Anyone who works or plays in the mountains can picture it. And there are an infinite number of YouTube videos if you can’t.
A pristine bed of powder on top of what seems like the tallest mountain peak on earth, sparkling like a bed of diamonds under a cloudless blue sky. An enthusiast of the mountains has attached a GoPro to their helmet. Flip to the obligatory shot of ski tips hanging over the edge of where they’re about to drop in. Said drop in occurs.
Wind rushes the GoPro’s microphone as the blinding white scenery whips through the camera’s field of vision. A mountain of fresh powder truly is one of nature’s most beautiful offerings.
Then from the periphery of the shot, it becomes cloudy. Sound becomes muffled. Visibility nil. All within about three seconds. The mountain enthusiast is living their worst nightmare: they’ve been caught in an avalanche.
“There’s these avalanche courses – that’s what they call them – offered at dealers or clubs or even friends getting together. People oftentimes think that [taking a course like that is] good enough to go to the mountains. And it’s not.”Chris Brewer, Saskatchewan Snowmobile Association
The windy sound from before turns to a low, constant roar, matched with an odd scratching noise as snow bombards the GoPro and all its parts – not to mention the person it’s strapped to. But alongside the roaring of snow and ragged, intermittent breathing of the mountain enthusiast comes something that sounds like a vacuum being switched on and off and on again.
The mountain enthusiast has pulled their airbag cord, an instinct that will keep them from being sucked underneath the ever-compressing snow until the avalanche comes to a stop. In other words, having a plan and knowing what to do when things went south saved that mountain enthusiast’s life.
For most employees of mountain resorts, the likelihood of the above scenario happening to them while at work is quite small. Given that Canada boasts some of the world’s most sought-after mountain resort destinations, safety of the employees who prepare resort terrain is a top priority. But emergency preparedness on a mountainside can sometimes mimic emergency preparedness while driving a car: you can never be fully prepared for an accident.
But you can certainly try.
Rocket Miller is the mountain manager at Lake Louise Ski Resort in Lake Louise, Alta. He’s been working around mountains and avalanche terrain for over 30 years, meaning he knows a few things about how to stay safe at work. His priority for his team when it comes to safety has nothing to do with being on the mountain itself.
“It’s fatigue,” said Miller. “People work at night; it’s the ski industry. If you’re fatigued, your ability to make smart decisions in stressful situations diminishes. Come to work well rested. If you’re well rested, you’re thinking clearly.”
Saskatchewan Snowmobile Association president and CEO, Chris Brewer, has been involved in managing recreational snowmobiling for over three decades. Having spearheaded the initiative of mandatory safety training for snowmobilers throughout the province, he has always been a proponent of safety first, especially when it comes to “flatlanders” riding in the mountains.
“People have to understand that the AST 1 (Avalanche Skills Training 1, offered through Avalanche Canada) is the course they have to take,” said Brewer. “It gets into the science of it and gets you understanding the conditions. It teaches you how to stop and check the snow properly. People need to take their AST 1, minimum.”
No “I” in safety
Staying safe on a mountain is a team effort. But there is also a heavy responsibility on resort management to provide whatever training is necessary for their staff to keep them safe. For operators, a certain level of danger is always going to be part of the job. Mitigating those dangers can sometimes be stressful but it’s always necessary, and is better achieved when you have the right tools, both physical and learned, at hand.
Safely operating a snowmobile on the mountain – whether for work or recreation – is about being keenly aware of the conditions of the mountain, both current and days prior, according to Brewer.
“What were the conditions like on that slope yesterday? What were the conditions before the last snowfall? Was the sun on it, and made it icy? [You need to] look at the mountain and know how to read it,” he said.
“If it’s a green light, there’s no conditions; if it’s red light, you absolutely don’t go there.”Rocket Miller, Lake Louise Ski Resort
“Many would agree that it’s tough to cover everything in training sessions and have it all sink in,” said Miller. “Therefore, a strong belief in mentors and mentorship is key, and includes daily meetings about occupational health and safety, the environment, weather forecasts and the shift objectives being well understood by the crew and especially the foreperson.”
Training and protocol for each resort depends on myriad factors, such as which mountain the resort is on, the location of the resort on the mountain, and where the resort is located within the snow belt. For resorts that have grooming within avalanche-prone areas, it is imperative to have an avalanche safety plan (ASP) that’s specific to your resort.
“Some mountains require a comprehensive ASP relating to grooming and snowmaking operations; others may have no avalanche exposure, and there are some in between,” said Miller. “At Lake Louise, our grooming avoids most avalanche terrain. When they don’t avoid avalanche terrain, we address them in a daily meeting and red light or green light them. If it’s a green light, there’s no conditions; if it’s red light, you absolutely don’t go there, until we can go through the storm and control it. Again, it requires frequent and effective communication in the field and during meetings.”
Train for terrain
There are several different options when it comes to where and how to obtain emergency preparedness training for mountain resort operators. However, it’s important to be mindful that not all training is created equal.
“There’s these avalanche courses – that’s what they call them – offered at dealers or clubs or even friends getting together,” said Brewer. “People oftentimes think that [taking a course like that is] good enough to go to the mountains. And it’s not.”
In Canada, a solid course option for anyone working or playing in the mountains is offered by the Canadian Avalanche Association and their industry partner, Avalanche Canada. The programs are geared toward all levels and include both time in a classroom setting as well as time spent outdoors where you can practice your skills, like how to identify avalanche terrain, avalanche formation and release, appropriate use of travel in avalanche terrain and even an intro to companion rescue.
Other training opportunities exist that, while not directly about avalanche safety, are industry-specific and equally important, such as mechanized and non-mechanized snow sports business, transportation corridors and management of natural resources and vegetation.
“Other training may be incident command training, which prepares workers for creating and following plans, particularly when outside agencies are involved,” said Miller. “First aid training is essential and is offered by numerous course providers. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), transportation of dangerous goods (TDS) for hydrocarbons and explosives – these are a few examples of necessary training.”
Emergency preparedness, including avalanche safety, is a necessity for mountain resort workers. Being aware of the danger, knowing what to do in an emergency – like the mountain enthusiast pulling their airbag cord – and following the steps that you and your team have laid out will be what keeps you on top of the snow instead of below it.