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How To Avoid Hiking In Avalanche Terrain In The Winter: Family-friendly, beginner winter hikes.

Category: Plan + Prepare

Not all family-friendly summer hiking trails are safe winter hikes

Some of the easy, top-rated and accessible family-friendly summer hiking trails are in serious avalanche terrain in the winter. For example, the Lake Agnes Tea House Trail and Big Beehive trail in Banff National Park, are VERY popular summer trails. Yet, a portion of the trail leading to Lake Agnes and all the trail beyond the teahouse are in prime avalanche terrain.

The Lake Agnes Tea House is one of the most popular locations in Lake Louise AND it is prime avalanche terrain in the winter.

Sadly, On March 8, 2014, two individuals died in an avalanche at Lake Agnes.

A summary of the facts, taken from the Parks Canada March 2014, Accident Report, notes:

  • A group of five snowshoed to Lake Agnes and had lunch.
  • They wanted to return on another popular summer trail, the Big Beehive.
  • The Big Beehive trail was buried under deep snow and not visible. 
  • They started up the steep southwest slope on untracked snow.
  • The group leader triggered the avalanche.
  • No one in the group had any avalanche gear: transceiver, probe and shovel.
  • No one in the group had any avalanche training.

This tragedy could have been avoided if this group had avalanche training.

The following pictures are of Mirror Lake, which is on the trail to Lake Agnes.

This is a popular rest stop in the summer. It is the winter turn-around point if you are not trained or have appropriate avalanche gear: probe, shovel and transceiver.

Transceiver, Shovel and Probe (photo from the Black Diamond® website)

Lake Agnes isn’t the only trail in Avalanche Terrain

Here are a few popular summer hikes that you may have been on.

  • Emerald Lake Loop Trail, Yoho National Park 
  • Mt. Black Prince, Kananaskis

Both of these popular family-friendly hiking trails are excellent summer trails, but come winter they both have serious avalanche risk.

The Emerald Lake Loop trail goes right through the avalanche path. In the winter, there are several avalanche warning signs situated at Emerald Lake.

The following two photos are of Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park in summer and winter.

The summer photo shows the avalanche path that crosses the north shore of the trail.

The winter photo clearly shows that in the winter this trail goes through an active avalanche path.

The following two pictures are of Warspite Lake, on the Mt. Black Prince, Kananaski.

The Mt. Black Prince hiking trail has exploded with summer visitors. In the winter, It is an easy snowshoe, but TO THE LAKE ONLY. Don’t go past the lake, like we did in the winter picture.

Disclaimer: The winter photo was taken in 2014, before I had taken my Avalanche Skills Training 1 course. We blindly followed snowshoe tracks past the lake. Afterall, there wasn’t an avalanche warning sign on the trail, so it must be okay, right? Wrong!

I quickly realized that we were in avalanche terrain and we turned around. My boys were “bummed” because the snow was SO deep, and they really wanted to build some forts and play in it – safety first though! Had I been avalanche aware, I would of done my research prior to this snowshoe. We were lucky!

Plan on recreating in the mountains in the winter?

I highly recommend you become familiar with the Avalanche Canada website and take the Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 Course

I took the Avalanche Skills Training course as part of my winter guide designation.

My big takeaways from this course were:

  1. When conditions are right, avalanches CAN occur on Simple Class 1 front country winter trails.
  2. Not all trails with avalanche risk are signed as such.
  3. I have a low tolerance for risk, and don’t foresee myself ever doing backcountry winter travel.
  4. My teenagers NEED to take this course.

Here is a summary of what I learned from the AST 1 Course.

DISCLAIMER: The information below does not replace taking an Avalanche Skills Training course.  Hopefully, it encourages you to take one.

A. How To Identify Avalanche Terrain 

“Avalanches can happen anywhere where the terrain is steep enough. In other words, once a slope is larger than 10m x 10m (about the size of a tennis court), it could have enough snow on it to create an avalanche that’s dangerous to a person.” – Avalanche Canada.

The following graphics, courtesy of Avalanche Canada, show where and how avalanches can happen on different terrain.

Steep Slopes: Most avalanches happen on slopes between 30- 45 degrees.

Photo: permission given by Avalanche Canada

Convex Slopes

Convex rolls on a slope are trigger points (places where avalanches are most likely to start). Hikers can be at risk when directly under these rolls.

Photo: permission given by Avalanche Canada

Cornices

Cornices are overhanging masses of hardened snow at the edge of a mountain precipice. They are unstable and should be avoided, whether you are on the ridge, or below it. 

photo: permission given by Avalanche Canada

Existing Avalanche Paths are obvious signs that avalanches can occur in a given area

Those areas that look like “ski runs” down the mountain sides are avalanche paths. Avalanches are more likely to reoccur on these paths. 

