Interviewing CMH Bobbie Burns guide Marty Schaffer would probably be best done on a pair of skis with a recorder taped to a ski pole – Marty was skiing in his mother’s womb before he was born, and hasn’t stopped since. In fact, the only reason I caught him on a down day was because he was at his 62-year-old mother’s house helping her recover from an injury that she sustained after a jump went awry while powder skiing.
You read that right - Marty's 62-year-old mother is still going big.
I’d heard about Marty, equally comfortable on a pair of skis, a splitboard or a snowboard, and already a legend and a full ski guide at 26 years old. He was profiled on the spirited website, GetRadRevelstoke.com, where the stories of him growing up with parents who ran a backcountry lodge convinced me I had to track him down for a few more tales.
And tales he had to share. When he was 3 years old, his parents were digging out the door to the Blanket Glacier Chalet while Marty played in the snow nearby. After digging for a while, his mom suddenly asked, “Where’s Marty?”
A minute of panic ensued while they looked frantically for their son – and for good reason. They found him deep in a nearby tree well! They got him out without incident, but a treewell is the kind of trap that can kill even a strong adult without help.
With childhood imprints like treewells and backcountry lodges, it’s no wonder Marty pursues the twin pillars of mountain life, fun and safety, with almost religious fervor. “I was sort of tricked into becoming a guide,” explains Marty between chuckles. “When I was 13 or so, my dad would be guiding a ski tour with a few faster skiers, and I would take the faster guys and ski laps around the rest of the group. I didn’t even realize I was guiding. We were just skiing and having fun. I was just showing my friends the good stashes.”
Coming from such a rich background in the ski world, I had to ask Marty about the changes he’d seen. His first answer was the same one everyone gives: ski technology. Ski technology has made everything more fun.
His second answer was more surprising: “The average weekend warrior is skiing things the pros were skiing 10 years ago. Backcountry education is cool now. It’s cool to be prepared.”
Marty adds a cautionary tale at this point. During a recent freeride camp organized by Marty’s private guiding service, CAPOW!, Canadian Powder Guiding, he took a group skiing with ski pro Chris Rubens. They were skiing on mellow terrain on Rogers Pass, looking up at tantalizing extreme terrain, when Chris turned to the group, “If it were just Marty and me skiing here today, we’d be skiing exactly this same terrain. Conditions have to be perfect to ski that stuff.”
The moral of the story is that while average backcountry skiers push into more serious terrain, the ski pros don’t always ski more aggressively. “My ski pro friends are some of the most conservative skiers I know,” explained Marty.
The Blanket Glacier Chalet works in the same area as the CMH Revelstoke Heli-Ski operation. Marty remembers slogging up a skin track with his dad and seeing the Heli-Ski helicopter fly overhead. He remembers saying, “Dad, when I grow up I’m going to do that!”
He did just that. And working with CMH Heli-Skiing has proven to be more than he could have even imagined: “I still have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure it’s real! There’s a great mentorship program at CMH. Even as a full ski guide I learn stuff every week.”
Talking with Marty was entertaining, and revealing of the cutting edge of both recreational and professional skiing, but as it should be, talking with Marty mostly just made me want to go skiing.
Showing wisdom beyond his years, Marty concluded: “I’d like to think things haven’t changed too much. It’s all about fun and safety, the same as it was when Hans (Gmoser, the founder of CMH Heli-Skiing) was taking people ski touring in these mountains all those years ago. It’s not just about powder snow – it’s the whole thing.”
It was a painful interview for Marty. He could scarcely contain his enthusiasm. “It’s totally bluebird in Revelstoke and the stability is great! I can’t believe I’m inside!”
Photos: Marty checking the air for the pilot in CMH Bobbie Burns by Carl Trescher, Marty dressed up as a mountain guide with his dad's old gear for Halloween from the Schaffer family archives, and waiting in the lift line at CMH Bobbie Burns by Ryan Bavin.
