They opened the conference with a moment of silence. For the 800 who attended the International Snow Science Workshop in Banff, it was a hurtful start to the day.
Not only had Canadian extreme skier Jean-Philippe Auclair been killed in an avalanche along with friend Andreas Fransson of Sweden, U.S. professional snowboarder Liz Daley had been buried under snow and found dead in a separate avalanche. All three fatalities happened Monday in the Patagonia Mountains near the Chile-Argentina border.
That three athletic talents could be wiped away so quickly was a grim reminder of why the ISSW was formed in 1976, and why it convened in Banff last week – to discuss all things avalanche, from snow structure to rescue techniques to why people ignore avalanche warnings.
Pascal Haegeli has been examining that why factor as an adjunct professor for Simon Fraser University's School for Resource and Environmental Management. He also operates as an avalanche consultant and has worked with the newly named Avalanche Canada.
Prof. Haegeli said major research has been done on avalanches – how they build and come loose from mountains. But the human factor hasn't been studied to nearly the same degree. Why is it that some people, even those warned about avalanches, will disregard the danger?
"My personal goal as a researcher is trying to understand how people assess the risks," said Prof. Haegeli, who attended the ISSW in Banff. "The challenge of avalanches is the hazard is not quite as obvious as in BASE jumping [where thrill seekers jump off a mountain or a building with a parachute]. You look at the beauty of the white landscape and it looks benign. People can come to the conclusion, 'It won't happen here.' But you can have an avalanche if the right conditions come together."
Mr. Auclair, 37, from Ste. Foy, Que., and Mr. Fransson, 31, were accompanied by two photographers when they were hiking and overcome. Ms. Daley, 29, from Tacoma, Wash., was being filmed snowboarding. There is speculation her snowboarding on a steep location triggered the avalanche.
On the subject of extreme athletes needing extreme challenges, Prof. Haegeli said, "I'm not sure that putting your life at risk is part of the attraction. It's about managing that attraction …. A lot of back-country recreation is more relaxed [cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling]. You get a lot of different reasons why people go to the back country and do their sports. The majority of people enjoy just being out there."
Karl Klassen, the public warning service manager for Avalanche Canada, says it's an ongoing exercise to keep people safe in the mountains. One way to do that is to provide detailed and timely data to those who may be heading into trouble.
"We talk about how to use the technology so we can get information to them as quickly as possible," Mr. Klassen said. "[People] need decision-making tools to see what the danger is.… Mobile technology will be the next big thing."
Avalanche Canada has a mobile app that provides daily avalanche forecasts that include weather updates, snowpack summaries and travel advice. There's also an observer network where users can send a photo and text to others heading in the same direction. Avalanche Canada covers 12 areas in Western Canada, while Parks Canada oversees the mountain national parks.
Anyone heading into the mountains is advised to take a course on outdoor hazards, pack a transceiver (so rescuers can find you sooner) and carry a collapsible shovel and a probe to poke the snow for buried victims.
"Ninety-eight per cent [of people] go to the back country with a transceiver," Mr. Klassen noted. "Only 14 per cent go with all three – a transceiver, a probe and a shovel."