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More attention paid to avalanche awareness day during season of death

BANFF, Alta. - Being brought back to life after getting pulled unconscious, blue and not breathing from the cement-like spring snow has made Rick Tams a born-again believer in the value of avalanche safety.

BANFF, Alta. - Being brought back to life after getting pulled unconscious, blue and not breathing from the cement-like spring snow has made Rick Tams a born-again believer in the value of avalanche safety.

Despite four decades of backcountry experience, the 48-year-old Alberta man admits he's "much more hesitant" after being hit and buried by a big slab avalanche last April near Radium, B.C. The slide tossed Tams and his snowmobile around like feeble toys as it roared down the mountainside about 60 kilometres per hour.

Friends and other riders found him face down in the snow, dug him out and got him breathing again just in time - leaving him with nothing more than a terrible headache and a fierce appreciation of the snow's power.

"The biggest thing I worry about is my two boys, because they love the sport, and it sure makes me a lot more nervous now than it did then," said Tams, who spoke Friday at the Canadian Avalanche Centre's awareness day at Sunshine ski resort west of Banff, Alta.

"They were actually going to go out the next weekend after my avalanche and I said, 'No. No way, not until you get some training."'

Tams's tale is one of the good ones. The 10 avalanche fatalities already this year in the mountains of B.C. and Alberta are proof that many similar stories don't end as well.

While the Avalanche Centre holds awareness days every year, there's far more attention right now as the death toll is higher than it's ever been for this early in the winter backcountry season.

"On average in Canada, 14 people a year die in avalanches - we're just coming into our prime recreation season - and we're nervous about the potential for additional accidents," said Clair Israelson, executive director of the Avalanche Centre.

Israelson said the weak snowpack was created in early December by a warm weather front that left a rain crust over much of Western Canada's early snowpack. The recent big dumps of snow are simply lying on an icy undercoating with the stability of a layer of ball-bearings.

And the volatile conditions aren't going away any time soon.

"Until that layer heals, we're going to continue to see accidents happen unless people adjust their behaviours and give the mountains a little extra respect this winter."

With only two of those fatal slides occurring within ski resorts, Israelson said the difference between a great day in the backcountry and more death in the mountains comes down to simple "decisions and choices."

All backcountry specialists insist that the basic tools of avalanche beacons, probes and shovels are necessary for anyone heading out. And newer gadgets like airbags that inflate at the frantic tug of a rip cord are also nice to have. But making the call on what to avoid and when to turn around remains the most critical.

Pascal Haegeli, a post-doctorate fellow at Simon Fraser University in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, focuses on decision-making when it comes to backcountry avalanche terrain.

"In the past, avalanche awareness was primarily focused on teaching people about snow and avalanche signs," Haegeli said Friday.

"And we thought that with that better knowledge, people would automatically make better decisions. But when you look at accidents, it's actually not necessarily the case."

Haegeli was one of the driving forces behind the Avalanche Centre's Avaluator, which was introduced last year.

A simple card to fit in any pocket, the Avaluator provides quick and simple advice on the four key backcountry decisions starting with planning the trip, identifying avalanche terrain, slope evaluation and good travel habits.

Haegeli's next target is focusing on the young skiers and boarders who are inclined to duck under the ropes at the resorts to bag some sweet - but potentially deadly - out-of-bounds tracks.

It's an issue of particular relevance to Ralph Scurfield, president and majority shareholder at Sunshine Village, who lost his father to a backcountry avalanche 22 years ago.

"People shouldn't stop doing things that are adventuresome. They should, however, take all the precautions. And then, sadly, even when you do that, sometimes stuff just doesn't go right."

Scurfield said fatal avalanches will always be caused by a combination of treacherous conditions and human error.

"Sometimes the conditions are just so bad that people should just stay home and play cards and not go out. Sometimes there's pressure to go out when they shouldn't," he said.

"And that can come from the guides, and sometimes it's just foolhardiness - particularly with young people.

"Everybody who's young thinks they're going to live forever, and the fact is they're all mortals."

 
 
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