Are you riding in avalanche terrain? If you venture into the backcountry in British Columbia, you are. Have you ever stopped to think about what would you do if you, or your riding partners were caught in an avalanche?
Most of my experiences on a snowmobile were in the prairies' never-ending fields of snow. What’s the worst that could go wrong? I certainly didn’t feel the need to take a course on the terrain that I was riding. Out here in Fernie, it’s a very different story. Here, we are in avalanche country. With an average snowfall of 37 feet and surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, there’s a lot more you need to know before heading out. Luckily Elk Valley Snow Shepherds invited me to take their Avalanche Safety Training (AST) course, my license for sledding in the backcountry.
Elk Valley Snow Shepherds are fully licensed and insured with the right permits to explore the backcountry. All of their guides have professional level certification in avalanche hazard evaluation, risk management, weather analysis, emergency first aid and rescue techniques.
Fernie has over 60 km of groomed sledding trails and endless backcountry powder terrain for intermediate and expert riders. Elk Valley Snow Shepherds are exactly who you want to hire for an introduction to Fernie terrain under safe guidance. Make the most of your visit and let them lead you to the best powder stashes. If you don’t have the gear, you can rent in town.. With additional options like a photographer and lunch, you can turn your sledding experience into the perfect day.
AVALANCHE SAFETY TRAINING LEVEL 1 (AST1)
Day 1 of my Avalanche Safety Training 1 (AST1) was Avalanche Awareness Day. I spent the day in a classroom with 7 other powder hungry sledders. I have to be honest, going into the weekend I was a little upset about giving up the piles of fresh powder that was scheduled to fall…but by the end of even the first day, the trade for knowledge was well worth the sacrifice. Within the first hour of our course with Justin, we were all wide-awake with reality. Having the comfort of Justin and Nicole planning our powder filled adventure and keeping the group safe was priceless.
On day 2, We learned vital information about reading the Avalanche Canada bulletin and using our transceiver, probe and shovel. We did our mock searches for buried transceivers, flexed our drama skills with a panic avalanche scenario and even shoveled until we burned away our lunch calories. Bad news? We saved 3 out of 4 transceivers. Good news? It was just a transceiver under the snow and we learned some valuable lessons of what can and does go wrong in different scenarios. One thing I know for sure, I won’t be heading into this terrain with anyone who doesn’t have the proper gear and AST training.
AVALANCHE CANADA AND AVALANCHE SAFETY
Snow conditions are constantly changing, it’s important to be able to read the signs. The Avalanche Canada has a team of dedicated professionals preparing information and bulletins so you can make educated decisions about when and where to ride. There’s even an app you can download on your phone. If you don’t understand how to read this information, you aren’t equipped to make the proper decisions. A phrase we heard multiple times all weekend “the mountains don’t care if it’s the weekend or your days off.” Outdoor enthusiasts tend to spend a lot of money on recreational gear; spend the extra on the most important equipment: a transceiver, probe and shovel.
Love those videos you’re seeing online of snowmobiles flying across powder fields, through forested terrain and up and down big mountains? Those are experienced riders with expert abilities and they don’t make it up as they go. Being with educated, seasoned riders is the key to a great adventure. If you’re only here for a few days and you’re not familiar with the area, hire someone. Fernie has experienced snowmobiling guides and instructors who will show you the ropes and take you to the deep powder zones you came for.
After a day of classroom instruction and a day of hands on field experience, I feel loads better about heading into the backcountry. The most important take away from my weekend with Elk Valley Snow Shepherds? Take the course. Wear the gear. Don’t be afraid to send someone home if they haven’t done the same. The snowmobiling community has made huge strides to give you the tools so you can plan a safe trip and avoid avalanche hazards, use them.
"Get the gear. Get the training. Get the forecast. Get the picture. Get out of harms way."
Thank you Elk Valley Snow Shepherds! I’ll be sending my friends your way, and if you ever need a riding partner, just let me know ;)
Local Destination Explorer
Check out this video from local ski touring expert Martina of Raven Eye Photography and Avalanche Canada's Southern Rockies Management Team, as she reviews her encounter with a small avalanche on the 3 Sisters near Fernie.