Avalanche risk conditions in the backcountry around the Columbia Valley are higher than normal, just as they are around Golden, which has seen a spate of avalanche-related fatalities and injuries in the past few weeks.

But the sheer number of backcountry users in the Golden area is much higher than in the Columbia Valley, and that has so far translated into no avalanche injuries or deaths here during the same period of time, according to Columbia Valley Search and Rescue Society vice president Steve Talsma.

Overall, we have a similar snowpack to Golden, although they have received more snowfall. There are no backcountry lodges around here and there are a lot more backcountry snowmobilers around Golden, so that does factor into the number of incidents up there, said Mr. Talsma.

On Saturday , February 20th a Calgary man was killed and a Winnipeg man taken to hospital after they triggered an avalanche while snowmobiling with two other people in the backcountry near Golden. The next day a Canmore man and Calgary woman were each flown to hospital (the man in critical condition) and four more people were treated for injuries after their group of 13 backcountry skiers triggered another avalanche near Golden. The incidents came despite Avalanche Canada issuing a special public avalanche warning for recreational backcountry users from Friday, February 19th through to Monday, February 22nd, which applied to much of the backcountry in the Kootenay Region.

Recent new snow and wind have deposited up to a metre of new snow across these regions that overlays a weak layer, said Avalanche Canadas forecasting program supervisor James Floyer in a press release announcing the public warning, adding that weve seen this layer fail a number of times over the past few days, and later saying we could be seeing some large and dangerous avalanches.

After the weekend, Avalanche Canada forecasting supervisor Ilya Storm told media the organization had heard of several more near misses.

Although the Columbia Valley Search and Rescue crew hasn’t been dealing with avalanche rescues to the same degree as Golden, the team has had a busy winter (comparable with the past few winters) and made two rescues last weekend.

On Saturday, January 27th, search and rescue team members airlifted an injured snowmobiler (rescuers suspect the man had broken bones, possibly his femur, and a dislocated hip) out of the Forster Creek area, said Mr. Talsma, adding the man and the friends he was with had tried to self-rescue by driving out and had not immediately sent a signal with their rescue beacon, which delayed the onset of the rescue efforts.

Delaying can make injuries worse and rescue efforts longer and tougher, he said. A helicopter is a great tool, but with limited daylight in winter, we’d rather go out and deal with a call as soon as possible.

The other rescue last weekend was a lost skier who headed out-of-bounds at Panorama Mountain Resort and got caught in area aptly named Hopeful Creek.

There are usually a few of those each year, said Mr. Talsma. People think it looks good to ski and that they will pop back out at the base of the ski hill. But the conditions in there are not good and it does not come back out anywhere. This particular skier got stuck right down in the creek bottom, which is not a fun place to be. It’s quite overgrown and filled with downed trees.

Unlike the Forster Creek snowmobiler, who was equipped with proper avalanche gear and an emergency beacon, the lost skier was unprepared a common trend, according to Mr. Talsma.

There is a difference in rescuing those who are prepared and those that are not prepared he said. It usually happens in out-of-bounds ski resort situations that those being rescued do not have the proper gear. And that puts our people and ski patrol helping out at risk.

Those spots Forester Creek and Hopeful Creek (and other just out-of-bounds areas near Panorama) are the major areas in winter and account for the bulk of Columbia Valley Search and Rescue’s winter calls, said Mr. Talsma, adding that summer rescue work is more evenly scattered throughout the valley backcountry.

During the past few years, Forster Creek (which can have as many as 100 snowmobilers on a typical winter weekend) has seen roughly four or five Columbia Valley Search and Rescue operations each winter, while out-of-bound skiers at Panorama result in about five or six such operations each winter, according to Mr. Talsma.

It’s usually been two (rescue operations) a month, or about 20-something (rescues) a year. That’s just over the last few years, which have been about double what the historical average has been. It’s been a dramatic increase, he said. Part of that is communications. There are more satellites, more satellite phone, more cell phones and more emergency beacons being used in the backcountry, which allows more people to call for help when they need it.

The rising number of search and rescue operations is a trend among many of the 80 search and rescue crews at work in B.C., according to Mr. Talsma.

It’s become more of an essential service, but we don’t have the funding. We (Columbia Valley Search and Rescue) ideally need more than $100,000 a year to operate and almost all of that comes through fundraising, he said. We spent as much or more time last year look for funding that we did training or out on the calls. That’s not what we want to be doing.

Mr. Talsma advised those heading into the local backcountry to be prepared, to understand the avalanche conditions and risks and to modify their recreation accordingly.

For more avalanche information, visit www.avalanche.ca.