Should Mountain Hunters be Prepared for Avalanches in the Late Season?
Wintery November was establishing itself for yet another year in the Rocky Mountains of Southern British Columbia. Mountain goats continued feeding and resting along wind-swept and sun-exposed slopes below the high crags which they were retreating to for safety. Curtis was trying to harvest a goat on the last day of the season. The physically demanding climb to the goat zone was at times emotionally demoralizing because the mountain never seemed to end.
Curtis and Mark made the ascent on this mountain several times over the course of the late November hunting season, but they were never able to descend with goat meat on their backs. The goats’ tenacious command of their kingdom atop of the world makes them a formidable animal to hunt. The Rocky Mountains are big, steep and unforgiving and traversing them in the late season is nothing short of painstakingly slow. A late season goat hunt can test one’s resolve to be a hunter.
As the two guys approached timberline, the goats were out feeding on an exposed slope just above them. Their strategy was to stay tucked in the scattered trees along the ridge, gain elevation and make the final stalk at the same level as the goats’ elevation. However, as they gained the ridge, the snow depth increased, and the snow became increasingly dense. Each boot punched the snow with effort in an attempt to propel their bodies up the slope.
At one point on the ridge, the hunters realized that they could no longer tell whether they were standing over terra firma or suspended over the canyon on a cornice.
The wind had been sweeping snow off the goats’ habitat and packing it onto the ridge that Curtis and Mark wanted to traverse. Wind-formed slab snow is particularly dangerous since it can shatter like glass from one wrongly placed footstep sending the hunter to the bottom of the canyon or burying him under tonnes of snow in a matter of seconds. According to Avalanche Canada, most victims trigger the avalanche that ends their life and the chance of surviving burial in an avalanche falls very quickly after 18 minutes.
Out of their desire to preserve life and limb, the guys altered their stalk away from the ridgeline. They ended up having to traverse the open slope below the goats hoping to sneak up on them from below. Shortly after implementing plan B, the hillside above them started to move as the goat herd, now aware of the hunters’ presence, began to make a run for it. After nearly four hours of climbing, Curtis’s hunt was over as fast as it started. The hunters stood staring at the valley below thinking about the long descent with empty packs to where their journey started.
Both the authors of this hunting story have formal avalanche safety and rescue training. After the fly-fishing guiding season is over, Curtis works in a backcountry cat ski operation where he is involved in avalanche forecasting, snow stability assessment, avalanche control and client safety in ski terrain. While Curtis’s expertise in avalanche safety outstrips Mark’s by a ratio of 1000:1; as hunters, they make avalanche safety part of their plan for late season hunting.
Yes, death by avalanche is a real threat to mountain hunters late in the year when winter is settling in. If muzzle control is synonymous with firearm safety, then avalanche awareness needs to be synonymous with late season mountain hunting.
So, what can you do to mitigate the risks of avalanche in late season mountain hunting?
First, get some formal avalanche safety training before your next late season mountain hunt. Avalanche safety training is not just for snowmobilers and backcountry skiers. You may need to plan for this training a year in advance, so now is good time to start thinking about it. If you are planning a hunt shortly after reading this article, then acquiring even basic avalanche knowledge could save your life.
The hard truth of the matter is that many of the things late season mountain hunters do while hunting in winter conditions can be some of the more unsafe things a mountain adventurer can do in avalanche terrain. Hunters traverse slopes in the 30 to 45-degree slope zone which, when covered in even a modest amount of snow, becomes the deadliest slope-type on the mountain for avalanches. They post-hole across knee deep dense slabs of snow that have been packed in place by relentless mountain winds. Wind slab snow is among the most unstable and dangerous snowpacks in the mountains, and they have an affinity for developing on those 30 to 45-degree slopes.
Like Curtis and Mark did, hunters tend to use ridges to get to the game animals that are the subject of their stalks – the same ridges where cornices can start to form late in the hunting season when its windy and snowing profusely. Hunters tend to follow slope breaks in an effort to see the animals below them without trucking right past their intended game. Slope breaks accumulate weak snow that can easily fracture and trigger an avalanche.
Across more open areas, sometimes hunters traverse deep snow-covered basins by sneaking from one rock outcrop or from one tree clump to the next in order to stay hidden during their stalks. In avalanche terrain, rock outcrops and clumps of sub-alpine trees or shrubs can be avalanche trigger points. These trigger points are places where weakened snowpack can catastrophically fracture and start a deadly slab avalanche.
Another hazard occurs when hunters choose to drop down into a depressional area on the mountain side – a creek draw, gully, chute, or a bowl – in order to stay out of sight while on their final stalk. When avalanche terrain is covered in snow and the risk of avalanches is high, these zones are called terrain traps. When an avalanche is triggered above it, a terrain trap will funnel the racing snow mass into the draw or gully where the hunters have no chance of escape. Think of a terrain trap as a death trap.
In this conversation, you might be envisioning the epic avalanches you see in adventure ski films or science documentaries. Maybe you are thinking to yourself that you are never hunting when those kinds of avalanches could happen. That is probably true; however, here is a rule of thumb about avalanche danger – if a snow pack is even just a foot deep, covers an area the size of your living room and sits on a slope that resembles the steepness of the stairs in your home, you are in avalanche terrain, and you are in a spot where several tonnes of snow has the potential to bury you alive. If you are buried in avalanche, even one of this seemingly small size, statistically speaking, all your future hunting seasons are over in about 18 minutes.
Knowing when avalanches pose a danger is not enough. Another necessity of avi-safety is having the proper gear and the wherewithal to save your hunting partner’s life should she or he become trapped in a snow slide. An avi-shovel, snow probe, and personal transceiver are not just for snowmobilers and skiers. Modern avi-safety gear has an important place in the late season mountain hunter’s pack when hunting in deep snow.
The intent of this story is not to train you and give you all the skills and knowledge you need to hunt safely in avalanche terrain. In fact, it’s far from a training article. This article is to make you aware that avalanche safety should be included in your next late season mountain hunt or even early spring mountain hunt. The intent is to create awareness in the hunting community so that a tragedy can be averted.
Curtis and Mark recommend taking a recognized avalanche safety training course, like Avalanche Canada’s Avalanche Safety Training-1 course delivered by a Canadian Avalanche Association accredited instructor. Most small communities will offer this course in the fall at their local community colleges. Avalanche Canada lists courses in western Canada on this website as well. Heck, even if a group of hunters wanted to, they can self-organize their own training by finding an accredited instructor here.
At bare minimum, increase your knowledge and understanding of avalanche safety by watching this online avalanche safety tutorial.
Avalanche Canada starts forecasting avalanche danger for the mountain zones of Western Canada in mid-November and publishes the danger rating on this website. These forecasts will tell you the risks for avalanches above and below timber line and by aspect daily. The conditions are always changing and not every day in the mountains is dangerous. Checking these forecasts should be an essential part of your daily late season hunting safety plan. These forecasts are also available for free directly on your mobile phone with Avalanche Canada’s app.
For hunters, hunting is more than a passion; it is a lifestyle – a lifestyle connected to the land and connected to where food comes from. Hunters take safety seriously every second while they are hunting.
Maybe, as you are reading this article, this is the first time that you have considered the dangers of avalanches during late season mountain hunting. Maybe you are saying, “Holy sh*t, yah I did some of those dangerous things in avalanche terrain while late season hunting.” Don’t feel bad. You recognize there are dangers now and you have the chance to add avi-safety to your hunting tool kit.
The mountains are unforgiving. Mountain goats are among the toughest animal on the face of the earth and live in a hostile and dangerous environment. Every hunter needs to come home to tell that story.
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