Last night I heard a horrifying rumor about Heli-Skiing in British Columbia. One of the CMH Heli-Skiing staff was enjoying herself in the lithium-rich springs of the Halcyon Hot Springs Resort, the legendary springs where the CMH Nomads South program is based, and she heard someone say:
“I’ve heard that when Heli-Skiing the snow is so deep they simply lose people up there.”
Wow. I spent three years researching a book, Bugaboo Dreams, that tells the story of Heli-Skiing from its invention by CMH Heli-Skiing in the mid 60s through the state of the art today. In the process I interviewed dozens of guides, including competitors of CMH, attended guides training, and went through accident statistics with the president of CMH. I heard hundreds of stories, and never did I hear even a whisky-induced whisper of a skier getting lost in the deep snow.
It makes me think that people who have never been Heli-Skiing must have the most outrageous and inaccurate perception of what we do out there. One of the greatest unknowns is how skiers avoid getting lost in the fantastical tree skiing terrain of the Columbia Mountains that CMH Heli-Skiing calls home.
Well, here’s how it works:
The Track. When a ski goes through fresh powder snow, it leaves a really obvious track, so the guide leaves a pronounced trail all the way down the hill. Then the next skier leaves a track next to the guide's track. And so on. Stay close to the guide’s track, and it is virtually impossible to get lost.
Guide Instructions. When a run enters the trees, or the guide reaches a place where he or she plans to traverse or enter new terrain, they stop and give instructions.
For example: “The group ahead of us skied to our left, so I’m going to ski to the right of their tracks leaving space for you on my left. Stay to the left of my tracks. When we break out of the trees into a meadow, stay to the left to the heli pickup. Stay left of my tracks and you can't go wrong.”
The Buddy System. Early in the day, the guide asks everyone to pick a ski buddy to ski with in the trees. For the rest of the day everyone skis in teams of two, or sometimes three if there are odd numbers, while following the guide. The buddy system consists of five important aspects:
- Take turns going first - just because it’s really fun going first.
- The first skier leads the way, keeping an eye on the guide’s tracks and listening for the second skier.
- The second skier yodels, whistles, cheers, yelps, howls, sings, whoops, and makes noise frequently so the first skier can hear that everything is ok.
- If the first skier suddenly stops hearing the second skier. STOP IMMEDIATELY. If the first skier falls over, it should be obvious to the second skier...
- Most of the time, the other skier shows up and you both carry on down the hill. If the second skier doesn’t show up really soon, CALL ON THE RADIO for the other skiers in the group to watch for them. Usually, they have just fallen, and are searching for a ski or pole, and a little help from another skier can save a lot of waiting and exhausting work.
The buddy system is so important because tree wells are a very real danger in tree skiing; a hazard not unique to Heli-Skiing. Any backcountry areas or ski resorts with deep powder have tree well hazards, and using these techniques anytime while skiing deep powder in the trees is a good idea.
Tree wells form around trees, where the falling snow is pushed away from the trunk of the tree by its branches. The tree forms a hole in the snow called a tree well. If the snow is four metres deep, the tree well can also be four metres deep.
While deep powder skiing in the trees, be it in a resort, while ski touring, cat skiing or heli-skiing, change your technique around trees:
CMH Heli-Skiing guides
- Don’t stop right above a tree - It is easy to tip over while trying to stop, so stop with at least a couple of body lengths of space between you and the nearest tree in your fall line.
- Don’t turn right above a tree if you can help it - Often you can turn a little earlier, or wait a bit to turn below the tree, or go straight into a clearing, to avoid a hard turn directly above a tree.
- Take it easy - You’re going to get more powder turns than you can imagine in a day of Heli-Skiing. No need to squeeze in that last turn before a group of trees. Instead, give the trees a wide berth.
are almost uncanny at helping skiers in the trees and showing everyone a good time. We’ve skied in snow so deep that we step out of the helicopter and sink up to our armpits. Our areas see nearly 50 feet of snow each winter. We’ve skied when it’s snowing so hard that we ski back to the lodge rather than use the helicopter for the last flight, but we’ve never, ever, in 48 years of Heli-Skiing, had the snow so deep that we “simply lose people up there.”
