Thompson Rivers University

Talk to the Experts with Iain Stewart-Patterson: Snow safety

December 7, 2018

Iain Stewart-Patterson Skiing Powder

TRU Adventure Studies faculty member Iain Stewart-Patterson putting his backcountry tips to the test.

When it comes to snow safety, calling Iain Stewart-Patterson an expert is like calling powder skiing enjoyable—accurate, but only scratching the surface.

One of the few guides fully certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association and the only one by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides to also complete a PhD—notably on the role of intuition in the decision process of expert ski guides—he offers a comprehensive perspective to a topic that’s on everyone’s minds this time of year: staying safe in the mountains. Stewart-Patterson recently sat down with Radio NL’s Paul Graham for a segment of Talk to the Experts.

Recognizing the draw of the mountains, he outlined basic precautions for those heading to the slopes this winter. It’s essential to have the correct clothing and equipment to be out in the elements, and know the weather forecast in advance to ensure you’re prepared.

As an experienced backcountry user, Stewart-Patterson mused on why so many people are ducking ropes into out-of-bounds zones these days: “It’s a quest for the untouched, the untracked.”

But ducking this rope from patrolled to wild terrain shouldn’t be taken lightly. Quizzed on where most backcountry users go wrong, our expert said, “Probably the biggest thing for the out-of-bounds skier is being unprepared.”

Education is step one.

What conditions cause an avalanche? Stewart-Patterson described an entire winter’s snowfall as an accumulation of layers—every time it precipitates, a new layer is created and the overall snowpack of that slope is affected. Temperature, wind and precipitation can all change the conditions of the surface layer, and it’s the relationship between layers that determines stability.

“It is not easy to make good decisions in avalanche terrain,” he explained. “The challenge we have is that many people have built good technical movement skills—that could be skiing, that could be snowmobiling—they’re great at moving around, but they don’t know how to make good decisions in the terrain. And so, becoming educated about how and when avalanches might occur is really step one for that.”

Stewart-Patterson advocated for winter recreation enthusiasts acquiring decision-making skills that are on par with their technical skills. With the holiday season just around the corner, he suggested an alternative gift wish-list to help snow lovers get where they want to be.

Everyone loves getting new equipment, but education is a better gift. Avalanche safety training courses are offered throughout the winter in many locations, and you can hire professional guides to take you through avalanche terrain and identify hazards.

Enter step two of backcountry prep: Getting to know your transceiver, probe and shovel.

Backcountry travel often involves avalanche terrain and users need to not only carry the appropriate safety equipment, but they need to know how to use it effectively. This all comes down to practice, and Stewart-Patterson encouraged even well-seasoned users to brush up on their skills regularly.

He suggested setting up transceiver-retrieval scenarios annually, practicing throughout the winter and constantly trying to get faster. He provided listeners with benchmark times to shoot for, stressing that time is crucial for survival when buried by a slide. Avalanche victims who are extricated in under 10 minutes have a 77% probability of survival.

Stewart-Patterson touched on the merits of travelling with companions in the backcountry and he cautioned against depending on cell phones or external services for emergencies. Time is of the essence when a slide occurs, and you are relying on those members of your party who aren’t buried to rescue you.

Step three is making the plan—where you’re going and what you’re going to do.

Check Avalanche Canada’s mountain weather forecast for the area you’re planning to visit, and choose terrain that fits the hazard level and your skill set.

“I think the biggest precaution is approaching the mountains humbly,” said Stewart-Patterson. “I would far prefer to turn around and run away and get home safely, than hit that big line. I want to come back another day.”

It doesn’t end with pre-trip planning, though, you continue learning when out in the mountains. Learn from what you see and do out there, what works and what doesn’t. And then share that information. Avalanche Canada provides the Mountain Information Network for this service. Backcountry users can report their findings here to share information on avalanche occurrences, with photos and details about the slide.

“It’ll change over two days, it’ll change over two hours. So we constantly need to monitor the weather situation.”

Stewart-Patterson explained how the decision-making feedback cycle is further complicated in avalanche terrain. When things go wrong there, they often turn really bad, really fast, and you may not have the chance to learn from that mistake. When things go well, though, you assume you made the right decision, which could lead to misplaced confidence and continuing to escalate this behaviour.

“This lack of reliable information leads us into a trap,” said Stewart-Patterson. This is where it’s important to share information with the community and get feedback from your peers, to pool collective knowledge and get objective feedback on your actions.

Climate change is adding to the complexity of decision making in the mountains: “I think what we’re seeing is more variability. The storms might be bigger or smaller or more separated, or we might get different temperature variations,” said Stewart-Patterson.

“Decision making in avalanche terrain, for someone who has spent a lot of time in this terrain, is based on pattern recognition: ‘Have I seen this before?’ When a new problem is posed, they compare it to what they’ve seen before. With climate change we’re seeing more variability, and so the patterns don’t always match up, and it makes the decision process more complex.”

Stewart-Patterson left us with a simple mantra to keep in mind this winter: “Be humble. Approach cautiously. And play for a long time.”

Listen to Iain Stewart-Patterson on Radio NL’s Talk to the Experts:

Part 1: Iain introduces his background, backcountry experiences and preferences. Local Sun Peaks terrain and why people travel out-of-bounds is discussed, and precautions to take for a safe trip in the mountains including safety equipment and times to shoot for.

Part 2: Host and expert dive into more detailed advice for backcountry users. Iain describes the conditions that preclude avalanche events and the complexity of decision making in this terrain. Avalanche resources are cited, typical wind and aspect accumulation are discussed, and the impact of climate change is broached.

Part 3: More on the impact of climate change and the complexities of decision making in avalanche terrain. Paul asks Iain about avalanches we see portrayed in films, about the first-hand experience of being caught in one and the intricacies each sport and its gear introduces to the mix. Iain suggests holiday gifts for the winter adventurer and sums up the precautions he personally takes when entering the backcountry.

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