avalanche safety
If you pass this sign, then you should be prepared for self rescue

Stroke of luck

Last week snowboarder Colin D. Watt shared his survival story of being swept down L’Avanger, the line of cleared trees under the Peak 2 Peak Gondola on Whistler Mountain. There’s been seldom opportunities to ski L’Avanger the last couple seasons, so with bumper December for snow like we’ve had, one can understand why the locals are jonesing to return to this line. Watt, wasn’t wearing a transceiver or any other avalanche safety equipment when he triggered the slide that wedged him into a tree well, just like people don’t often wear transceivers when skiing Khyber Pass, Cake Hole or the backside of Flute. After all, it’s just tree skiing. Right?
I’m not passing judgement on the fact Watt was out of bounds without backcountry gear, but it does remind me of a time I was on road trip at Whitewater Ski Resort near Nelson, B.C. We’d made it to Whitewater just in time for a foot of fresh. The next morning as we loaded the car with ski gear in front of the hostel, I asked my friend where his backpack (containing self rescue gear) was.
“What? I thought you said we’re riding the resort today?” he replied, the impatience obvious in his voice.
Without trying to sound too much like I was lecturing him on avalanche safety, I retorted:
“Dude, this isn’t Whistler. You’re in the Kootenays. Everyone rides with transceivers.”
The avalanche control team at Whitewater are perfectly capable of making sure slopes within their boundaries are safe, but without lift-accessed alpine, Whitewater relies on its adjacent backcountry for freeride fulfillment. That means pretty much everyone (save families with kids) lines up for the chair with touring bindings and a backpack with the necessary gear.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Avalanche safety receives a lot more respect in the interior mountains of B.C. and the Canadian Rockies. Why? Because it doesn’t have moisture raining out and consolidating the snowpack like we do in the Coast Mountains. But as convenient as it is to be skiing on a safer snowpack (most of the time), that comfort level can be our downfall. Like when Watt dropped into L’Avanger thinking it was good to go because it was below treeline next to the safety of Whistler Mountain’s boundaries.

avalanche safety
Blackcomb Mountain’s near country line DOA is constantly ridden without appropriate avalanche safety gear.

I don’t think we should all be wearing avalanche airbags for skiing the Peak Chair, though you do see Europeans doing that out of habit from skiing off-piste in their native Alps. But having a transceiver, probe and shovel on you – for when an out of bounds lap might happen – can mean the difference between life and death. If you don’t like the idea of catching your pack on the chairlift all the time you can buy a freeride vest to carry the bare essentials. Encouraging your friends to do the same means an episode like Watt’s is more likely to turn out as a near-miss story, rather than an avoidable tragedy.

For more information on getting equipped and educated for backcountry travel visit Avalanche.ca

This article first appeared in the Whistler Question  in December, 2015