News / Canada

New avalanche research chair takes novel approach to backcountry safety

VANCOUVER — Tapping into knowledge passed down between generations of mountain guides is just one of the novel ways that a British Columbia researcher hopes to improve winter safety in Canada's backcountry.

Simon Fraser University has appointed assistant Prof. Pascal Haegeli, of its environment faculty, to the newly created position of research chair in avalanche risk management.

Haegeli has been awarded about $1 million over the next five years to conduct avalanche-related research with industry and academic partners. Collaborators include Canadian Pacific Railway, Helicat Canada and the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Avalanche research has traditionally focused on terrain monitoring and snow conditions but new studies show psychology and decision-making play a much larger role in risk management.

"In about 90 per cent of the fatal avalanche accidents it's actually the victim or somebody in the group of the victim triggering the avalanche," Haegeli said.

"The person is a key component of this risk-management process. We're basically simply trying to develop tools that help people make informed choices so that we can prevent these fatalities."

Haegeli is overseeing research involving professional helicat tour leaders and tracking where and when they travel in the backcountry based on oral knowledge they've gleaned from previous generations of guides.

"Surprisingly very little research has looked at that expertise," said Haegeli, an avid backcountry skier. "It's very valuable expertise and we would like to pass that on to recreationalists."

The goal is to create a tool for backcountry enthusiasts to better assess what kind of terrain is acceptable under different conditions.

Avalanches kill an average of 12 people in Canada every year, and 80 per cent of those deaths take place in British Columbia.

A report from the B.C. Coroners Service said that between 1996 and 2014 there were 192 avalanche-related deaths, amounting to an average of 10 fatalities a year. The average age of the deceased was about 36, and nine out of 10 victims were men.

Western Canada boasts a lot of big mountain ranges, where backcountry activity is popular, Haegeli noted, adding that avalanches occur across the country.

"There are more and more people travelling in backcountry," he said. "It's a very passionate community and we're all about enabling people to enjoy the backcountry safely."

Joe Obad, executive director of the Canadian Avalanche Association, said Haegeli's appointment in avalanche research is a "great step forward."

"The trends around fatalities have pointed a lot more towards errors in decision-making rather than errors in analysis around snow," said Obad on the phone from Sweden.

"In terms of a body of research, I don't think we're as strong as we want to be and Pascal's program is well situated to address that."

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