New research from Simon Fraser University is hoping to tap into the experience of professional mountain guides to build tools to help backcountry users make better decisions when travelling in avalanche terrain.

The study, led by Pascal Haegeli, uses GPS tracking to capture the route finding decisions of the guides as they travel in remote, avalanche areas.

“Avalanche research in the past has primarily focused on better understanding the phenomenon itself but we want to take it one step further and better understand how professionals actually manage that risk in the backcountry,” said Haegeli. “Because they spend so much time in the backcountry, those decisions have become totally intuitive to them and it is well-known that experts at that level they have a really hard time to actually articulate those decisions because they’re so context dependent and they just have this sort of second sense of experiencing the conditions and make choices appropriate. What we want to do is actually, explicitly be able to capture this expertise in a way that allows us to then build tools based on it.”

Researchers started collecting data from the GPS trackers two years ago and have gathered information from more than 30,000 ski runs and over 4300 individual guiding days.

By analyzing safe travel days, researchers hope to uncover the unconscious rules that experienced mountain guides have developed over years spent in the backcountry.

“So we get a high resolution record of their choices in terrain and what terrain they deem appropriate under a wide range of different conditions. What we’re hoping to do is then to extract the rules that they use to make those decisions and with that we can then start to develop decision aides that can help professionals to make these decisions more efficiently and eventually to also develop tools for the public so that we can sort of pass that knowledge on to them as well,” said Haegeli.

While the study is based on guides who are travelling routes in Whistler, Revelstoke and Terrace B.C., Haegeli says the information will also help Albertans.

“The resulting tools we hope will eventually be available to the public so we can provide them with additional guidance on what would be appropriate terrain to go into under different types of avalanche conditions,” said Haegeli. “Our research, in general, simply tries to provide the foundation so that we can reduce these impacts on recreation but also on the Canadian economy in general by reducing closure times and so on.”

About 13 people are killed in avalanches in Canada each year and Haegeli says he hopes their research will help to reduce the number of fatalities in the future.  

“I hope it’s going to help us to keep these number low and really help us to give people a little bit more information for making informed choices about where they want to travel and where they want to expose themselves to avalanche hazard, which in the end is a personal choice, but I want to make sure people know what they’re getting into.”

Researchers hope to make new backcountry safety tools available to the public in the next two or three years.

(With files from Bill Macfarlane)