Photo of tree buddies during an epic storm cycle at CMH Galena by Topher Donahue.
Next month, K2 athlete Collin Collins will be joining a group of CMH Heli-Skiers for four days of Steep Shots and Pillow Drops in the Selkirk Mountains south of Revelstoke. They will be based out of the CMH K2 Rotor Lodge in Nakusp and will be some of the fortunate few to help usher in the inaugual season of CMH K2.
Collin Collins is one of the new breed of skiers, park trained and backcountry savvy, with the cat-like ability to take his jibbing skills into the untouched wonderland of British Columbia’s most famed Heli-Ski terrain. To get an idea of what that combination is like, I tracked down Collin and this is what he had to say:
TD: It sounds like you're pretty good in the park. How do you apply those sorts of skills to the backcountry?
CC: Well, it's always a different scenario depending on the terrain I'm skiing, but I definitely love to bring tricks to natural features when the conditions are right, so I'm always looking for some nice cliffs and cornices, and longer lines where I can bring everything together; some good turns, steep shots, and air time! I grew up without a park, so I learned to ski the whole mountain and turn everything into my playground. I tend to build a lot of backcountry jumps too. It's really fun to learn new tricks and play in the park, but I've always loved skiing powder more than anything.
TD: How hard is it to stick a trick off of a soft lip in the backcountry as opposed to a hardpacked park edge?
CC: It's quite a bit more difficult, you don't have that firm takeoff to pop off, so setting a trick is usually much more challenging. You need to have some finesse and be light on your feet. And then landing in powder can be very tricky, you have to be strong. But the more you do it the easier it becomes.
TD: While heliskiing with CMH K2, what kind of features will you be looking for to throw down on?
CC: I'm super excited for the legendary deep powder and hopefully some big pillow lines. And as I mentioned, always looking for nice cliffs with steep landings.
TD: What are you looking forward to most about Heli-Skiing with CMH?
CC: Just stoked to explore new terrain and ski some deep powder. It should be a very unique experience with some cool new people. Getting rides in the heli is always a privilege, too, so I'm looking forward to that!
TD: How old are you?
TD: How long have you been skiing?
25 years or so. Pretty much my whole life.
TD: What is you home ski area?
CC: Sun Valley, Idaho
TD: Any advice for younger riders taking park skills into the backcountry?
CC: Just have fun! It's definitely not easy, but it's worth it, be ready to work hard and struggle a bit. I encourage kids to get out of the park more often and ski the whole mountain, it'll make you a much better skier. Skiing powder is the greatest thing on earth. Nothing beats stomping a trick into bottomless powder.
TD: Have you had any close calls out there?
CC: Not that I can think of; I've been pretty lucky out there so far.
Collin is sponsored by K2 Skis and Saga Outerwear, and will be ripping it up with CMH Heli-Skiing on January 3-7. A ski pro to inspire, CMH guides to mange safety and find the best lines, and you. I'm jealous already.
Photo of Collin surfacing for some fresh air by Alex O’Brien/K2 Skis.
In an unusual sharing of technology, a tool used to study of one of nature's more irresistable forces - the avalanche - is helping in the development of one of the more irresistable treats - ice cream.
An article was recently published in the journal, Soft Matter, and has the ice cream industry excited by the possibility of making better ice cream.
The key to the research is the x-ray microtomography machine at the Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland. The machine is one of the few in the world that can capture images of microscopic structures at sub-zero temperatures.
By using this x-ray microtomography (also known as CT scanning) which results in a two-dimensional view of a slice of the material, snow scientists are able to observe the deformation of a snow on a microscopic scale. This deformation eventually leads to large-scale avalanches, and by creating a time lapse of the change, snow scientists can learn more about avalanches and further our understanding of how a snowpack changes over time. Some of these learnings are applicable to making recreation safer, and are integrated into programs like CMH Heli-Skiing’s snow safety program.
The ice cream study used the same machine to produce time-lapse images of water crystals forming on the ice cream. This change alters the texture and gives ice cream left too long in the freezer that chewy, frosty texture that only vaguely resembles fresh ice cream.
