Originally posted in 2013
Avalanche Awareness Day prepares backcountry lovers
Avalanche Awareness Day will be held on Jan. 26 at Marmot Basin. The day-long course helps equip backcountry enthusiasts with the skills to rescue themselves in the event of an emergency.
JASPER, ALTA. - Lying here under the snow, I wonder how long it’s going to take for someone to find me. Cold seeps into my skin. I listen but I hear nothing. Nothing but white silence.
Then, with a sudden rush of air and noise, a dog’s muzzle bursts into the vacuum. Even though it’s only a simulation, I feel a certain sense of relief as I emerge.
Being buried for an avalanche rescue simulation is the closest I’ve ever come to being trapped under the snow, but the experience is enough to instill me with deep respect for the avalanche technicians who monitor and manage snow conditions and ensure public safety.
We often frolic in the mountains without any notion of what goes on behind the scenes. During Avalanche Awareness Day on Jan. 26, 2013, Marmot Basin opened the door to the world of bombs, rescue dogs and avalanche safety bling – beacon, probe, and shovel – that many of us blissfully ignore.
Get to know snow
“Mostly we get people who are already coming to the hill,” said Kerry MacDonald, safety operations manager at Marmot Basin. It may seem like preaching to the choir but in fact, MacDonald explained, it’s the people who have a little bit of knowledge who most need to learn. Of course, everyone is welcome.
“If people want to make decisions for themselves, to go into the backcountry, we want to get them pointed in the right direction," said MacDonald. "Even if you’re just leaving the area through one of our approved locations,” he warned, “you’re taking a lot more risk so you have to be prepared.”
“Though avalanches are very interesting, they can have sometimes devastating effects and it’s important for people who might not be exposed to that type of environment to understand how large they can be and what the potential consequences are.”
There’s a (blinking) light
The day starts with search and rescue practice up at the Beacon Basin below the Knob drive. Beacon practice is like a game of hide and seek, but with cool (and expensive) toys. Several demonstrators will be on location for the morning with equipment for people to try.
It’s a little like Mission: Impossible. At least that’s what goes through my head each time I step through the roped-off search area and flick on the switch.
The clock starts and it’s a race against time. Your mission is to rescue the target in four minutes or less. Jacket unzipped, beacon in hand, you train your senses on both the audible beeps and the blinking lights and numbers that indicate proximity to the target. You zero in, quickly but methodically.
Then it’s probe, shovel and finally, get your hands in and dig until your objective is rescued.
Finally, take a deep breath and congratulate yourself, you’re a hero. (Hypothetically, anyway.)
Next up around 12:30 at the top of the Paradise Chair, is the dog rescue demo with a trained CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association) team. After testing your skills at Beacon Basin using all the latest technology, seeing a dog team at work can be humbling.
An explosive finale
Following the rescue demo, the day will end with a literal bang, as patrollers launch bombs into the North Chutes from the top of the Paradise chair.
“We’ll talk a bit about avalanche control, explosives and why we use them, and then we’ll set a few off,” said MacDonald. “Hopefully we’ll get an avalanche for folks to see to really drive the point home.”
The stronger that point impresses on people, MacDonald said, hopefully the more people will come home safely from the mountains. End of story.
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