and the way her shape will hold the snow. Picking a route up becomes a nearly mathematical procedure with lots of forethought. Things to consider include avoiding terrain traps where an avalanche could hold you captive, convex rolls where snow is more apt to slide, crystalline cornices formed by prevailing winds that might drop when the temperature rises. When you enter the backcountry, it enters you, too. Your mind becomes full of input and this input helps you form decisions that will keep you alive.
At the Bow Summit area in Banff National Park we practiced companion rescue by using our avalanche transceivers to find hidden victims. We donned our skins (a sticky layer that’s attached to the ski base and is like Velcro on the side that contacts the snow, enabling skiers to hike up steep inclines without sliding downhill), hiked up to interpret the terrain and dug snow pits to check for weak layers.
The Rockies had been experiencing “deep persistent slabs,” meaning that at the very bottom, or basal layer, the snow was unstable. Imagine the base of a Jenga tower being porous and wobbly—no matter how strong the tower is, the base is weak and could give out. The result: a slab avalanche with major consequences.
When Sofer showed us how to dig a snow pit and do our testing, we could clearly see that at the bottom where the snow met the Earth was fluffy and weak. It was strange to see, and totally invisible unless you dug down and investigated.
We also did a Reusch Block test where a large block of snow is cut out. I then stood on top and jumped to see if it would release, indicating danger. Luckily, it was pretty strong.
Our final day was an add-on where we hired Sofer to take us into the backcountry for some actual skiing and riding. We went to the Crowfoot Glades above the Icefields Parkway, and there we skinned up tight switchbacks and were afforded views of rugged stone, moraines and toes of the glacier. We also saw the remains of a large slab avalanche on the opposing slopes. We climbed through a forest with snow that looked like mashed potatoes seasoned with pepper, for strong winds had littered the ground with seeds and bark. After seriously sweating and working to get to the tree line, it was time to ski. We dug in and turned around the tight subalpine spruce trees and somehow, the tough climb up made the trip down all the sweeter.