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Avalanche centre sees danger in decline on B.C.’s North Shore

A ski patroller inspects a ridge on Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler.


Although the avalanche risk on B.C.'s North Shore has been "considerable" in recent days, the Canadian Avalanche Centre says the situation has improved – in fact, the centre says this season might not be an especially bad one in the westernmost province.

Snow safety discussion has heated up in British Columbia in the last week, after two snowboarders separately went out of bounds at West Vancouver's Cypress Mountain and had to be rescued. The bill to rescue one of the men, who was lost for three days, was approximately $100,000. The mountain issued him a $10,000 fine, the first time in its history it has done so.

The avalanche centre's Wednesday forecast for the North Shore – which includes Cypress Mountain – put the risk of a slide at considerable above the treeline. The forecast said North Shore slopes had seen up to 50 centimetres of snow in the preceding days.

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However, Penny Goddard, an avalanche centre forecaster, said the situation for Thursday looked much improved.

"That was a fairly short-lived period of elevated danger," she said in an interview. "It just related to storm snow and strong winds that can load the snow into wind slabs. Once the storm's over, you generally see the danger ratings drop."

She said Thursday's risk is likely to be moderate above the treeline on the North Shore. In fact, she said the moderate rating holds true for slopes across the province. When asked if there's any reason to think this will be a particularly bad season, Ms. Goddard said no.

"We're in a neutral system this winter," she said. "That doesn't indicate anything special, really. Sort of situation normal, if you like."

The 2008-2009 season, which persistently saw weak layers of snowpack, was a devastating one on B.C. slopes. Twenty-four people died in avalanches, well above the average of 14. Nineteen of that year's victims were snowmobilers; eight sledders were killed by a single slide near Fernie.

A number of measures were introduced after that season. A B.C. Coroners Service review panel made several recommendations aimed at preventing similar tragedies, including the development of an avalanche awareness program and an avalanche signage policy.

The situation has improved each year since. In 2009-2010, there were 11 avalanche-related deaths; in 2010-2011, there were nine; and in 2011-2012, three.

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Despite the moderate conditions, Ms. Goddard reminded those heading into the snow to check the bulletins on the avalanche centre's website. "And just a reminder to get trained up and make sure you're travelling with other people and have the correct avalanche safety gear when you go in the backcountry," she said.

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