Weak snowpack in Alberta and B.C. mountains prompt avalanche danger warnings

Two small skier-triggered avalanches are seen in this file photo taken near the Alberta-British Columbia border. (Robson Fletcher/CBC - image credit)
Two small skier-triggered avalanches are seen in this file photo taken near the Alberta-British Columbia border. (Robson Fletcher/CBC - image credit)

A weak snowpack that's typically only seen once in a decade or two has safety experts urging people to be extra careful if they plan on visiting the mountains in Alberta and B.C.

Conditions vary across the mountain ranges, but Avalanche Canada says people should take a very conservative approach in and near avalanche terrain.

Simon Horton, a senior avalanche forecaster with Avalanche Canada, said any slope could produce a big slide right now.

"And it can be triggered from the weight of a person on the slope or even someone travelling near the slope. And so the message right now is to be very careful in avalanche terrain," he said.

Horton said it's important that people who go out to the backcountry have taken an avalanche safety training course, carry rescue equipment and check the forecast to identify the avalanche terrain and hazardous slopes.

On Monday a police officer from Nelson, B.C., Wade Tittemore, 43, was killed in an avalanche on a mountain northwest of Kaslo while skiing with a colleague, who was critically injured.

Avalanche Canada rated the slide that caught the officers as Size 3 — big enough to destroy cars or small buildings.

Horton said details of what triggered the deadly avalanche are still emerging, but the region has a "tricky snowpack" with weak areas deeply buried by large storms over the holidays.

Avalanche Canada
Avalanche Canada

"That goes back to the cold weather we had in the early winter, which has created weak snow at the bottom of the snowpack, and there are signs that that avalanche did involve these deeper weak layers," he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Avalanche Canada said in a post on its website that some professionals are comparing this year's snowpack to 2003, "which was one of the worst years on record for avalanche fatalities.''

In January of that year, Craig Kelly, one of the best professional snowboarders at the time, was one of seven people killed in an avalanche on the Durrand Glacier near Revelstoke.

A month later, seven high school students died after being caught in an avalanche in southeastern B.C.

With more wind and snow expected in some mountain areas, Alberta officials in Kananaskis Country are also urging caution and expecting the avalanche risk to increase into the weekend in that region.

More information can be found at avalanche.ca.