Friday 22 February 2013

Canada Part 2

Checking the snowpack on the ridge above the Kootenay Highway. The highway runs up a deep valley below the figure. The best way to get a feel for the snowpack is to get the skis on, skin up the hill and go an have a look. It had been quite a dry cold year, and the snowpack was basically a metre of facets with a bit of slab on top. I imagine it will all start getting quite interesting in the spring when the temperatures rise a bit. 

Today (Friday the 22nd) is my last full day in Canada. Due to a combinations of factors, not least being offered a lift from the door of my accommodation straight to the airport (which is 420km away) I brought my flight home forward a few days. I have spent the past few days in Nelson which is quite close to the border with the USA. Although close to Revelstoke on the map, the drive to Nelson still took me about 4 hours. Some people from the Nelson area told me that for their holidays one year they had driven North for two days, and still didn't make it to the Northern Border of British Columbia.

 Heading back down after snow pack analysis. Go skiing when it is sunny, start avalanches with bombs and Gasex guns when it is snowing. Not a bad job. 

As expected my few days down in Nelson were interesting and enjoyable. On the Tuesday and Thursday I was out with Nelson Highway avalanche control team, and on the Wednesday with the Kootenay Pass avalanche control team.  I found that some aspects of what they did in terms of snowpack analysis and recording very similar to what we do in Scotland. Also they also felt that despite the large amount of real time snowpack data they have access to (a lot of mountain weather stations, and a professional avalanche information sharing network that about 100 companies and organisations post on), the best way was to get out and get a feel for the snow.

However, due to different objectives (to keep the highways safe from avalanches and open as much as possible) and, in the case of Nelson the huge extend of their area, some of what they do is very different to what we do in Scotland. For example at Kootenay Pass they have about 22 Gasex devices. These are large pipe things which are built in the starting zones, and which at the press of a few buttons can produce a blast to release the slope. For a better explanation of Gasex have a look at, or this little You-Tube clip of these devices being tested elsewhere during the summer  The folk at Nelson don't think twice about call for a helicopter to take them to where they want to check stability. They had been planning to fly yesterday, but unfortunately the weather was too poor, so we went skiing instead (which wasn't too bad).

Anyway back to sunny Scotland soon, hopefully the nice weather and good ice will still be there when I return.

 One thing I notice was how popular OR kit is in Canada. I found the Outdoor Research trailer in the carpark at WhiteWater ski area, and stopped in for a quick chat with Maddy the OR rep. It was lovely inside with a  small wood burning stove keeping it well toasty. Probably a bit more suited to the Canadian climate than a Scottish one, I am not sure how long it would last parked in the Cairngorm carpark.

Tuesday 19 February 2013


For the past ten days or so I have been in Canada on a tour of avalanche operations. I have been based at the town of Revelstoke in British Columbia. Revelstoke is about a 40 minute drive away from the infamous Rodgers Pass. Rodgers Pass is the route that the Trans-Canada highway and main railway line takes through the Columbia mountains. The top of the pass is 1330 m above sea level, which is almost the same height as Ben Nevis. The peaks that surround the pass are 2000-3000 meters high, and many large avalanche paths run down across the road and railway.

The railway opened through the pass in 1890, but from the beginning they had problems with avalanches blocking the tracks. The worst accident came in 1910 when sixty two railway workers were killed. They were digging out the railway from a large avalanche, when another huge avalanche swept down from the other side of the pass and buried them. 

 Snow build up at the Fidelity research station at Rogers Pass at 1900m. It has not been nearly as snowy as last year, but doesn't look too bad to me.

These days the railway goes through a tunnel long tunnel, and the road through a series of avalanche sheds. As well as this the authorities have an program of aggressive control. This basically involves  shelling the start zones to knock the snow off before it builds up to dangerous levels. Last winter they fired about 1000 shells. This year however conditions have been much more stable, so the highway closures, and the amount of shelling they have had to do is minimal.

Unfortunately the don't let Scottish Avalanche forecasters fire howitzers. However, I have managed some very interesting days out shadowing at Rogers Pass and elsewhere. When not doing avalanche stuff I have been out ski touring for myself, again mainly around Rogers Pass. However, tomorrow the plan is to head down to around the Nelson area, which is about three hours to the south of here, for some more shadowing with avalanche control people down there.

 Ski touring on Mount MacPherson, the base of which is about 10 minutes drive from Revelstoke town centre.  By this point we had already done about 1500 m of ascent and I was feeling pretty warm in the sunshine. It was another 300m or so to the top, followed by an epic 1800m descent.

 Ski Touring above Rogers pass. The road, where we had started that day, is below the biggest area of trees in the background. The terrain and avalanche paths in the background are very similar to those which threaten the road and railway.

 Heading up the Asulkan Glacier with Castor peak on the right and Youngs peak off to the left. The descent from here was superb,  I see why people people buy really fat skis.

 Doing some research with ASACR (Applied Snow and Avalanche Research) students at above Rogers pass. In this case investigating the February the 12th surface hoar layer weak layer.