Mod, Low, Low does not mean GO, GO, GO. The avalanche bulletin is just the beginning. What are your objectives for the day? What is the skill level in your group? What is the group's risk tolerance? There may only be a ‘slim chance’ of an avalanche, but if you are caught, what are the consequences? This should be front of mind while moving in and through avalanche terrain regardless of the rating. Take extra care above cliffs and in terrain traps.
There had been new snow three days prior (up to 20cm), following two months of extremely low temperatures. The morning of the avalanche was significantly warmer than the previous morning. Monday, March 11, 2019's forecast was calling for more snow and high winds. Winds, upwards of 99km/hr, hammered the slope at the time of the avalanche. Pay attention to both forecasting and ‘now-casting’. Pay attention to the changes, especially to wind, temperature and solar radiation..
The ATES rating of Massey’s is Complex, Class 3. This means large avalanches run to valley bottom each year. Parks Canada provides pamphlets for backcountry touring and waterfall ice climbing in the National Parks. Many guidebooks also publish the ratings of each route whether you are hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, or climbing. Pay attention to the terrain you are travelling in.
Do not relinquish the responsibility for your safety to anyone else, no matter what their perceived ‘authority’. Use your voice. Ask questions, participate in the planning of the objective, departure time, reasons to back off and the turnaround time. Be willing to walk away if you are not being heard. Hiring a professional guide is not a guarantee of safety.
Unlike guided heli-skiing trips we did not practice companion rescue prior to heading out into avalanche terrain. Had we, perhaps a second shovel would have been on site earlier and not been left behind by a client rescuer. Ensure your partners are as competent and able to complete a rescue as you are. Practice transceiver searches with your partners.
You have carried your probe, shovel, communication device, warm clothes and first aid kit with you. Keep your gear secure. Ensure your partners keep their gear secure. If your safety equipment is blown away and buried in an avalanche, it’s as good as leaving it at home. Wear your transceiver on your body.
You will likely not have enough resources to perform a ‘textbook rescue’ as you practiced during an avalanche course. You will find yourself short of manpower, equipment, daylight and time. Be aware of the margins you cut by going for ‘one more run’, removing safety equipment from your pack, lingering in or below terrain traps, being complacent about the weather or being without communication devices. Rescues, even with professionals, in real-life are desperate, wretched and life altering.
Humans make choices. Humans choose their partners, activities, routes, terrain and start times. When you are in avalanche terrain, every minute you spend in the terrain increases your exposure to natural elements. Move with purpose and urgency. Pay attention to weather changes. Don’t be complacent. Get in and get out.
Adventurous recreational activities involve risk. The terrain you move through has hazards. Meaning any outing could involve injury or fatality. A safe return home is not guaranteed. Spend enough time in the backcountry and you will get ‘natured’…. But when you are intentional about your objective and attentive to the natural conditions around you, you increase your opportunity for a safe return home.
For myself, these are the take away lessons from my experience at Massey's.