This research has food scientists from companies like Nestle, interviewed here by the BBC, excited about the potential to make a long-lasting ice cream. Reminiscent of Mr. Willy Wonka’s fictitious chocolate factory, where ice cream is made that doesn't even melt on a hot day, the company who invents ice cream that lasts better in the freezer will sell a lot of desserts.
Avalanche photo by John Mellis, CMH Cariboos, ice cream photo by Topher Donahue.
“Probably 75 or 80 percent of our guests are wearing helmets now anyway.” says Todd Guyn, a 17-year veteran heli-ski guide and the Mountain Safety Manager for CMH Heli-Skiing, while explaining the new CMH policy that makes helmets now mandatory for guests attending the two most aggressive Powder University programs: The Steeps, and Steep Shots and Pillow Drops.
It only makes sense. Any skier or snowboarder who signs up for these heli-ski programs that, conditions allowing, will take them into challenging alpine couloirs, jumps, and steep trees, is probably hoping to launch their cranium down some of the wildest lines they've ever dropped into.
Todd has some suggestions for helmet fit and design specific to skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry:
The first, and most important thing to consider, is that wearing a helmet can hinder your hearing. CMH guides have reported several cases of guests not hearing instructions because of their helmets - and listening to your guide’s instructions is far more important for your safety than any helmet or physical safety device.
To avoid blocking your ears, Todd suggests wearing helmets with earflaps that can be removed - and remove them for heliskiing. To keep your ears warm, wear a thin balaclava or headband instead of the heavier ear pieces that come with helmets. This configuration also has the advantage of making it easier to ventilate and cool your head on those warm days and allows for wearing hearing protectors in the helicopter.
Second, if your helmet has a large brim, make sure it is detachable. In the event of a fall, tree well or avalanche, the brim can pack with snow and catch on things, pulling the chin strap dangerously tight around your neck - not good. Even better, use a helmet without a brim.
Third, make sure your helmet fits properly. Take your goggles and the hat or balaclava you will wear riding when you go helmet shopping, so you can be sure to get the right fit for you.
Finally, a surprising warning for all you helmeted hard-cores out there:
Dr. Jasper Shealy, who has been studying skiing and snowboarding injuries for over 30 years, is sited in the Canadian Ski Council’s 2009 report, “Helmets and Ski Safety Facts and Stats". The article reads, “Although it has been demonstrated that wearing helmets can be effective in reducing the severity of head injuries, Dr. Shealy believes that the increased use of a helmet can alter behavior of the user, leading to increased injuries.”
The report states, in no uncertain terms, that “Helmeted skiers and boarders tend to ski faster.” and concludes with a word for the wise: “Helmet use is only one part of an overall program of risk reduction, such as skiing and boarding responsibly.”
In our discussion about helmets, Todd made it clear that he feels strongly that the safety benefits of wearing a helmet while helicopter skiing and boarding vastly outweigh the issues, provided the skiers and snowboarders can hear their guide’s instructions and that skiers and snowboarders make decisions with the understanding that no safety device can be expected to replace good judgment when playing in the mountains.
I talked to a professional snowboarder last week who said that the conditions in the Columbia Mountains were creating the deepest snow he had ever ridden - then it snowed for the next week straight...
Over the last 2 weeks, the Columbia Mountains’ snow machine has dumped nearly two metres of low-density snow at treeline in the CMH Heli-Skiing tenures.
Shooting photos in these conditions resulted in some exceptional images of the deep powder heliskiing experience, some of which I shared last week, but some of the best face shot photos have yet to see the light of day. It seems only fitting that the loyal readers of the Heli-Ski Blog should see them first.
This first shot shows CMH Galena guide Bernie Wiatzka, the ski guide with by far the most experience at the tree skiing paradise of Galena, doing what he does best - disappearing in a cloud of cold, white smoke.
