Avalanche Canada announced they would be stopping their forecasts for the remainder of the season, beginning March 24. The organization is responsible for assessing and forecasting avalanche hazard across all Canadian avalanche terrain, namely in Alberta and British Columbia.
Executive director Giles Valade said that they are no longer confident in their forecasts due to a lack of on-the-ground data points as most heli and cat ski ops, ski resorts, professional guides, and lodges have ceased operation in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Moreover, Valade says the EMS system is concerned about responding to incidents in the field while they’re operating at reduced capacities. “Their own ranks are diminished through responders and healthcare professionals self-isolating,” he says. “I’ve been asking for people to refrain from using the backcountry.”
Valade noted that like in many places in the US, there has been a considerable increase in backcountry use in the past few weeks, as skiers are looking for resort alternatives to exercise and experience nature during the lockdown. But he argued this practice is unsustainable for the healthcare network.
In an effort to halt backcountry skiing for the time being, Avalanche Canada will also be shutting down their Mountain Information Network (MIN), an online platform that allows backcountry users to submit trip reports and observations from the field.
“The product and the information we put out there is enabling people to use the backcountry. If people are on the fence, hopefully this will convince them to stay home” says Valade. “Our staff is making a conscious decision to do what we can to ease this. It was sunny last week for the first time ever this winter and I didn’t ski. We need to be part of the solution here, and there’s not a lot we can do. Please don’t ski.”
Following Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s and Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s shelter-in-place orders on March 23, the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) announced they will suspend avalanche forecasting until further notice. Director Scott Schell says this decision was not taken lightly.
“The stay at home directives tipped the scales for us. By us issuing a forecast, we are equipping, could be enabling, and even encouraging people to go into the backcountry. We couldn’t bring ourselves to assert that backcountry skiing is an essential activity.”
For Schell, there were other critical factors at play. They, like Avalanche Canada, also use a network of professionals for their data. With their pipeline of data rapidly reduced, they would have to send employees farther into the field. Schell was also concerned about the safety of his employees, who are already over-stretched working from home.
“One of the key things I really want the public to understand is these forecasts are built by people. We have a team of people who have to leave their house, enter the backcountry, get on a snowmobile and make these observations. We need to manage those people’s safety.”
With one NWAC employee currently self-quarantining, Schell feels the need to flatten the curve inside his office. While NWAC will keep on and pay their employees for the season, they cannot afford for everyone to be sick at once. “If we continued our forecasts, we could run into the situation where all our staff gets sick,” Schell said.
Unlike Avalanche Canada, NWAC is suspending their operations, they are not committed to ending them for the season. “This is a fluid moment in time. Directives are coming from many government agencies, not all of whom are in agreement.” Schell feels that it’s important to note that most backcountry skiing is on public land, and Washington’s National Parks and National Forests are rapidly closing.
“While it’s important for people’s mental and physical wellbeing to be outside and to move, we don’t think it’s essential to be in the backcountry at this time. There is always next season,” he said.
Elsewhere in the US, many avalanche forecasters are still running as normal including Sierra Avalanche Center, Teton-Bridger Avalanche Center, Mount Washington Avalanche Center, and more. Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Trent Meisenheimer says that because people will be skiing in the backcountry anyway, and in large numbers, the UAC will continue to do its part to keep skiers as safe as possible.
UAC operates under the US Forest Service, and, using CDC guidelines, will continue to operate as long as it is safe for its field workers to do so. However, UAC director Mark Staples advises that if there is elevated avalanche danger, and you are unfamiliar with avalanche terrain and practices, “Save the skiing for later.”
In the meantime, the UAC has a created an e-learning course called “Know Before You Go” as well as a collected list of avalanche education resources that can be found here.
“We’re also asking people to be a little extra conservative to ease stresses on the healthcare system,” Meisenheimer says, as beds are filling up in hospitals all over the country and adding a heavier load to the healthcare system in the form of search and rescues or hospital beds is unacceptable at this point.
He also expressed concerns towards people skinning up resorts, not thinking their favorite run is an avalanche path. Steep, north-facing runs that are often the highest quality when controlled by ski patrol will be hazardous in the coming weeks—especially with a storm coming to the Wasatch.
The Utah Avalanche Center is currently running a spring awareness campaign. Donate to them here if you are able.
Taos Avalanche Center is shutting down as well. POWDER will continue to update this story.
This article originally appeared on Powder.com and was republished with permission.
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