Alas, this winter’s snowpack still has not reached Mt. Washington’s mythical five-metre base (last seen in 2012). Still, a 106 cm base is better than last January’s paltry 30. A few more lifts and runs are open, offering a chance to really sink your teeth into an alpine experience. Maybe the limited route options will lead to iced-out runs, but the snow over the hill and out of bounds is still untouched and the avalanche bulletin only lists moderate risk, so what’s the harm? Well, maybe more than you think. Before any eye-rolling and “I’m good enoughs” commence, have a quick look across the pond to the Austrian Alps, where Ronnie Berlack, aged 20, and Bryce Astle, aged 19, were killed in an avalanche Jan. 5.
Both Berlack and Astle were on the US Olympic Development Team for downhill ski racing. Four other members of the team were on the slope with them. Though the other members were lucky enough to stay out of danger’s path, they had no safety gear with them. As a result, they were completely unable to help.
The avalanche bulletin for the slope that day was three out of five, indicating only a moderate risk. The skiers probably felt overly confident, and with good reason. They were young, on the Olympic shortlist, and had probably skied countless slopes that day already. Therein is the crux of the issue: dangerous situations are made disastrous when participants disregard safety. You see it when snowmobilers try to outdo each other in attempts to go faster and get higher in a bowl, pushing to see who has the best machine—an extremely common cause of avalanche deaths in B.C.’s interior. You see it with climbers who spend so long on a wall with their friends that they stop tying in at the anchor. And you see it with skiers and snowboarders flying down backcountry routes without making proper assessments.
The point isn’t to scare anyone away from the mountains. The freedom of the hills is a wonderful thing, and we’re deeply fortunate to have such amazing alpine areas on Vancouver Island. Remember any venture into the backcountry involves problem solving with the goal of getting through safely, and you might feel confident before you truly understand the situation. Be certain you have enough knowledge, and go gently.
For more information about avalanche safety, visit islandavalanchebulletin.com