It snowed between 10cm and 30cm every night, and the CMH Galena Lodge was as fascinating in these conditions as the skiing itself:
While much of the time, the snow was so deep that it was impossible to tell if the CMH Heli-Skiing guests were on skis or snowboards, occasionally everything would ride to the surface and the deep powder travel tool of choice would be revealed:
Conditions were ideal for big air, and the CMH guides were in good form suggesting the best pillow drops, not to mention the mandatory air on some of the runs. Here, the co-owner of The Source snowboard shop demonstrates one method of choking on a mushroom:
The CMH Ski Guides wear bright orange jackets to make them easier to follow, but in these conditions much of the time they were nearly invisible in a cloud of snow. Luckily, CMH Ski Guides, one shown here up to his earlobes in low-density powder, are exceptionally good at giving directions and nobody had any issues following them down run after run of the deepest snow imaginable:
Even the Bell 212 helicopter, known to be the safest helicopter ever made, seemed to enjoy the mind-blowing storm cycle:
Yesterday, the CMH Heli-Skiing area's snow reports showed up to half a metre of new snow over the last 24 hours - on top of what you see here. If you haven't booked a heli-ski trip yet this year, call your boss, your partner, and CMH Reservations at 1 (800) 661-0252. Not necessarily in that order!
In the beginning of the helicopter skiing revolution it was you, the skiers, who wanted to try using a helicopter to access ski terrain. CMH listened, and in 1965 heliskiing was born.
Today, skiers are telling us that they would like to know more about what it takes to ski in the backcountry, make decisions, and manage risk in avalanche terrain. In the normal heliski program, our guides are always happy to share their thinking on safety, but there is usually little time to share the wisdom and decision making that goes on behind the scenes.
With the explosive popularity of backcountry touring and sidecountry (lift-serviced, gate-accessed out-of-bounds skiing), this line of questioning has a lot of merit. To answer these questions, the CMH guides have decided to offer a program designed to share some of the deeper understanding experienced mountain guides have developed regarding the intricacies of avalanche avoidance.
The result is a new avalanche education program that is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Rob Whelan, the assistant manager of CMH Kootenay and 15 year veteran of professional-level avalanche course instruction, will be leading the new program. I caught Rob between guide training and opening CMH Kootenay for the season. I asked him a few questions about the new avalanche education program:
TD: What is the name of the new CMH avalanche education program?
RW: We are calling it Avi Skills 201 – though the program itself was developed by the CAA (Canadian Avalanche Association) and is called Avalanche Skills Training. In the CMH version, part of our CMH Powder University education series, we will add helicopter transport to the CAA Avalanche Skills Training curriculum to vastly expand the terrain we are able to train in.
TD: Who is the intended audience for Avi Skils 201?
RW: This is an entry level program for skiers and snowboarders interested in avalanche safety.
TD: I can only image what CMH guides and a Bell 212 helicopter would add to an avalanche skills course. What is the format of Avi Skills 201?
RW: We will do a couple of short indoor sessions each day, once in the morning and once in the evening, but the majority of the program will occur in the field, integrated into the heli-skiing day. The program objectives include:
- Understand the basics of avalanche formation and release.
- Identify avalanche terrain.
- Know the steps required to plan and carry out a trip.
- Use the Avaluator™ as a decision-making tool in areas where trips are rated using the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) and where Avalanche Danger Ratings and Avalanche Bulletins are available.
- Find resources for obtaining ATES terrain ratings if their trip is not rated.
- Find resources for obtaining Avalanche Danger Ratings and Avalanche Bulletins if these are not available.
- Use appropriate travel techniques in avalanche terrain.
- Carry out a companion rescue.
- Understand the limits of their training.
TD: How would you say this program is different from other avalanche education programs, or ski programs for that matter?
RW: The unique feature of the Avi Skills 201 program compared to a regular introductory course is the amount of terrain we will be able to access. The helicopter makes it easy to move around and explore a wide variety of terrain, and give lots of opportunity for everyone to practice their decision-making skills. Of course, we will get lots of great skiing at the same time – that’s why we are out there in the first place, after all!
TD: What is the length of the program?
