March Gear Tips and Snow Report

This past February has seen some of the best conditions for big mountain skiers, snowboarders and sledders in recent memory. We all have enjoyed extended periods of relatively good to very good snow stability. With confidence in the snowpack, and clear weather conditions, big lines with big exposures have been skied hard all over the valley.

A persistent, high-pressure ridge has dominated most of the province during the past few weeks. This is fueled by a strong continental polar air mass, with a relatively flat jet stream. This combination has produced many periods of strong to extreme ridge top winds, with little snowfall. The first two weeks of February saw only 19cm of snow, with a measured water equivalent of 9mm. Even with this small amount of accumulation, and a low to moderate avalanche hazard rating, there is still danger lurking in the backcountry, and caution must be used. Cornices, which are large overhanging snowdrifts on ridges, have grown exponentially with recent winds. Warm temperatures and sun make these cornices more prone to failing. Some cornices are the size of railway cars, and can have densities in the 500 Kg/m3 range. A piece of cornice breaking off, even with no slab of snow with it, can be extremely hazardous on its own. Always exercise caution, and use safe travel practices anywhere where cornices live. For more information on the local snowpack, including the latest public Avalanche Bulletins, visit www.avalanche.ca.

Will March be in like a lion and out like a lamb? Or, as in the past few seasons, charge in like a Griz, and snow all month long? Let’s hope the Griz is just saving up for another amazing month of winter fun!

Gear Tip of the Month: Back Country Emergency Communication

Contacting rescue agencies is a crucial step in any backcountry emergency, including an avalanche companion rescue. Having the right equipment and knowing how to use it is also a critical step in any pre-trip plan. There are a few ways to activate emergency services, and all have advantages and disadvantages.

Cellular Phone
Lightweight, convenient, and common with the ability to communicate with many different contacts, plus the benefit of two-way communication. However, in the mountains, cell service is not a guarantee. There are many “dead-zones” in the region.

Handheld VHF Radio

Also very affordable and convenient but again, dead zones exist in the mountains and most models require line of sight to a radio repeater. Also, pre-programming frequencies is essential. And depending on the station you are trying to hail, there is no guarantee that there is someone listening on the other end.

PLB
Personal Locator Beacons are still a very reliable distress signal. PLBs use satellites, and operate on a frequency 406 MHz. This sends a digital distress signal, plus a GPS coordinate directly to the JRCC, Joint Rescue Coordination Centre. The disadvantage is that it provides only one-way communication, is slightly more costly, and must be registered before use.

SPOT/inReach Devices

These devices also make use of satellite technologies. They are small and durable, and provide tracking functions, and multiple message functions. Emergency distress signals and locations are again automatically sent to the JRCC. Newer models, coupled with smart phones can allow for two-way satellite text messaging as well. These devices again are slightly more expensive, and require an annual service subscription fee.

Satellite Phone
By far the most reliable backcountry communication tool. Two-way communication rescue agencies possible in almost all locations at this latitude. These devices are slightly heavier and bulkier than the rest, and significantly more expensive. Service fees and activation fees are also required. There are two satellite phone networks that cover North America. Be sure you are on one that covers the area you travel in.

Whichever emergency communication device you and your party travel with, be sure to know how to use it, test it, and who to contact with it. To learn more about companion rescue, take a Companion Rescue Course offered by the Canadian Avalanche Centre.

Remember, if you are In The Snow, be In The Know. Stay safe, and have fun!