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Good skiing conditions found in back country west of Calgary: mountain guides

There’s good skiing in the back country west of Calgary. You just have to look a little harder find the snow.

Tim Ricci at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures says mountain guides eat, sleep and breathe the snowpack. Ricci is the general manager and says staff are constantly monitoring the Avalanche.ca website for the most up to date conditions.

“As an avalanche forecaster, as a recreationalists, these are the winters where your morning newspaper really should be avalanched.ca,” he said.

Guides at Yamnuska always share what they’ve found about snow conditions after an outing in the mountain parks — even in a season where there’s not as much snow as normal.

“We’ve actually had really good skiing,” Ricci said. “We can find good skiing if we get creative, and we look forward, and we’re thinking about aspect, and we’re thinking about elevation so even a place like Lake Louise, last year was also what we would consider ‘low tide’ (small snowpack), but the lake has been skiing relatively great as well.”

Ricci said instead of seeing large snow falls this season of 30 to 40 centimetres that are typically normal for the back country, this year the snow has been accumulating at about five centimetres at a time.

“From a snowpack standpoint, having a low snowpack, we’ve had a whole bunch of different temperature fluctuations,” he said. “So what it’s really done is it’s created a weak basal layer, we call basal the bottom of the snowpack.”

Ricci said that has the potential for the layers of snow on top to slide if the conditions are right.

“The way to think about it is there’s three primary factors that can affect change in your snowpack,” he said. “We have wind, temperature and precipitation.

“We’ve been getting a little bit of precipitation, we’ve been getting some wind and with the week basal instability, we talk about the tipping point, so what’s it going to take to really put us into a natural avalanche cycle and take us from a moderate avalanche danger and bump this into considerable or high conditions.”

‘HOMOGENOUS SNOW’

Tim Haggarty is a visitor safety specialist in Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks. He regularly digs snow pits to see the various layers of snow and how they’re impacting the overall pack.

“What you want to see is a nice consistent wall of homogenous snow,” he said. “If you’ve got that, from the ground to the surface, good things are gonna happen, you’re gonna have good skiing and high stability, but if you’ve got large changes between layers in a short space of height, you’re gonna see the snow behave in different ways for those different layers and that’s what can cause an avalanche essentially.”

The snowpack can vary greatly within the mountain parks. Haggarty has seen back country users heading out to enjoy a day of skiing and says the conditions are okay when they know where to find the snow.

“Things are actually pretty good,” he said. “Although we’ve got a very weak base, we’ve got a fairly solid mid-pack over above that and the weak base has accommodated or adjusted to the load above it.”

DANGEROUS CONDITIONS

Extreme cold temperatures are creating dangerous conditions that visitors have to be prepared for.

“The thing that worries us is just if anything at all goes wrong out there, and people can’t move, they instantly have an emergency,” he said. “Through the entire winter, anytime we go to a response, if there’s someone that has been sitting there lying on the snow, even in fairly mild conditions, like minus 10 they’re very cold but now, minus 35, it’s a life threatening condition actually.”

Haggarty said the extreme cold requires back country users to pack in more gear on an outing.

“Normally, I’d say bring extra clothing and you know the thermos and warm drinks,” he said. “But now it’s like bring a shelter, bring a sleeping bag, bring a stove so that you can actually be prepared and survive until help arrives.”

Ricci said in a season where snow conditions can be tricky, it creates a good learning opportunity for enthusiasts.

“If you are uncertain, this is an amazing time to hire a guide, this is what we do,” he said. “This is really a great time to go out with a guide or take a course if you’re uncertain, this is a great time to learn, when it’s always great skiing, and it’s always low (avalanche conditions) this is a great time to go because there’s a ton to learn on a season like this.”

Learn more about Yamnuska here: www.yamnuska.com

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