RW: The program is 4 days out of the 5 day heliski trip, including two hours per day indoors ( 1 hour morning meeting and 1 hour after skiing) and all the rest of each day is spent out in the field.
TD: What is the cost?
RW: The cost of the program is $5550 CDN and includes all the course materials, food and lodging, and a guarantee of 71,000 vertical feet of heli-skiing.
TD: Sounds awesome. Any other details people might like to know?
RW: The Avi Skills 201 program is only offered at CMH Kootenay, and will use the CMH Tenderfoot Lodge for indoors sessions, and the vast Selkirk Range at the field location.
When not leading heliskiers through the fantasy-land ski terrain of the Selkirks, Rob is involved with the CAA, a member of the CAA Technical Committee and and Instructor Training specialist. Rob has been a heliski guide at CMH Kootenay since 1989.
Photo of CMH Kootenay ski terrain and Avi Skills 201 outdoor classroom by Topher Donahue.
For other questions about this exciting new avalanche education program, call CMH Reservations at 1 (800) 661-0252.
Starting this winter, every CMH guest will receive a radio to carry with them while they are skiing. After 46 winters of making safety the absolute priority at CMH, this standard-setting safety protocol is the natural next step in giving every skier the safest experience possible.
Like the avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, the radio should be viewed as an extremely serious part of the system that makes backcountry travel far safer. If your ski partner falls into a tree well, your ability to use the radio to call for help could save his or her life just as much as your ability to use the avalanche transceiver in case of an avalanche.
Although using the radio, the Motorola CP200, seems easy at first glance, in the past some skiers have struggled with using the radio when they needed it. Don’t be that guy. Pay attention in the safety briefing and using the radio will be super easy.
Experienced CMH guests will be familiar with the responsibility of carrying and using a radio. The guides and pilots use the same frequencies for the complicated logistics involved in orchestrating a day of heliskiing, so the radios are not to be used for unessential radio chatter.
DO NOT use the radio to say unnecessary things like:
“Bro, there’s some sick air to your left!”
USE the radio to communicate important things like:
“I just lost a ski, we’ll let you know when we find it.”
“I’m not sure which way to go.”
CMH uses two different carrying methods for the radio, a harness or a leash. Most experienced guests prefer to bring a jacket with a high chest pocket, and use a leash and clip provided with the radio to secure the radio to a zipper. At a cost of $400 each, losing or taking radios home should be avoided.
Each day, the guides will pass out the radios to their group in the morning, and then collect them in the evening to recharge for the next day.
This new safety protocol makes CMH one of the only heliski operators providing radios for every skier.
Information for this article was provided by Todd Guyn, CMH Mountain Safety Manager.
If you get caught in an avalanche, pull the cord, stay on top of the debris, and when the snow stops moving just walk away and go ski another run. Sound good?
Sounds really good. Among a handful of avalanche survival technologies, airbags, now being referred to as Avalanche Floatation Devices (AFD) promise to be the biggest change since transceivers were invented in the early 70s.
In the Alps, where wide-open alpine terrain is the norm, airbags are demonstrating considerable effectiveness at helping people survive dangerous avalanches. In North American ski terrain, however, where trees create both great skiing and dangerous obstacles, the efficacy of airbags is less well understood.
Also, the helicopter creates an additional aspect of managing airbags. Airbags are not allowed inside the helicopter – imagine an AFD deploying in a cabin full of skiers. While highly promising, the technology is evolving so quickly that CMH has not yet integrated airbags into the company’s required safety protocol. AFDs by Snowpulse (shown in the above photo from CMH Cariboos) and ABS are available for rental by CMH guests.
This coming winter, comprehensive airbag research will be conducted in North American ski terrain for the first time. The device manufacturers will be paying close attention to both the results of the studies and the feedback from companies like CMH who are testing the utilitarian aspect of AFDs in daily ski guiding operations.
Stay tuned. Within a few years, some form of airbag technology will likely become as standard in a skier’s kit as transceivers, shovels and probes are today. But even then, the best technique will be, as it always has been, to avoid the avalanche in the first place.
Visit the safety section of our website for more information.
