Winter in Fernie, BC brings powder enthusiasts to the backcountry

Fernie is known for it’s legendary powder, but many people are often hungry for more. For that fresh, soft, untouched, waist deep powder, which can only be found in the backcountry. Every winter more powder hungry enthusiasts are in search of the best spots to ride their snowboard, skies or snowmobile and experience what riding in the Rockies is all about.

We often get caught up in the thrill of being the first to shred a new line but without warning an avalanche weighing as much as 11 million pounds can come barreling down the mountain. In an instant, the once thrill becomes all about survival. Even those with years of experience can make decisions that ultimately turn their rich, wonderful lives into a growing stack of statistics.

The Cascades are among the craggiest of American mountain ranges. Appearing as if they were carved with a chain saw. Cowboy Mountain, located about 75 miles east of Seattle, rises to 5,853 feet and to one side, down steep chutes, is Stevens Pass ski area, which receives about 400,000 visitors each winter. On the other side, outside the ski area’s boundary is an unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a “powder stash,” known as Tunnel Creek.

Chris Rudolph, a 30-year-old marketing manager for Stevens Pass had mentioned his plans for a field trip to Tunnel Creek to a select group of high-powered guests including Jim Jack (head judge of the Freeskiing World Tour) and close friends. The operations manager for Stevens Pass agreed to pick up the group in one of the ski area’s trucks at the end of its descent. It was Saturday, Feb. 18, the afternoon light fading to dusk, by morning there would be 32 inches of fresh snow at Stevens Pass, 21 of them in a 24-hour period of Saturday and Saturday night. That was cause for celebration. It had been more than two weeks since the last decent snowfall. Finally, the tired layer of hard, crusty snow was gone, buried deep under powder.

There were 16 people, although no one thought to count at the time. Their ages ranged from 29 to 53. Keith Carlsen, was uneasy, he tried to convince himself that it was a good idea. “There’s no way this entire group can make a decision that isn’t smart,” he said to himself. “Of course it’s fine, if we’re all going. It’s got to be fine.” After a few minutes, the small talk faded. Worries went unexpressed. “Someone said, ‘Partner up — everyone should grab a partner,’” Carlsen said. “Immediately I thought, We’re in a somewhat serious situation. It wasn’t just grab a partner so you don’t get lost. It was grab a partner so you…”

Jim Jack flowed through the thick powder with his typical ease. He disappeared over the knoll, gliding through the trees in the middle of the meadow. Behind him, the five remaining skiers watched in silence. Then the snow changed without warning. Across the meadow, above Jack, loose snow seemed to chase him down the hill and out of sight. Not everyone saw it. A couple did. They caught it in their peripheral vision and were unsure what to make of it. The five others listened. Not a sound. They stared for clues through the flat light below a murky sky. Nothing. Silent seconds ticked. Finally, Hammond spotted the first sign of evidence. “I saw it moving,” Hammond said. “Like something had hit the tree, and it shook. And I could see the powder falling off the tree.” Rudolph was the only one to scream.

“Avalanche! Elyse!” Rudolph shouted.

Changes in temperatures, precipitation, humidity and wind can turn a benign snowpack into a deadly one, and vice versa. Sometimes weather is enough to start an avalanche. But “natural” avalanches rarely kill. The majority of avalanche fatalities are in human-triggered slides — usually of the victims’ own making. That day, three great lives were lost doing what they loved most.

At Fernie Alpine Resort, the Avalanche Rescue Dog program is an integral part of the snow and avalanche safety. Having a long and proud history with the program, the resort is striving to maintain well-trained teams and a strong roster of up and coming canines and their handlers. Retired Senior Avalanche Rescue Dog team of Robin Siggers and Keno were credited with the first live find by a CARDA dog team in December 2000. A lift operator was buried in a pre-season avalanche for 20+ minutes and undoubtedly will never forget the heroic efforts of Keno. Every year on the anniversary of the avalanche, the liftie’s mom would treat Keno and Robin. Keno passed away at the age of 12 years in March, 2007. There is a memorial to him at the top of Shakey’s Acres which was dedicated on the last day of the 2006/2007 season.

Currently, Fernie Alpine Resort has three validated Avalanche Rescue Dog teams: Jennifer Coulter and Farley, Steve Morrison and Mojo, and Forest Latimer and Tarn. Mojo, a male Chesapeake Bay/ Labrador Retriever X is validated with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). Jennifer Coulter and Farley, a male Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, completed their first validation in 2007. Farley packs some great energy into his 40 lbs and lives to hear the command word “SEARCH”. Forest Latimer and Tarn, a male Border Collie, completed their first CARDA winter course in Whistler, BC in early December 2009.

Always remember to check the Canadian Avalanche Association website for great back country resources and the latest avalanche safety bulletins. Play safe!

**Experts taken from Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek article in the New York Times

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