Out of the snow: 2003 avalanches sparked changes at Parks Canada
When Grant Statham was hired in Parks Canada in the Fall of 2003, he had a monstrous task in front of him. In front of him was a 90-page report complete with 36 recommendations produced for Parks Canada by an independent review panel that looked into the Connaught Creek avalanche on Feb. 1, 2003.
“I got hired to figure out what to do with those recommendations for Parks Canada and implement them,” he said. “There were 36 of them so I took them and turned them into projects.”
The report, titled Parks Canada’s Backcountry Avalanche Review, was written by Dennis O’Gorman, a former B.C. government official; Phil Hein, a fully certified mountain guide and avalanche professional; and William Leiss, a risk management expert from the University of Calgary. The report dealt largely with risk – how it was managed, how it was perceived and how it was communicated to the public. It also looked at how Parks responded to emergencies and how trips were lead.
“The biggest thing I got out of that report, and its most important impact, was the idea of communication,” said Statham. “I’ve taken avalanche courses and taught avalanche courses and we never really talked much about communication. A little bit, but it wasn’t a central theme. I would say today it’s a central theme, particularly around public avalanche forecasting.”
Statham was a veteran mountain guide, who had done avalanche consulting, taught courses and led expeditions. He was used to working mostly independently; now he was working as part of the Parks Canada bureaucracy. The first project Statham and his staff undertook was the creation of the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES). The system was drawn from the mechanized skiing industry, where guides would look at what runs could and couldn’t be skied every day. Statham said they were looking at a rating system that would help the public understand terrain, and also provide a way to manage so-called custodial groups – groups of children led by someone who wasn’t their parent.
Eric Dafoe, the public safety manager for Glacier National Park, was part of a regional public safety committee that was looking at the reforms. The group had discussed how they would describe avalanche terrain to the public but they hadn’t come up with the definitions. “I was driving to work one day and looked at the Flat Creek and Bostock drainages when something clicked,” he said.
What he saw was a wooded drainage with several clearly defined avalanche paths; that would be one type of terrain. He compared it to the Asulkan drainage, with its multitude of avalanche paths with overlapping runout zones and difficult to identify start-zones; that would be another type or terrain.
Dafoe brought the idea to one of his avalanche technicians, who refined the descriptions. Those were passed on to Statham, who had been working on something similar.
“Grant did some final tweaking and presented it to the industry,” said Dafoe.
The system had three ratings for avalanche terrain: Simple was basic terrain with no avalanche exposure. Challenging was terrain with well defined avalanche paths. Complex was terrain through complicated avalanche slopes with multiple start zones and overlapping runouts.
“It worked for custodial groups, it works for public warnings. It’s an excellent complement to an avalanche bulletin. In my mind one of the most important things we were able to is create the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale.”
The second project Statham undertook was a new, graphic based avalanche bulletin. The previous bulletin was text heavy and had lots of very good information, but it was difficult to understand by the average backcountry user. “Back in those days, if you were someone who really liked to read an extensive text product with lots of detail in it, it was great, it was an awesome product,” said Statham. “We needed to evolve the way we communicated that information. If I have your attention for 30 seconds, what’s the most important thing I can tell you about the avalanche conditions today?”
What was developed was a graphic-based warning system, with simple icons indicating the avalanche danger rating that day. The first iteration contained four graphics: green for good, yellow with an exclamation mark for serious, yellow one with a question mark for variable, and red for poor. Each icon was accompanied by travel advice for amateur recreationalists. They were picked up and modified by the Swiss avalanche centre and those modifications were adopted in Canada.
“We’ve continued down the road of trying to reduce the text and breaking it down into manageable pieces and make it so people can communicate and pick it up easily,” said Statham.
The process culminated, for now, at the start of the 2011-12 winter with the introduction of a new avalanche bulletin that was developed by Parks Canada and shared with other organizations across Canada, including the Canadian Avalanche Centre. The new bulletin features even more graphics indicating where concerns in the snowpack such as wind slabs or persistent slabs exist. More detailed information on the snowpack is included lower down on the page.
Statham said the idea is to have a tiered system. At the most basic level, someone would get the most basic information of the avalanche rating for that day. At the second level is the more detailed information on the snowpack. The third level is for advanced users – data like snow profiles and weather information.
“That restructuring of the warning system was a big outcome of our project,” said Statham.
Matt Yaki looks at the terrain map for the Loop Brook area in Glacier National Park while ski touring in Rogers Pass.
The third major project involved regulating custodial groups, which were defined as a group with minors that weren’t being escorted by their parents. Prior to 2003, there were no rules on where custodial groups could or could not go in the national parks. The Connaught Creek avalanche, where seven Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School students died, caused many to ask what they were doing in terrain with such high avalanche danger.
“Parks definitely sat up and took a look at how they managed those groups,” said Ross Cloutier, the owner of Bhudak Consultants, who was hired by Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School to review their outdoor education program.
“Historically they’ve had all the custodial groups that were in the mountains doing the same trips in the same terrain as the professionals were, and obviously they weren’t professionally guided,” he said. “Their skill set was quite different but you had these custodial groups in the same terrain doing the same things.”
Cloutier’s report took an extensive look at STS’ outdoor education program, which was a key component of the elite private school. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the report was its look at risk. Notably it pointed out that the program’s administrators were willing to tolerate a certain level risk when running trips, but parents weren’t properly involved in the decision making.
“Should a school have the authority (or responsibility?) to decide the levels of risk tolerance for students?” Cloutier asked in his report. “If yes, then it must carry out its high duty to clearly communicate to parents what the activities are and what levels of risk can normally be expected in each activity; the decision then rests with the parents to decide whether their child will participate.”
The school responded by not allowing any more trips into the Connaught Creek drainage. Parks Canada responded by using the new terrain rating system as a guide for what custodial groups could and could not do. They could enter simple terrain at will. To enter terrain rated as challenging, they would need to be accompanied by a ski guide. They could not go into complex terrain.
“That was maybe one of the most controversial things we worked on back then,” said Statham. “At the time the outdoor education sector was very nervous they would be shut out of the backcountry, that we would implement some kind of framework that would make it impossible to bring kids out.”
Once the terrain was classified, school groups realized there was still lots of terrain they could access under the new rules, said Statham.
“It’s been eight years since that was implemented and it seems like it works,” he said. “We have pretty good feedback. We don’t get complaints about groups not being able to get where they want to go. For the most part it’s been pretty successful.”
According to Statham, there was some controversy around each major project. As mentioned, schools wondered how the new rules on custodial groups would impact them. Some of his peers wondered how he would go about creating the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale. Others were worried about the changes to the avalanche bulletin.
“There was lots of opposition to the idea of dumbing down the product,” said Statham. “Every time we create warning products that aren’t technical or somehow are perceived to reduce the technical nature of something, we get accused of dumbing it down.”
Still, he added, people have come around to accept the changes to the point where they seem normal. Now, he thinks the focus should be on teaching people how to manage terrain.
“It feels like we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns with respect to warning about snow,” he said. “We can tell people as much as we want and do the best we can about the daily conditions in the snow pack and how it’s changing, but if people don’t know how to actually ski tour and how to pick terrain and choose a route on the right kind of day. That’s where I’d like to see a lot of emphasis in the future, is on terrain and risk.”
All this was going with a new partner organization – the Canadian Avalanche Centre, which was founded in the fall of 2004 as part of the response to the 2003 avalanches. The Times Review will look at that development next week