Here is a photo I took of an avalanche encounter that turned out just fine, but it was not part of a guided program and we ended up where we should not have been.
While skiing at CMH Revelstoke last week, the guides let us know, in no uncertain terms, that the avalanche conditions were very unstable. We found ourselves ripping run after run of awesome powder, but the guides directed us exactly where to ride, chose terrain conservatively, and explained much of their thought process to us skiers and snowboarders. However, I know there is much more going on behind the scenes so I asked Colani Bezzola, the Mountain Safety Manager for CMH and a 36-year veteran heli-ski guide, to share some insights into the system CMH uses to keep us safe out there.
TD: Most of the time while heli-skiing, we meet the guides, go skiing all day, and rarely do we see them dig pits or do much obvious snow stability testing while skiing. Why is that?
CB: While guiding, we continuously observe the mountain, present and recent avalanche activity, the weather, how the snow reacts while skiing and while standing in it or while approaching certain terrain features. While guiding a group of skiers we may look at the surface snow layers and do some quick surface stability tests by ski cutting on top of rolls and by digging a quick test profile. Many of these actions and observations occur continuously even if they are not obvious to you. Being aware of your surroundings and elements is how guides stay alive during a life in the mountains.
TD: So how do you fit more extensive snow profiles into the high-speed heli-ski program?
CB: To do more extensive snow profile observations and tests we need a bit more time. On any given day, one guide in each area is designated as Snow Safety Guide. He doesn't guide a group that day and dedicates his time in the field to check out terrain, runs, snowpack layers and changes with full snow profiles while also doing stability tests. He may do avalanche control and testing with explosives, look for wind-transported snow, wind loaded pockets, and check out the skiing quality in terrain that we may not have visited for a while.
TD: From what I can tell, the guides feel that just because they bomb something, it is not necessarily safe to ski. A bomb is pretty violent. How could a slope slide on a skier after not sliding under the force of a bomb?
CB: We do very limited and selective avalanche control and testing with explosives compared to ski areas or road avalanche operations. Mostly we use explosives to protect helicopter landings and pick ups and remove potential avalanche threats that may run into skiing terrain.
If we deploy explosive charges on a slope and it doesn’t slide, the questions always remain:
- Have we applied the trigger (explosive) to the right spot?
- Have we "tickled" the weakness, the "sweet spot"?
- How deep is the potential unstable layer and how stiff is the slab over it?
If we cannot answer all these questions completely after a slope resists an explosive trigger, we tend to decide on the side of caution. From experience we know of avalanches that occurred naturally sometime after we deploy explosive charges, and without obvious additional trigger; as well as incidents where skiers (additional triggers) have found the "sweet spot" near places where explosives had been applied recently.
TD: Wow, snowpack is a feisty critter. Can you briefly describe how CMH guides observe and record ongoing changes in the snowpack?
CB: All avalanche, stability tests, snowpack, snow profile and weather observations, hazard and risk assessments are captured in CMH's "SnowBase" database system, shared between all our heli-ski areas, which allows the guide teams to monitor, track and recall the developments in the avalanche, snowpack and hazard history for the winter and gives them a collective tool to help make the appropriate risk management decisions on a daily, run-by-run, and pitch-by-pitch basis.
TD: If somebody is interested in snow science and avalanche forecasts, can you suggest resources for them?
Backcountry Avalanche Awareness Jamieson, Bruce. 1989, rev. 1997. Canadian Avalanche Association. Revelstoke, Canada.
Free Riding in Avalanche Terrain, Jamieson, Bruce & Jennie McDonald.. 1999. Canadian Avalanche Association. Revelstoke, Canada
The Avalanche Handbook, Dave McClung and Peter Shaerer, 1993. Third edition, 2006. Available from Mountaineers Books
Snow Sense, A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard, Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler, 1994, The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA.
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, Tremper, Bruce. 2001. The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA.
Canadian Avalanche Centre
University of British Columbia Avalanche Research Group
Avalanch.org - central site for international avalanche information centres.
Cyberspace Avalanche Centre
Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
Utah Avalanche Center