Backcountry Safety and Advice this April
AS THE DAYS GET LONGER AND WARMER and the sun shines brighter, the snow slowly fades out of mind, leaving memories of another amazing season of skiing, sledding and riding. Frost-bitten noses turn into suntans; goggles and toques make way for headbands and sunglasses. Spring – known for sun pits, corn snow, and stretchy pants. A time of transformation and celebration.
Even though the warm long days are here, there is still a lot of winter fun left in this season. Ski touring and snowmobiling in the Elk Valley will continue for weeks to come. There are, however, additional precautions that must be considered while travelling in avalanche terrain during this time of year.
The snowpack in the Lizard Range and through out the Elk Valley remains stressed from a very wet March. Precipitation measuring up to 200 mm of water equivalent fell in the first two weeks of March, which left the entire snowpack below 1400 meters in elevation saturated with moist to wet snow. These isothermal snow conditions are weak and unstable. And due to the nature of a wet snow avalanche, even a small slide can be destructive. With these ongoing concerns, great care should be taken to select terrain that minimizes exposure to any terrain traps or features that would increase the consequence of even a small avalanche.
Snow stability and avalanche hazard can also change very quickly. With the intense strength of the spring sun, solar warming occurs rapidly on south facing slopes. As soon as the sun hits a slope, that snow is being modified. The surface of the snow becomes moist and weaker, making avalanches easier to trigger. Be extremely cautious on southerly aspects during the warm hours of the day.
Strong to extreme ridge-top winds throughout the months of February and March have left behind large cornices lingering in the Alpine. There have been many reported cornice failures in recent weeks; some have triggered slabs as well, in the immediate lee of ridgelines. Give cornices a wide birth, as they remain unpredictable and hazardous.
At the end of a long winter season, it is best practice to thoroughly inspect you avalanche equipment before storing it for the summer months. Here are a few things to watch for:
Probes usually fail at the tensioning mechanism, or somewhere along the cable. Inspect each segment for dents and damage, as well as the cable for signs of fraying or excess wear. The tensioning device should also be inspected, with attention being made to the cable directly above the tensioner. Allow all parts to be completely dry before putting away. Remove the probe from its case for the summer. This reduces the potential corrosion due to moisture build up.
Shovel handles are notorious for collecting and storing moisture. Again, dismantle the shovel and allow for all parts to be completely dried. Inspect the handle for wear.
Your transceiver should be thoroughly tested on both Send and Search functions, and the signal strength and range should be within the manufacturers specs. Follow the owners’ manual of your transceiver for specific instructions on storage, life span, and upgrading of your transceiver. The batteries should be removed to prevent corrosion on the electrical leads, and the unit should be stored with the battery door open, to prevent condensation during the summer. This also ensures that brand new batteries must be used for that first trip next winter.
It has been a memorable winter here in the Elk Valley, and cheers to many more! All the best in the upcoming summer months. Until next time, stay safe, and have fun.