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10 â– TIMESReview â–  WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2010

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Greg Johnson and Anna Young discuss the snowpack conditions across the province during their daily meeting.

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ALEX COOPER Times Review

In a small boardroom on the second floor of the Canadian Avalanche Centre, a trio of forecasters are discussing the days avalanche bulletins. Greg Johnson and Anna Young are in the room, while Cam Campbell joins from Vancouver them via conference call. They’ve already discussed northwest British Columbia and have now started on the North Columbia region, which stretches from the Trans-Canada highway north to Prince George. “Something I’m considering, and I need to think about it and look into it more, I think I might crank the danger ratings down,� said Johnson, who was charged with writing the North Columbia bulletin for that day. “I’m throwing it out there to you guys a little bit. It’s my feel that it’s a little bit better but I haven’t gotten that far yet in my head. I’m just throwing it out there for you guys to say no,� he says, seeking input. The previous Friday a special avalanche warning was issued for the region and on Monday it was the site of a fatal incident when a snowmobiler got caught in an avalanche on Queest Mountain near Sicamous. The current danger ratings were set at considerable (meaning natural avalanches are probable and human-triggered ones possible) for the alpine, considerable for the treeline and moderate (meaning natual avalances unlikely and human-triggered avalanches unlikely) for terrain

below treeline. Below moderate is low, and above considerable the scale goes to high and extreme. The risk is raised and lowered depending on the snowpack conditions. “The persistent slab is slow to heal so continued conservative travel is recommended,� said a special message included with the bulletin issued at 4 p.m. on Jan. 19. “Less avalanches are being reported but more are coming as surprises.� A persistent slab issue remained in the snow pack and there was also a wind slab concern. “This instability is still in the snow pack,� said Johnson, a snowboard bum who’s been with the avalanche centre for six years. “It’s a tough call but even moderate covers this sort of problem,� said Campbell. “If wind slabs are less of an issue at treeline I can see treeline going down to moderate.� “It’s a tricky call and it’s more of a greenlight for people even though it’s not a green light situation,� said Johnson. “It might even warrant a special message. You just can’t let your guard down out there right now. You just can’t.� “I don’t think its about letting your guard down,� responded Young. “I think its about going into those big, high-marking bowls or rocky, convex features. To me its migrated from a skiertriggering issue to a sleddertriggering issue.� These are the types of conversations that take place daily at the Canadian Avalanche Centre, located in downtown

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Revelstoke. The centre employs seven public avalanche forecasters who are tasked with issuing daily avalanche bulletins for the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta. Campbell, Johnson and Young are all very experienced and have a great deal of training. Campbell holds a Master of Science in Civil Engineering, specializing in snow and avalanches and is a researcher for University of Calgary’s Applied Snow and Avalanche Research Centre. Johnson also has a MSc in Civil engineering, specializing in snow and avalanches, and has worked around Canada and the United States as an avalanche forecaster and mountain guide since the early 90s. Young has a Bachelor of Science in Geography and has been venturing into the backcountry since she was a little girl and works as a ski guide when she’s not in office or taking care of her child. The forecasters start their day by reviewing data collected from around the province. Each forecaster is charged with several regions and goes through field information, incident reports, weather information, snow reports from local ski hills, and online discussion boards. “I’m a data miner. I go scrounging for data everywhere,� said Young. Their main source of data is InfoEx, an online service that is used by cat and heliskiing operations, ski guides, highway managers, and others. They post their field reports to the server and that is in turn taken by the forecasters to get an idea of the snow

pack conditions in the region. Users are required to hold at least a Canadian Avalanche Association Operations Level 1. “We don’t rely on public reports,� said Young. “InfoEx is reliable because it requires a minimum level of qualification.� InfoEx reports go by guidelines ranging from very good, which means no natural avalanches are expected, to very poor, indicating widespread avalanches are expected. In between lies good, fair, and poor. For Young’s region, the South Rockies, the ratings were mostly good and fair on this day. At around 10 a.m., they start their meeting to go over the data together and receive advice from each other. The meeting starts with an overview of the weather forecast. “The Sierras are just getting pounded right now,� said Johnson. “Yeah, it would be fun in Tahoe,� said Young, channelling her inner ski bum. For B.C. though, there’s little of note in the forecast. “What we’re doing is looking at the big picture,� said Johnson. “We’re looking at general weather patterns and in these weather patterns, what kind of storm can they produce. We’re building an overall picture.� Once the weather portion is done, the discussion turns to snow pack conditions across the province. “Just reviewing through See ‘Avalanche’ on next page


