Photo Credit: Hatha Callis


👤Tania Millen 🕔Nov 06, 2017

Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch, crack. My head snaps up and my body goes rigid. I’m skiing uphill, the last in a line of four, when my body floods with adrenaline, switching to high alert in a millisecond. A large slab of snow shatters into chunks and slides down the slope in front of me, along with three friends and my dog. Someone yells: “Avalanche!”

Helis and cats and sleds, oh my!

Our avalanche story ends well, but not all do. Those who choose to head out into northern BC’s mountains risk becoming an avalanche-related fatality. About ten occur in Canada every year—most in BC and Alberta.

Historically, heli-skiing was responsible for the majority of those deaths, but as snow science and industry safety evolved, fatalities decreased. Yvan Gaston Sabourin, a founding guide of Northern Escapes Heli Skiing, explains that current practices in the heli- and cat-skiing industry have changed significantly. He says in the old days guides were considered gods but now they make decisions together with their clients. “We discuss hazards throughout the day and how we’re mitigating them.” Digital terrain photos, a big-picture view of the entire winter’s weather, and daily observations are used to determine safe areas to ski. Runs are rated similar to ski hills: black diamonds, blue squares, and green circles. Crucially, guides are now trained to be aware of their own biases and the fallacies that are inherent in human decision making. They are also trained to work in teams that are structured to take advantage of each member’s strengths.

But as the heli-ski industry evolved and became safer, greater numbers of powder-chasers ducked ski hill boundaries to enjoy the slackcountry, and fatalities continued to increase.

Recently, the number of avalanche deaths in Canada appears to be flatlining, even though the number of skiers and snowboarders entering the backcountry is thought to be on the rise. The development of user-friendly transceivers and airbags and other gear, plus easy access to public education has helped. If heli skiing and cat skiing are safe, and recreational backcountry skiers and boarders are well equipped with knowledge and gear, there’s an obvious question that has to be asked: Who’s dying out there? Currently, more than 50% of avalanche-related deaths in Canada are snowmobilers.

Terrace-based guide Hatha Callis has taught avalanche safety to snowmobilers, and feels they have unique challenges. “Areas that snowmobiles cover in an hour, would take skiers days,” he says. “That means sledders travel across different aspects and terrain features in a really short time frame, where there can be dramatic changes in snow stability that are invisible on the surface.” Callis also commented that it’s tough to communicate over the noise of snowmobiles, so group decision-making can be limited and someone yelling “avalanche” may go unheard. Additionally, where sledding is popular, the snow becomes compacted over the winter, creating a more stable snowpack. When sledders who normally play in popular areas venture into virgin terrain, the avalanche danger may be vastly different from what they’re used to, requiring a rapid shift in risk perception.

Risk vs. reward

Risk is a slippery concept. Grant Statham is an alpinist, mountain guide, and an expert in the field of avalanche risk assessment. He explains in his TEDx Canmore talk, Risk: The Anatomy of Chance and Uncertainty, that risk is “the probability of loss and the probability of gain.” It’s a combination of the chance of something happening with the consequences if an event occurs. Statham says two factors can be used to adjust risk: vulnerability and exposure. Vulnerability is simply answering the question: What would happen to me if…? And exposure is a sliding scale of how much danger you’re in. Altering travel decisions to reduce either vulnerability or exposure reduces risk. However, there is always risk of being caught in an avalanche when travelling through avalanche terrain. Enjoying the backcountry means embracing risk—and the uncertainty that goes with it.

For people whose everyday lives have minimal risk of potential injury or death, understanding personal risk tolerance can be a radical idea. Many experienced winter backcountry travellers already have some understanding of risk before they start backcountry skiing, snowboarding, or snowmobiling. Some had jobs where risk assessment was prevalent; others had participated in risky sports such as whitewater paddling, climbing, or paragliding. Most agree that avalanche risk assessment is more difficult and requires more education and reflection, than risk assessment for other activities. Changes in avalanche danger across a mountain bowl are invisible. One skier’s line is safe and the immediately adjacent line may trigger a slide. Negative feedback abounds. There’s no way of knowing after crossing a slope whether it was pure luck an avalanche wasn’t triggered or the result of intelligent decision-making. Heuristics—which are so helpful in other areas of our lives—muddy decision-making waters. Practical knowledge is one thing; knowing yourself, another entirely.

Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.” Substitute “snow science and heuristics” for “enemy” and the importance of understanding personal risk tolerance becomes clear.

Although great risks can reap great rewards in business, relationships, and wilderness adventures, our society is very risk averse. Safety is emphasized ad nauseam. This safety-first mentality may reduce everyday accidents but it doesn’t help us understand our risk tolerance, and it certainly doesn’t encourage exploration of the edges of our desire for personal yeehaw and a healthy need for challenges.

