An avalanche warning sigh along the South Klondike Highway. Local avalanche safety instructors say interest in courses has risen during the pandemic as more Yukoners explore socially distanced outdoor activities. (Tom Patrick/Yukon News file)

An avalanche warning sigh along the South Klondike Highway. Local avalanche safety instructors say interest in courses has risen during the pandemic as more Yukoners explore socially distanced outdoor activities. (Tom Patrick/Yukon News file)

Backcountry busy: COVID-19 has Yukoners heading for the hills

Stable conditions for avalanches have provided a grace period for backcountry newcomers

Avalanche safety instructors say interest in courses has skyrocketed as COVID-19 has more Yukoners looking to their wider backyard for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

James Minifie, a field technician for Avalanche Canada and a certified guide who owns Skookum Backcountry Adventures, said registration for courses has doubled and he’s seen more people getting out into the area around White Pass so far this season.

“I think it’s maybe not so much ‘the secret’s out’ but I actually think it’s a mental health thing,” he said. “You can practise social distancing really easily. You’re in the outdoors. Your senses are heightened when you get into these environments because you’re managing risk and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.”

“People are getting out there and realizing, ‘Oh my God, what have I been missing out on all these years?’” he said.

Yukoners who would normally be spending on travel are now stuck at home, added Colin MacKenzie — who provides snow safety courses through his company Snowshoot Productions — which may have freed up funds for new gear and courses.

An unusually early and heavy snowfall has also sweetened the deal, making perfect conditions for a long snow sports season and motivation to develop new skills.

“There’s been a huge increase in interest in avalanche courses, for the snowmobile demographic and for skiers and snowshoers, as well,” said MacKenzie, “The sense I get is that because of COVID people are here. They’ve always been interested in getting more of this education and now there’s time to do it.”

Avalanche Canada tracks conditions and risk levels across Canadian mountain terrain in Western Canada and Quebec, including a current forecast for the Yukon. The organization ranks dangers at three levels of elevation: alpine, treeline and below treeline.

Minifie works with the rest of the Yukon team to regularly report on conditions from their weather station in the White Pass. Normally, he said, seeing other users is rare in November and December, but this year he is seeing people every day of the week.

He admits that early in the season he was concerned that the sudden uptick in novice backcountry users might lead to more rescues, accidents or deaths.

Conditions this year have been dangerous in many southern areas and there have been three avalanche-related deaths in British Columbia so far this season. Search and rescue calls in the South have been up since the pandemic began.

A particularly dangerous weather year combined with an increase in novice users could be a recipe for disaster, but Minifie said so far conditions around White Pass have been fairly stable. High-risk times are usually during storms, when people should be careful and avoidant anyway.

“Even though it’s been super stormy, we haven’t had any really bad buried weak layers. So the avalanche danger is manageable,” Minifie said.

He added that conditions could change at any time in the year.

Mike Smith, another licensed provider of the avalanche training courses, said he’s almost doubled the amount of students he’s teaching this year and has had to refer some clients to other instructors due to waitlists.

“I’d say close to half of my students – at least – have been brand new to the backcountry. They basically got into it because right now you have nowhere to go, so you might as well get into a new sport,” Smith said.

All three course providers said the increased interest is good news and shows that Yukoners are aware of how to keep themselves safe.

Unlike resort skiing, there is no ski patrol on call to help out with injuries. In the event a person can make a call on a satellite phone or communication device, even rescue operations — usually led by RCMP and Yukon SAR — can be hours away at the best of times and slowed down further by the short window of daylight.

“I think in my experience, guiding and providing safety courses over the years, I feel like Yukoners are pretty cognizant of that and adjust their outdoor risk mitigation and hazard evaluation accordingly,” Minifie said.

“I think if they didn’t we’d see a lot more accidents. We do have a lot of people in the backcountry here, but I think even new Yukoners are saying to themselves, ‘Well, this is remote and I’m in the North and it’s not the same as going out and recreating in Banff National Park,’” he said.

Avalanche Canada recommends that all backcountry users take an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course before heading out. They should also pack the necessary safety gear, including a high-quality avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe, and leave a detailed trip plan with someone back in town.

Certified instructors in the Yukon offer AST I and AST II.

The courses cover the science of snow conditions that cause avalanches, using forecasts and trip planning, how to identify dangerous terrain and an intro to providing rescues. The second course moves into more advanced terrain, deeper understanding of conditions and rescue skills.

“We cover why avalanches happen, what leads to higher versus low avalanche danger days and we focus a lot on traveling and reading the terrain. It’s a lot of training people to look at the big picture and step back and be aware of where they are,” Smith said, adding that psychology and group dynamics are also a part of staying safe.

Busier conditions might have some people feeling that “the secret is out” but MacKenzie noted that more people can also mean safety in numbers. Social media helps backcountry users keep updated on conditions and share information. It can also mean getting help more quickly in the event something goes awry.

“There’s a formal network and an informal network that are great sources of information before you go out to the pass for the day,” he said.

More backcountry users also mean more friends and socializing — a rare luxury in a pandemic year.

“It’s always been a popular recreational corridor [along the South Klondike] but we’ll have to see whether or not it’ll continue, or if this is just completely pandemic-motivated,” said Minifie said.

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

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