KANANASKIS, ALTA. -- Lots of snow combined with warm temperatures and high winds are creating dangerous avalanche conditions in the mountain parks, just as COVID-weary winter sports newcomers are visiting in large numbers.

Wind is blowing the snow from one side of the mountain to the other creating a hard packed thick blanket of snow.

“Where skiers want to be is in that deeper space,” said Mike Koppang, Kananaskis public safety specialist. “But in order to get there you’ve got to go over the thin stuff, so where you can potentially trigger an avalanche is going from the thin to thick.”

Public safety specialists are seeing more people in the back country with varying levels of skill during the pandemic.

“And that’s sort of the big thing right now,” said Koppang. “There’s a lot of people that are new to skiing, new to back country, new to all this stuff and you need to be able to identify that you’re in avalanche terrain and we’re seeing a lot of people that have no clue.”

He says it’s important to gain all the knowledge possible about avalanches and safety during the winter time on the trails. There are many courses offered either online or in person.

Daily forecast

Kananaskis public safety specialists write a daily forecast about conditions in the back country. Their information comes from a number of sources including visiting the same historic sites every two weeks and digging through the snow all the way to the ground to reveal it’s different layers in the snow pack.

“And we can see some of these weaker layers and what they’re doing in time because the snow pack changes seasonally, weekly, hourly, monthly, it changes as we go throughout the winter,” said Koppang.

Bill Tutt is from Cochrane and snow shoeing on one of the designated trails. He comes prepared with items to keep him alive if he ran into trouble.

“I learn to call it a 24 hour pack: food, tarp, emergency shelter, saw, three lighters, compass, heavier pants, down jacket,” said Tutt. “Basically if I need to stay out I probably can without too much trouble.”

Avalanche safety courses

The safety message is getting across to people new to the back country according to Jeff MacPherson who is a rescue specialist in the park.

“One thing I have noticed is many of them are taking the avalanche safety courses,” said MacPherson. “The number of people signing up for the courses and you see out in the field every day, I’m really impressed with the number of people gaining that education.”

Experts say if you are new to the back country to stick to designated trails before tackling more challenging terrain.

“We’re seeing a lot of people getting in the back country and getting more knowledge before they go out there,” said Koppang. “They’re eating the elephant one bite at a time - which is what we want people to do.”

Learn more about mountain park avalanche conditions here: www.avalanche.ca