ROCKY HARBOUR, NL — Advances in equipment — whether snowmobiles or skis — are opening up vast areas of Newfoundland and Labrador’s backcountry and Andy Nichols said people are taking advantage and exploring any further.
But it creates increased risk because many more people are recreating themselves in avalanche terrain than ever before, said Nichols, head of Avalanche Canada’s Newfoundland field team based in Rocky Harbour.
Nichols said people see a lot more avalanche activity because they’re there.
“And we’re getting more and more close calls because people are interacting with the pitch,” he said.
“Ninety percent of avalanches that bury, kill or injure people are triggered by the person themselves or a member of their group.
“It was eye-opening to see the size of the avalanches we encountered.”
Nichols said while there is always avalanche danger present in winter, it fluctuates and to what extent the danger exists really depends on the terrain.
Over the past several years, the Newfoundland and Labrador field team has worked to spread avalanche education and awareness, including hosting avalanche safety training courses to to better prepare people if they were to encounter or be involved in an avalanche.
This weekend they are extending that work and adding a new element to it by providing avalanche forecasts for an area of the West Coast, along the Long Range Mountains and including Gros Morne National Park, major areas of avalanche terrain.
In preparation for the forecasting pilot, Avalanche Canada rated the region’s terrain on the avalanche exposure scale and extended its reach by promoting the Mountain Information Network where people can post their own observations and experiences.
Nichols said the forecast is kind of like the final piece of the puzzle.
“An avalanche forecast is essentially a snapshot of what avalanche conditions are expected to be over a certain period of time in a certain area,” he said.
Using information about the weather and expected changes and snowpack in the area, the forecast will provide advice on how dangerous the team thinks it will be and where.
It will also give information on directions that might be more dangerous.
The Newfoundland field team plans to produce a forecast that will cover three consecutive days and be published twice a week. They will be posted around 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays on avalanche.ca/nl and the Avalanche Canada app. The pilot began on February 18 and ran for six weeks until March 26.
“Our hope would be that people could look at the information in the forecast and then use it in conjunction with the other tools,” Nichols said. Things like the trip planner on the Avalanche Canada website, the terrain exposure ladder, avalanche training courses, and travel advice.
Jennifer Hoffman, visitor safety coordinator for Gros Morne National Park, said avalanche forecasting is important to the park.
“Avalanches are a hazard we want people to be aware of. They happen on steep slopes when the snow conditions are right and there’s a trigger, she said.
The park, she says, has all of those ingredients.
“We have the snowpack and the terrain to create the conditions where they happen and they can be quite significant and damaging,” she said.
The frequency of avalanches in the park is not monitored.
Hoffman said there are times in the spring when avalanches are triggered naturally and may not be known.
It’s the telltale signs like flat tree swathes that show something has happened.
When they are triggered by a person, the park often hears about them after the fact, especially if there is no request for help.
Hoffman said small avalanches are the most common and are the ones of greatest concern to the park.
“That’s where the people are,” Hoffman said, adding that they can create serious problems for hobbyists.
“Because even small avalanches can injure or bury a person and sometimes it’s by pushing them towards obstacles. So you don’t necessarily need to be buried, you can still be pushed into a tree, or over a cliff or into a rock.
She said the park has reported people setting them off while on skis, snowmobiles or snowboards and a few people have been injured.
Like Nichols, she has seen backcountry activity increase in recent years.
“I’m a skier and I would even say that 10 years ago I knew all the people who skied where I skied and now I don’t,” she said.
And regardless of the activity, she says, people sometimes expose themselves to terrain and avalanche conditions without really understanding what the danger is.
The forecasts will give residents and visitors a tool to help them make good decisions.
“It just helps you understand when conditions are dangerous and it can help you choose when and where to go,” Hoffman said.
Avalanche Canada is hosting a forecast program webinar on Thursday, February 17 at 7 p.m. NL time. Anyone interested in participating can register at avalanche.ca/events.
Avalanche danger is rated on a five-point scale: low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme. Each level is defined by the likelihood of avalanches and their expected size and distribution, according to Avalanche Canada.
What are field ratings?
In 2019, Avalanche Canada released specialty maps with terrain ratings for some of the most popular riding areas in the Long Range Mountains. These maps use the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES), which uses a three-point system to rate popular backcountry areas for avalanche potential. Maps are displayed at popular trailheads and are included in the online trip planner.
- · Simple terrain contains little or no avalanche terrain and there are many options to reduce exposure.
- · Difficult terrain contains well-defined avalanche paths and exposure can be reduced with careful route planning.
- · Complex terrains are exposed to multiple avalanche paths and minimal options to reduce exposure.
Source: Avalanche Canada