Every Question You Have About Avalanches, Answered

Aaron Beardmore, a senior visitor-safety specialist with Parks Canada, shares myths and truths about one of nature’s most destructive forces.
 

Banff National Park. Photo by Ruslan Kaln/Getty

Growing up in the mountain town of Revelstoke, B.C., in the early 1990s, Aaron Beardmore spent the majority of his time skiing and climbing. So, when it came time for him to decide on a career path, he asked himself, “How can I continue doing this?” The son of a superintendent of Glacier and Mount Revelstoke national parks, Beardmore gravitated toward a career in mountain guiding, becoming fully qualified in 2003.

Today, 41-year-old Beardmore is an avid mountain climber and skier and is a senior member on a team of nine visitor-safety specialists who provide backcountry search and rescue and avalanche control in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks in the Canadian Rockies. “I find it rewarding that the work I do [helps] the public make informed decisions,” says Beardmore.

What is one of the biggest myths surrounding avalanches?

The one I always find amusing—and you see it on TV sometimes—is where they say you have to be really quiet because you don’t want to set off an avalanche. Avalanches can be sensitive, but a person’s voice isn’t enough.

Where does that myth come from?

Remote Gazex exploders—anecdotally, we call them “guns”—combine oxygen and propane with an ignition spark. It’s a gas exploder or cannon that makes a really loud noise or explosion over top of the snow, which triggers the avalanche. So, to that degree, noises can trigger avalanches. But somebody’s voice? Absolutely not.

What are some of the main methods to control avalanches?

Our primary method in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay is releasing [explosive] charges from a helicopter. But, we can’t fly at night, and we can’t fly in bad weather, such as during high winds. Gazex [devices] allow us to trigger avalanches in a controlled fashion any time of the day. [They] are quite maintenance-intensive, but, it’s worth it to be able to trigger them at any time.

How do you decide when to trigger an avalanche?

We monitor and wait for [the snow pack] to reach a critical load. The aim is to wait until we hit that sweet spot, where we can trigger an avalanche and it will not hit the road, or it will barrel across the road and keep going—the goal is to minimize the amount of time the road is closed. So, we are watching the conditions closely.

How do you monitor the snowpack?

We rely on remote telemetry [data transmitted to receiving equipment] and electronics, but human observations are often the best. We send field teams out every day to collect information and fill in knowledge gaps. One of the first competencies you learn in your training is how to do a snow profile, where you dig a hole down into the snow so that you can see a cross-section of the snowpack. We’re looking for the type of snow crystal, the resistance and density of the snow, and we try and identify weak layers, how deep those weak layers are, and how likely it will be for avalanches to occur and at what size.

Have you been in an avalanche?

I had this encounter with an avalanche when I was about 12 or 13 on a school ski day at Revelstoke. There was an enormous snowstorm, and my friend and I were the first people up the chair. We decided to go straight down this run called Vulture’s Crotch—the steepest run on the bottom chair, but very low-elevation—and it avalanched. I came off to the side and, luckily, I wasn’t caught, but [my friend] was buried up to his waist. It could have been catastrophic, but we didn’t recognize the risk at the time. As I got older and had more experiences, the gravity of avalanche risk definitely sunk in.

How can visitors to the parks stay safe?

Check the daily avalanche bulletin and carry the [correct] equipment. Making informed decisions and doing your homework beforehand are, generally speaking, good ways for people to start.

 

[This story appears in the February 2019 issue of WestJet Magazine]