In a forested area, avalanche paths are identified by the openings in the trees. In the alpine, avalanche paths are identified by slope, steepness and shape. Most importantly, know that even if you are on low-angle or flat terrain, it’s possible there are avalanche slopes above you.  

In this photo, you can see the avalanche paths that are starting in the alpine and running down into the tree line. President Range, Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park

B. Be aware of and able to identify the three different classes of avalanche terrain

The Description, Class and Terrain Criteria are from Parks Canada. In addition, I included Popular Summer Trails in the table below and the corresponding Avalanche Terrain.

You can read more about the Parks Canada avalanche terrain ratings here.

DescriptionClassTerrain CriteriaPopular Summer Trails and the corresponding Avalanche Terrain. 
Simple 1  Exposure to low angle or primarily forested terrain. Some forest openings may involve the runout zones of infrequent avalanches. Many options to reduce or eliminate exposure. No glacier travel. 

Here is a detailed list of Simple Class 1 Parks Canada Hikes
Lake Louise Shoreline & Lake Agnes Teahouse Trail
Located in Banff National park
ChallengingExposure to well defined avalanche paths, starting zones or terrain traps; options exist to reduce or eliminate exposure with careful route finding. Glacier travel is straightforward but crevasse hazards may exist.

Here is a detailed list of Challenging Class 2 Parks Canada Hikes
Parker Ridge,
Located in Banff National Park on the Icefields Parkway
ComplexExposure to multiple overlapping avalanche paths or large expanses of steep, open terrain; multiple avalanche starting zones and terrain traps below; minimal options to reduce exposure. Complicated glacier travel with extensive crevasse bands or icefalls.

Here is a detailed list of Complex Class 3 Park Canada Hikes
Stanley Glacier 
Located in Kootenay National Park

C. Where to Find and Read the Avalanche Forecasts

The avalanche forecast tells you how likely avalanches might be on a specific day in a particular area. The forecast is based on the snowpack and the weather. (source: Avalanche Canada)

Forecasts are produced by Avalanche Canada, Parks Canada and Kananaskis Country forecasters and posted on the Avalanche Canada website and are accessible to everyone. 

an example of an avalanche forecast posted on Avalanche Canada.

D. Understand Winter and Avalanche Conditions

The following factors all impact the stability of the snowpack.  Living in the mountains, I have experienced all of these factors within 72 hours.

  • Heavy snowfall
  • Wind 
  • Strong sunshine 
  • Warm temperatures 
  • Rain

E. Identify Unstable Snowpacks

The following are warning signs that the snowpack is unstable and a good indicator that avalanches may occur: 

  • Signs of recent avalanches 
  • Shooting cracks in the snow when you step onto it
  • A “whumpf” sound when stepping on snow 
The avalanche instructor couldn’t have planned this better. We were on a front country trail in Kananaskis. A small section of snow had slid on a short slope. Now imagine if this was a steeper slope, we all would have been in an avalanche.

F. Learn How to use Essential Avalanche Safety Gear: Transceiver, Probe and Shovel

  • All three of these items are “must-haves” if you venture into any Avalanche Terrain or the backcountry.  
  • Every person in your party should carry, know how to use these tools and should have taken an avalanche safety course.
Practising with the transceiver.

G. Not all trails with Avalanche Risk Have Posted Avalanche Signs

Sherbrooke Lake, in Yoho National Park, is a prime example of a trail that has serious avalanche terrain, yet there is no avalanche signage to indicating that at the start of the trailhead.

photo of a lady snowshoeing at Sherbrooke Lake, Yoho National Park
Sherbrooke Lake. Snowshoe to the lake only. DO NOT continue along the shoreline UNLESS you and all members of your hiking party have appropriate avalanche gear.
a group of people reading an avalanche warning sign
Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park
This group of cross-country skiers are planning a safe route.

To Summarize

  • Under certain conditions, trails in Simple Class 1 terrain can experience an avalanche.
  • Check the avalanche forecast before you head out. Subsequently, only venture out on front country trails when the forecast is green.
  • Check the weather forecast for the area and trails you want to visit before you travel to the destination. Always check the weather and again in the morning before you leave.
  • Always have a Plan B.
  • Adults should take the Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course.
  • Consider signing up your youth or teen for an avalanche safety course. Avalanche Canada offers snow safety education to schools.
  • Check trail conditions for Parks Canada, Trail conditions at Parks Canada – Plan your visit, and for Kananaskis at Trail Reports – Kananaskis Country.
  • Attend an Avalanche Awareness Day event offered by both Parks Canada and Alberta Parks.
  • Watch the free Avalanche Canada educational tutorials on their website.

DON’T GO ONTO MOUNTAIN TRAILS IF THE AVALANCHE DANGER IS RATED HIGH OR EXTREME.

I cannot emphasize this enough.

When the danger is rated EXTREME avalanches can widen existing avalanche pathways, create new runout zones and extend existing runout zones that may cross over sections of a trail typically considered low avalanche risk. 

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