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

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

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

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

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

The CVRD introduces new app to contact residents during emergencies, a tool that chairman Aaron Stone says will improve communications. (File photo)
CVRD launches new app to spread information during emergencies

Cowichan Alert is a free app that can be downloaded onto smartphones, computers

The Malahat SkyWalk will open to visitors in July 2021. (Malahat SkyWalk photo)
Malahat SkyWalk will open to visitors this July

Highly anticipated attraction will take guests 250m above sea level

FILE PHOTO
Editorial: Time to roll up our sleeves and pitch in

They’re just not quite sure they want to get a vaccine — yet

Brian Thacker, owner of Cowichan Bay’s Pacific Industrial & Marine, is disappointed the province didn’t provide funding for a proposal from PIM, in partnership with the Cowichan Tribes, to remove derelict boats from local waters. (File photo)
Application for funding to remove derelict vessels in Cowichan area fails

Province announced $4.5 million for new program on April 28

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Victoria police photo of suspected cat thief was just a woman with her own cat

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
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

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent sails past a iceberg in Lancaster Sound, Friday, July 11, 2008. The federal government is expected to end nearly two years of mystery today and reveal its plan to build a new, long overdue heavy icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver, Quebec shipyards to each get new heavy icebreaker, cost remains a mystery

Vancouver’s Seaspan Shipyards and Quebec-based Chantier Davie will each build an icebreaker for the coast guard

Findings indicate a culture of racism, misogyny and bullying has gripped the game with 64 per cent of people involved saying players bully others outside of the rink. (Pixabay)
Misogyny, racism and bullying prevalent across Canadian youth hockey, survey finds

56% of youth hockey players and coaches say disrespect to women is a problem in Canada’s sport

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Hospital investigating whether Alberta woman who died after AstraZeneca shot was turned away

Woman was taken off life support 12 days after getting vaccine

People line up for COVID-19 vaccination at a drop-in clinic at Cloverdale Recreation Centre on Wednesday, April 27, 2021. Public health officials have focused efforts on the Fraser Health region. (Aaron Hinks/Peace Arch News)
B.C. reports first vaccine-induced blood clot; 684 new COVID cases Thursday

Two million vaccine doses reached, hospital cases down

Allayah Yoli Thomas had recently turned 12 years old when she died of a suspected drug overdose April 15. (Courtesy of Adriana Londono)
Suspected overdose death of Vancouver Island 12 year old speaks to lack of supports

Allayah Yoli Thomas was found dead by her friend the morning of April 15

Most Read