Fostering accountability in the backcountry

Local backcountry users gather to draft first out of bounds responsibility code

The Alpine Responsibility Code has long stood as the official code of conduct for resort skiers, but with Whistler seeing more people journeying beyond the boundaries, ski patroller and avalanche forecaster Wayne Flann thought it was time for backcountry users to have a code of conduct of their own.

"As (the backcountry) gets busier and busier it's going to get more complicated and it's already complicated," said Flann after a panel discussion on Saturday (Nov. 30) at the Whistler Museum.

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"When I first started (touring) around this area in 1979 it was very simple, because the only people out there were your buddies. Now it's busy like Chamonix. I think it's necessary for us to really concentrate on getting people more aware of what's going on out there. "

Flann conceived the idea of creating a new backcountry responsibility code drafted by a panel of industry experts, gathering feedback from backcountry user groups and the general public, with the goal of increasing safety.

The panel consisted of Whistler Search and Rescue veteran Dave Sarkany, professional skier and snowmobiler Dave Treadway, Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) president Keith Reid, avalanche educator Mitch Sulkers and ski patroller Ryan Bougie.

Each panel member presented a suggestion for the new responsibility code from the perspectives of SAR, the snowmobile community, the guiding community, the public and ski patrol. The crowd of 40 people who attended included members of the ski touring, snowmobile and heliski communities. as well as RCMP officers and a consultant for the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC).

At the core of the discussion was the need for backcountry travellers to be equipped with self-rescue equipment and appropriate navigation and communication devices. Training is also essential.

Reid placed emphasis on each backcountry user checking daily avalanche forecast bulletins - and having the ability to understand them.

"The CAC forecast is the best baseline information you have for utilizing the terrain around you, but it assumes a requisite understanding of avalanche phenomena, snowpack characteristics and how the wind and the weather affect the snowpack," said Reid.

Reid regularly quizzes backcountry skiers at the Blackcomb Glacier boundary gate on whether they have checked the bulletin for that day. He has found that even some 20-year backcountry veterans admitted to not checking the avalanche advisory before heading out.

The Spearhead Range is one of the most travelled ski touring areas in Canada and has become a hot zone for group conflicts, often as a result of a party triggering a slide onto another party travelling below them. Bougie compared this point to people ahead of you having right-of-way when sliding on runs in the resort.

"The people above have to respect the people below," said Bougie. "That's written in the Alpine Responsibility Code and I don't think it should be any different for our code. The people above have the ability to avoid, the people below don't really have that option."

The incident on the Spearhead Glacier last March - where a hiking snowboarder triggered a Class 2 slide onto another party below, trapping three but with no fatalities - was cited as a specific example, but everyone in the room could attest that near-miss incidents are a common occurrence and many such incidents go unreported.

Whistler local Heather Dufty was within several hundred meters of the avalanche on Mar. 19 and said that parties responding to the incident were further risking the affected party by skiing over residual "hangfire" zones that could cause a secondary slide.

"By the time we got close to where it happened there had been some people who dropped in to help already, but there had already been (more lapses) of backcountry travel etiquette that deterred us from dropping in and helping," said Dufty.

The drafted code is intended to be a resource for all user groups, not just skiers and riders crossing the boundaries of resorts. Treadway was quick to point out the reputation held by snowmobilers for not always exercising their responsibility of safety.

"Snowmobiling in the Revelstoke and Golden area, it's amazing how often you see a $100,000 truck rolling into the parking lot with $100,00 worth of sleds in the trailer and some crappy old shovel duct-taped onto the back of the sled," he said. "With their cell phone turned on, that's all they have as their safety equipment for the day."

Tyler Kraushar, who is on the board of directors for the BC Snowmobile Federation, said that the lack of responsibility is apparent with all user groups and the snowmobiler community no longer has a disproportionate number of irresponsible backcountry users.

"I definitely think it's been changing," he said. "In the past that may have been the case but I think after certain incidents in the recent past there's definitely been a growth in education in the snowmobile community. I wouldn't say (the safety issue) is specific to any one user group. People who are mountaineering, or doing what Dave's doing, tend to be very educated and they understand the risks. But in terms of general users there's definitely that lack of knowledge."

Flann was happy with how the discussions went between the panel and the audience and hopes to have signs erected at backcountry gates on Whistler and Blackcomb this winter. With consultation with other organizations such as the CAC and the ACMG, he hopes to have the new code accepted as a standard code of conduct for backcountry travellers in Canada.

"The next step is to get some of this validated and maybe play with it this winter, and just keep the discussion going," said Flann. "It's a good place to start it and I think (other destinations) can evolve this for their own ski areas, who knows where it'll go? It's just an idea with a lot of potential."

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