Canadian Avalanche Centre ‘Avalanche’ from previous page.

the InfoEx, I’m seeing a lot of hazard ratings instead of stability ratings all of a sudden,” said Johnson. “People are talking about that low probability, high consequence,” said Campbell. “A lot of people are hung on fair,” replied Johnson. “It’s not really a reflection of what the stability is out there.” “It’s spooky,” added Young. “This is when the big rumblers come down and bury people,” continued Johnson. “I don’t blame them one bit, I just think we need to be aware of that.” The trio discuss lingering conditions that can increase the likelihood of avalanches. Surface hoar, a thin, fragile and persistent weak layer in the snowpack, is the main issue. They go through each region – Northwest, North Columbia, South Columbia, Kootenay Boundary, and more – and go over the information they’ve received about each. One issue they face is the sheer size of each region, which creates different conditions throughout. “Variations absolutely occur in the snow pack,” said Johnson. “There’s going to be areas that have low avalanche danger and there’s going to be areas that have a much greater avalanche danger. We recognize that, but we’re trying to capture the essence of what’s happening in the mountains. “We’ve got this big area and inherently we’re going to be a

bit more conservative,” he added. The special warning that was issued on Jan. 14 was the result of weak layer in the snowpack that developed earlier in the winter, said Young. “The snow pack developed quite steadily and then it got warm and kept precipitating,” Young said. With the weekend approaching and the possibility of lots of people heading up to the mountains, a decision was made to issue the warning. “We try to issue special avalanche warnings not necessarily when the avalanche danger is the greatest, but when we feel people are most prone to accidents and that typically comes at tricky times,” Johnson said. As for the fatality on Queest Mountain, he said it did play into the thinking. “It’s definitely a factor but its not something we get hung up on,” he said. “We still have to show that the snow pack is a dynamic thing. The snow pack changes pretty quick.” After the meeting, a call is placed to Environment Canada to ask any question about the weather report. Then, the forecasters go about writing the bulletins. If they have more questions, they’ll go back to the sources and place phone calls to get answers. When it comes time to establish the danger rating, the forecaster makes the call. Johnson’s questions surrounded the North Columbia region. While the situation seemed moderate, there was still the possibility of triggering

a big avalanche. “It’s improved but it doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there for something big to happen,” said Johnson. “Historically this is where we see big, nasty avalanches.” “It can go from really, really good to really, really bad really, really fast,” said Young. “That’s part of the reservation,” added Johnson. “Realistically, conditions are improving and danger ratings are dropping but it doesn’t necessarily mean that its a no-brainer up there by any means.” Part of the problem, said Young, is that people will often only look at the ratings and not read the whole text. In the end, for the Jan. 20 bulletin, Johnson decided to reduce the rating in the alpine to moderate from considerable, but he kept the treeline and below-treeline ratings the same. This came with a warning: “Triggering large and dangerous avalanches at treeline and just above treeline on a persistent weak layer of surface hoar remain a real possibility.” He explained his decision the following day, saying a combination of benign weather and stabilizing snow pack led to his decision but that it wasn’t without reservations. “I just felt in many areas that the snow pack was in pretty good shape,” he said. “I tried to capture what I felt was the overall essence of what I felt was happening in the mountains.” By Friday, Jan. 22, the warning was set at moderate for all elevations in the North Columbia throughout the weekend.

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TIMESReview ■ WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2010 ■ 11

Norrie coaches with local Nordic club ‘Norrie’ from p. 8

In 2005, they moved to Revelstoke to work for Mica Heliskiing. Norrie was the lodge manager until she had her first child, Cameron. She now is the merchandise manager for Mica. As of last week, she was due any day to give birth to her second child. When she can, she is a guest coach with the Revelstoke Nordic Club and still races occasionally “I have high hopes for some of the kids here,” she said.

“I think they’ll do well and will be inspired by the Vancouver Olympics.” This year, she’ll be cheering on her former training partner, Sara Renner, who is on the Canadian Nordic Ski Team and will be racing in Vancouver. Norrie said she doesn’t miss competing. “It’s a lot of work and I don’t have the drive to do that anymore,” she said. “I really enjoy watching it, but I don’t feel like I should be there.”



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