Solar radiation causes greater stress within the snowpack, potentially resulting in avalanches. Photo by Mark Bender

COLUMN: March is a great time to be on the slopes, but it’s also the deadliest

Longer, sunnier days are one of the reasons why March has the most avalanche fatalities

Welcome to The Start Zone by Avalanche Canada, the national public avalanche safety organization.

We publish daily avalanche forecasts for much of western Canada, coordinate the Avalanche Canada Training program, and host outreach events across the country, from Newfoundland and Labrador to the Yukon. In this bi-weekly feature, we’ll be exploring various topics relating to avalanches and winter backcountry recreation.

Over the past couple of decades, winter backcountry recreation has exploded, from skiers and snowboarders leaving the resort boundary, to snowmobilers venturing deep into the mountains, and snowshoers heading out for winter walks on popular summer trails. Experienced riders are pushing into bigger terrain, while newcomers might not even be aware of the avalanche problem. We want people to enjoy our magical winter backcountry, but, most importantly, we want them to come home safely.

This is a great time of the year to be in the backcountry but, statistically speaking, it’s also the most dangerous. March is known for many things – longer days, warmer sunshine and, unfortunately, the highest number of avalanche deaths.

One of the factors causing the spike is the simple fact that more people get out into the mountains when the conditions are spring-like. Plus, the Easter long weekend often falls in March, a holiday famous for spurring a mass exodus from the city.

Longer days also mean the opportunity to spend more time on the snow, and often more time spent in avalanche terrain. It’s a risk-management truism that the longer you are exposed to a risk, the greater your chances of one day being caught. Like all truisms, it’s an over-simplification that doesn’t account for the fact that few professionals – many of whom spend well over 100 days a season on the snow – are killed in avalanches. However, it does bear considering when you’re pushing for that last run in the fading light of a great day.

Warmer days also have an effect on the snow, melting the surface and causing greater stress within the snowpack. If it still has suspect layers from earlier in the winter, the warmth from the sun should be an important factor in your decision-making. It’s especially important when you are exposed to slopes far above, which may be getting warmed while you’re still in the cold and not yet thinking about the sun’s effect.

Generally speaking, the snowpack in March is in transition from winter to spring. That means you may find winter conditions in the earlier part of the day – cold, dry snow if you’re lucky – but much different conditions by the afternoon. You need to assess the slopes carefully as the sun is on them, and just because you were there all morning, doesn’t mean you can continue in the same place all afternoon.

In short, the avalanche hazard can climb rapidly this time of year, within a few hours, because of the sun. One sure indicator of solar radiation is when snowballs start to release on their own. They often acquire a “cinnamon roll” look, as they pick up snow on their descent down the hill. Be mindful as the sun tracks across the sky and check the bulletin at avalanche.ca before you head out.

Avalanche Canada is a non-government, not-for-profit organization dedicated to public avalanche safety, based in Revelstoke, B.C.

READ MORE: Experts call for ice climbers to wear avalanche safety gear in the mountains

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Avalanche

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Solar radiation can result in wet avalanches, particularly in rocky areas, where the snowpack might be thinner. Photo by Grant Helgeson

A snowmobiler enjoys the mountains in March 2019. Long, sunny days bring more people into the backcountry, but they can also impact the snowpack. Photo by Mike Conlan

Just Posted

Comox Valley are investigating a break and enter at a store on Denman Island. File photo
Thief steals Denman Island store’s charity jar

Comox Valey RCMP also looking for witnesses to Dove Creek injury

Former 19 Wing Commander Mike Atkins is the new CEO of the Comox Valley Airport. Photo submitted
Comox Valley Airport Commission announces new CEO

Alex Robertson is serving as acting CEO since Fred Bigelow’s departure for medical leave last year

A group gathers for a guided story walk at the Comox Valley Art Gallery plaza. Scott Stanfield photo
Comox Valley arts-based project takes honest look at overdose crisis

The Comox Valley Art Gallery, and AVI Health and Community Services are… Continue reading

The Comox Valley campus of North Island Hospital. File photo
Comox-Strathcona still on track to pay down new hospital debt

Reserves for capital projects should increase over annual debt in 2023-24

The Baynes Sound Connector cable ferry. Black Press file photo
Baynes Sound Connector delayed due to emergency call

Paddleboarder was in distress near Union Bay Thursday

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

Chastity Davis-Alphonse took the time to vote on Oct. 21. B.C’s general Election Day is Saturday, Oct. 24. (Chastity Davis-Alphonse Facebook photo)
B.C. reconciliation advocate encourages Indigenous women to vote in provincial election

Through the power of voice and education Chastity Davis-Alphonse is hopeful for change

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau arrives to announce her party’s election platform in New Westminster, B.C., on October 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green party says it’s raised nearly $835,000 in 38 days

NDP Leader John Horgan is holding his final virtual campaign event

Most Read