Don't bury your head in the snow: learn backcountry safety at Avalanche Awareness days

Jasper, AB - 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.

Marmot Basin Avalanche Awareness Day 2023 Jeremy Derksen
Photo: Jeremy Derksen
Ski patrol ready for an avalanche awareness demonstration.

Learning about avalanche safety 

We often frolic in the mountains without any notion of what goes on behind the scenes. Each ski season, Avalanche Awareness Days opens the door to the world of ski patrol, bombs, rescue dogs and avalanche safety bling—aka beacon, probe, and shovel—that many of us blissfully ignore.

Backcountry education is for everyone

“Mostly we get people who are already coming to the hill,” said Kerry MacDonald, director of safety operations 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. 

Everyone is welcome, from the dedicated backcountry skiers to those who may just be curious, or dabbling with the idea of getting into backcountry.

“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. 

A ski patroller holds avalanche closure signage used to keep skiers out of avalanche terrain.

"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.”

Avalanche Awareness Days at a glance

Having attended several Avalanche Awareness Days, as a volunteer ski patroller, I highly recommend the experience to avid skiers and snowboarders with an interest in backcountry, or anyone passionate about snow in the mountains.

With events at Marmot Basin, Lake Louise, Fernie, Sunshine, Kimberley, Apex and more, there's bound to be a program near you. (You can find a list of Avalanche Awareness Days events on the Avalanche Canada website, running from January into March.)

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A typical Avalanche Awareness Day at Marmot often includes a few set activities through the day, including an introduction and demonstrations of: search and rescue training with transceivers, A CARDA dog search and rescue demonstration, and explosives demonstration.

Search and rescue with transceiver practice

A transceiver (or beacon) is a key tool for avalanche rescue. It's a small electronic device worn on the body, which transmits a signal that other beacons can locate, should someone become buried in the snow during an avalanche. Practicing this search skill is critical for anyone considering travel in the backcountry.

Many hills will offer an introduction to beacon use during Avalanche Awareness Days. It sounds serious, and it is, but it is also a lot of fun. Beacon practice is like a game of hide and seek, but with cool (and expensive) toys. 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 "search" mode.

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 until you get a strike, shovel and finally, get your hands in and dig until your objective is rescued.

CARDA dog search and rescue demo

If you've never witnessed a rescue dog demonstration with a trained CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association) team, make sure you plan to check one out this year. I can attest: after testing your skills at Beacon Basin using all the latest technology, seeing a dog team at work can be humbling.

A CARDA dog searches the snow as part of its training.

Dog and trainer teams practice throughout the season to become highly efficient at searching for buried objects.  

Snow goes boom!

If you've ever been at a ski hill first thing in the morning on a powder day, chances are you've heard the concussion of explosives on snow. One of the regular jobs of the avalanche control crew is to test the snow and, when there's risk of it sliding, using various means to stabilize the snowpack—including explosives to release unstable snow, triggering a controlled avalanche.

As tradition, Marmot Basin will be hosting its full slate of avalanche programs, ending with a literal bang!

“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. 

If you've considered skiing the backcountry, or you already go backcountry, training and repetition in avalanche skills and learning from professionals is time well spent. With many of the events happening at Alberta and BC ski resorts, it's easy to make it part of a shred day.  

Avalanche Awareness events for 2024

Here's a quick summary of dates and ski resorts hosting avalanche awareness events.

Jan 20  Marmot Basin
Jan 20-21  Fernie Alpine Resort
Jan 20-21  Kicking Horse Mountain Resort
Jan 21  Mt Washington
Jan 27-28  Lake Louise Ski Area
Feb 4  Kimberley Alpine Resort
Mar 8-10  Sunshine Village

Check out the full schedule for Avalanche Awareness Days for 2024 and attend a session near you.  

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