Finding balance

Sarah Panofsky, an avid outdoor adventurer based in Terrace, struggles to balance danger with adventure. “I love skiing and the movement of skiing through, on, over, and around amazing landscapes,” she says. “I love the feeling of thrill, adrenaline, focus, and connection. I’m drawn to big mountains, like to push myself, and have a strong desire to ski bigger lines.” Before taking up backcountry skiing, Panofsky was a rock climber. “When I started skiing the backcountry, I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she says. “And didn’t really think about what I was willing to risk until after I’d had a few incidents.”

A few years ago, after a fresh storm, Panofsky started the day skiing by herself at Shames Mountain. At lunch, she met up with a group who wanted to ski the backcountry and as the sun came out in the afternoon, they were getting ready to dive into the north bowl for a second lap. “Although a plan was discussed, there was frenzied excitement about the great conditions, and the group ended up skiing off in all directions.” Panofsky was second-to-last and triggered an avalanche. “I was completely engulfed very quickly, lost my skis and poles, and my arms were pinned to my sides, so I couldn’t pull the trigger on my airbag,” she describes. “When the avalanche slowed down, I was close to the surface and had one arm free. I cleared the snow from my mouth while it stopped. Fortunately, there was a skier behind me who had seen the whole thing and he skied down and dug me out. I’d stopped at the top of a gully, and the avalanche had run a lot farther. It was a completely terrifying and very humbling experience.”

After that incident, Panofsky says she became very tentative. She pursued additional education, including the most advanced Canadian avalanche course for recreationalists (AST2) and now has a rigorous system for making decisions. “I choose who I ski with, play an active role in group decisions, and have a realistic understanding of what I know.”

Panofsky’s experience and subsequent actions are not unusual. In 2013, Matt Lucas and three friends decided to upgrade their skills by taking a Companion Rescue Skills course. Two weeks later they were skiing Shames’ backcountry when they saw a group of four skiers caught in an avalanche. Three were buried. Using their recently acquired skills, Lucas’s group rescued all three skiers, a remarkable success story known as “Rescue at Cherry Bowl,” which is now used as a teaching tool by Avalanche Canada. Lucas was shaken by the incident and subsequently pursued additional education while reflecting on his own risk tolerance. He now chooses to ski with select partners and makes careful, systematic decisions.

The chronology of how the skiers in these stories developed personifies the so-called Hero’s Journey, where a hero goes through stages: limited awareness, awareness of a need for change, near-death experience, acceptance of the consequences of a new reality, rededication, and, finally, mastery. Not everyone wants to experience a hero’s journey, especially the near-death part. But for some, the mystique of the mountains is worth the potential consequences.

Playing in the mountains provides elation that’s difficult to find elsewhere in life. But in seeking this elation, people can unintentionally and unknowingly expose themselves to higher risk. Much of risk management requires reconciliation of two very different concepts: risk as destroyer, and risk as creator. In the mountains, risk only exists as a growth force when there are potential negatives—because those negatives are the whetstone that sharpen the blade of extraordinary experiences.


In 2002, after losing a friend to an avalanche, US researcher Ian McCammon investigated the human factors that influence the decisions of avalanche victims. His research concluded that there are six rules of thumb, or heuristics, humans use to make decisions in everyday life, but if those are applied to decision-making in avalanche terrain, they can be fatal. They’re known as FACETS: Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Expert halo, Tracks (scarcity), and Social facilitation. They go like this: Ski it once and it must be the same the second time. Ski it because you’ll earn respect. Ski it because we’ve already made the plan and we’re sticking to it. Ski it because we’re following someone’s lead. Ski it because it feels so good to make first tracks. Ski it because we all have the skills and we’re a crew.   Even just knowing the heuristics helps. But it’s not enough. Enter the Avaluator. Available as a double-sided card, it asks a series of questions that, when answered, provide a score. Chart the score on the other side and you get either caution, extra caution, or not recommended. Another good one is the mnemonic ALPTRUTH, which stands for Avalanches, Loading, Path, Terrain Trap, Rating, Unstable snow, and Thaw instability. When three or more of these clues are observed, avalanche hazard rises sharply. Research into snow science is ongoing: how snow crystals, temperature, slope, wind, and other elements impact avalanche potential. Continued research into how human factors affect decision-making is underway by Simon Fraser University’s Research Chair in Risk Management, Pascal Haegeli, among others.

Want more information? Check out: Avalanche Canada Bear Mountaineering Canadian Avalanche Association Facebook groups: Backtalk, Bulkley Backcountry Ski Society, Prince George Backcountry Ski Conditions Hyland Backcountry Services Ltd. Little Cedar Services Northwest Avalanches Solutions Ltd. Skeena Valley Expeditions Windy.com