Q & A with ACMG certified guide Olivia Sofer
By Jane Marshall
There is both risk and beauty awaiting those who venture into the mountains in winter. Whether you’re snowshoeing, nordic skiing or backcountry skiing, taking the Avalanche Skills Training Course (AST) is a great way to reduce your risk of avalanche danger.
We’re happy to feature ACMG certified guide Olivia Sofer of Wildtrips Adventure Tours as she offers wise winter words. Not only is Olivia a skilled mountain woman and guide, she’s also taught the AST 1 course to me and 5 of my family members, including my 16 year old son Ben.
Olivia has owned and operated Wildtrips Adventure Tours since 1997.
Snow Safety Q & A
Jane: What are some of the risks people face when they participate in winter activities in the mountains?
Olivia: There are various risks when one goes into the mountains. Some are inherent risks and others are within our control. The best way to reduce risk in winter activities is to reduce exposure to overhead hazards and stay away from avalanche terrain unless you have some good knowledge from a course or have a hired industry professional to guide you. There are many ACMG guides available or companies out there who provide guiding services.
Jane: How do you know if you’re traveling in avalanche terrain? What should you look out for?
Olivia: If there’s a continuous incline equal to or greater than the average incline of a flight of stairs, so 25 degrees or more, that rises in a continuous slope above you, then you’re in avalanche terrain. Of course being that there’s snow on the slope with an average depth of 50cm or more. Whether you’re in the trees or not, a slope with snow on it creates avalanche terrain.
Jane: What are some common mistakes people make when skiing or snowshoeing in avalanche terrain?
Olivia: Failing to recognize the hazards that surround them, failing to recognize snow conditions for that location and at that time and not being aware of their surroundings enough to know if they are in avalanche terrain or not. Not being prepared in the clothing they wear and their packs.
Jane: Why is it important to take an avalanche skills training course?
An AST course will give you the basic knowledge and tools for helping you travel in and around avalanche terrain. It will help you learn how to be prepared and where to get more information to make your trip fun and safe.
Jane: What types of things do people learn in an AST 1 course? Do you need to be really experienced to take it?
Olivia: The course takes 2 days. The first day is typically indoors and covers the theory needed to understand the industry lingo, snowpack, how to read terrain, safety aspects and information gathering knowledge. The course is an introductory course so no experience is necessary.
Jane: Minimum age to take the course?
Jane: What key gear items should people have in their pack?
Olivia: People should always carry navigation tools, a communication device that works, clothing that can be layered for warmth, warm mitts or gloves, the right footwear (big waterproof, warm snow boots for snowshoeing), first aid kit, repair kit, headlamp, lighter, mini tarp, avalanche gear and know how to use it (probe, shovel, transceiver), sunglasses and goggles, food, water and warm drinks that hydrate, and have a good plan of where to go and what the terrain is like so you don’t get into trouble.
Jane: What important websites or apps can people use?
Check the weather at Environment Canada or via links on Avalanche Canada. Also check the avalanche bulletin for the area you are going in. Recent reports of people who’ve been out are also available on the MIN (Mountain Information Network) via avalanche.ca or MCR (Mountain Conditions Report) via the acmg.ca website.
Mountain Information Network: https://www.avalanche.ca/mountain-information-network
Jane: Any other safety tips to help people enjoy the mountains in winter wisely?
Olivia: Always have a plan A, B and C and leave it with a responsible person who can report you missing should you not return on time. Be prepared! It’s always best to start trips into the winter environment with someone who knows more than you. You can join the Alpine Club of Canada for free trips within your section, you can hire a guide, and you can seek out individuals or trips that are sponsored via companies.
To conclude, I’d like to say that the old adage that “ignorance is bliss” should not apply in the mountains. There have been more and more people hitting the mountains in the last few years. Due to ease of access to communication devices like a spot, for example, more people use that as a way out of a personal mess. This has put more onus on our public safety for rescue which does not always occur when you need it most — which is in minutes in the backcountry. Be responsible. It’s your job to get informed and have fun safely. Do not become a statistic!
Book Olivia Sofer as a guide, or to teach you AST 1 or AST 2