October 14, 2016
By BCA Sled Ambassador Curtis Pawliuk
Sledding and ski touring are two very similar ways to enjoy the Cariboo backcountry with one major difference; the terrain that we’re able to cover in a single day on a snowmobile is far greater. When covering such large distances—and reaching such remote terrain by sled—it’s even more important not to make mistakes.
In this ambitious un-epic adventure, we avoided an epic situation by paying attention to the snowpack around us, including an impressive avalanche that we triggered remotely.
The snowmobiles of today allow almost limitless exploration of complex mountain terrain by anyone with the skills to operate it. Often when traveling on a snowmobile, one has to make far more decisions in a single day than for example on a touring mission. On any given ride, I can encounter below tree line, tree line, alpine, north, south, east, and west all within a matter of minutes or very few hours and good decisions are a necessity.
Our goal for this spring day was a piece of far-off terrain in a remote location in the Cariboo Mountain range south of Valemount, British Columbia. We had a good group of riders; experienced, practiced and capable of handling themselves in this type of terrain. We knew each other well and had completed most of this route before, although today was the day we had been waiting for.
The route would be over 13km of very advanced, high country sledding and navigation through some very large terrain with the intent of reaching a piece of terrain way in the back end that we had viewed on Google Earth, yet never had the opportunity to reach.
The weather was perfect for this type of adventure. A nice high-pressure system had set in and we had clear skies for days. This route demanded good visibility to navigate the ridges and mountaintops safely. The previous week was a mix of weather including clear skies, moderate winds and the odd spell of low pressure resulting in small infrequent snowfalls. Our intent was to take advantage of the weather and push farther than we had ever before.
This is a true spring trip. A mid-winter Cariboo Mountain snowpack consisting of a range of persistent weak layers that had been dormant for a while, yet suspect to re-awake at any time. The most recent was a surface hoar layer down about 40cms on the northerly aspects. It was widespread when created but we had not seen any activity or evidence on the solar aspects. We assumed that it was wiped away by the prior moderate winds and or spring mid day sun.
We were able to travel over 13km deep into the Cariboo backcountry using ridge tops and good travel techniques to try to reach our intended destination. Our last crux of the trip was crossing a large south-facing slope, with a “soap dish” style feature at the bottom (your typical terrain trap). It was early enough in the day that we were comfortable crossing this feature as long as we all agreed to get in, have a round of high fives, a few minutes of throttle time in the fresh open terrain and then get out before the afternoon sun got too warm.
As I worked my way up to the crux feature, using the low angle terrain to gain elevation and travel toward the end of the valley, I remote triggered a large size 2/2.5 slab from below. The slab pulled away from a large 35-degree south facing aspect. The fracture was approximately 200m upslope from route below. I was out of harm’s way and saw the slab fracture, although it did catch me by surprise.
What did we miss? It turns out that the surface hoar (while primarily decomposed) was reactive in the steeper, south facing terrain, even on this very solar aspect. A quick test profile near the site, showed beyond hard results in compression tests although a strong cohesive slab on top and this thin layer along with the right slope had just that perfect recipe.
Needless to say, it was a quick unanimous decision to scrap our plans to travel through the even steeper and more exposed feature that was our intended goal and make the smart choice to come back and try to reach our destination another day. This good decision making led to another safe, #unepicadventures day.
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Curtis Pawliuk is a BCA sled ambassador from Valemount, BC, where he operates Frozen Pirate Snow Services, a leader in Canadian avalanche education, and manages VARDA, the Valemount Area Recreation Development Association. Valemount, B.C. is considered one of the best snowmobiling areas on the planet. Cold temperatures and heavy snowfall equate to plenty of deep-pow bluebird days. Valemount has more bluebird days, in fact, than any other mountain snowmobiling destination in B.C. Contact Curtis to plan a great ride when you are in the area.