Backcountry users have access to a number of tools they can use to help make informed decisions before venturing out for skiing, climbing and snowmobiling each winter. But is having access to the tools enough? The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) has made it their mission to not only provide the tools, but to provide the training to users so that they understand and can safely use the tools at hand.
This past May, CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures awarded a Second Nature Award for Community Stewardship to CMH McBride Lodge for the creation and execution of McBride Avalanche Awareness Days in partnership with the CAC. The team in McBride took the initiative to gather together backcountry enthusiasts and teach them how to use tools such as the Public Avalanche Bulletin provided by the CAC, in addition to proper use of avalanche safety equipment like transcievers (also called beacons), shovels and probes.
I was interested to learn more about Avalanche Awareness Days and spoke with CMH McBride area manager Kevin Christakos about the initiative and what sort of impact it has had on the community.
JC: Kevin, can you tell me why you and fellow guide Andi Kraus and Cariboo Lodge Manager Erin Tunissen created McBride Avalanche Awareness Days?
KC: We knew that there was an appetite in the local backcountry user groups (Skiers and Snowmobilers) for more information on travelling safely in the backcountry. We worked with the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) to hold an informal event to distribute some of their materials and share the tools available on their website and to also talk about self-rescue scenarios and proper use of avalanche beacons, shovels and probes.
JC: Tell me about the sessions?
KC: In the first couple of years we had about 20 people show up and we felt the conversations were really good. People left feeling as though they had learned some practical tips they could use when going into the backcountry and felt better about using the equipment. But we always felt we could do something more. So in December of 2011 we organized a full day event. We based the program out of Lucille Hut and invited backcountry users to join us for a practical, hands-on event. We had the local Search and Rescue team participate as well as the Snowmobile Association, BC Ambulance Service and BC Forest Service. About 50 participants came through the site that day.
JC: What topics did the program cover?
We set up some rescue scenarios and had everyone who was interested practice with their beacon, probe and shovel. This opportunity to practice and get some coaching with a transciever, or beacon, is one of the most valuable tools. Andi and I were available to help every user and we recieved some great feedback. It's just something people don't practice enough.
The BC Forest Service had maps available and spoke about wildlife closures and the decision process they go through before closing an area to protect at-risk animals like the Mountain Caribou.
Dale Mason and the team from BC Search and Rescue Association also played a significant role in the day's program. It is important for backcountry users to understand that the first responsibility is theirs and that organized help is not immediately available should something go wrong. Dale and his team do a great job of explaining the rescue process and answer questions. This helps users understand that if they need to call for help, they need to do it in a timely manner so that a rescue team can be assembled.
What we tried to do was come up with some really basic tips that people could take away and knowledge of how to use the tools available through the CAC, such as the public safety bulletins, to help people make safer decisions.
JC: Do you have plans to continue the event in 2012?
KC: Absolutely. We hope that we can get another 50 people through again this December. With all user groups there seems to be a stronger sense of community - real "We are all in it together' camraderie. We all understand the risks and the need to be better prepared and to work together to keep spreading that word.
Dave Butler, CMH's director of sustainability was pleased with the selection of recipients for this year's award. Dave says "This project not only has the potential to keep people alive, but it has begun to transform - in a very positive way- the relationship between CMH and snowmobilers in the McBride area. It's a great example of one of our teams working together to really make a difference in their local community."
Congratulations to Kevin, Andi and Erin. We look forward to watching this program evolve!