Understanding our passion

A terrain-rating project has introduced avalanche professionals to the sport of snowmobiling—now they’re hooked

by Curtis Pawliuk

A man waves from the bottom of a snowy hill in around Valemount, BC.
Photo courtesy Valemount Area Recreation Development Association Avalanche professional Matt Peter learns how to handle a sled in the exceptional terrain around Valemount.

The last two winter seasons, I’ve had the opportunity to ride with some amazing avalanche professionals in the McBride-Valemount-Blue River corridor as they complete ATES Terrain Ratings for the managed snowmobile areas within B.C.

What is ATES? Introduced in 2004, the Parks Canada Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) is now an industry-standard terrain-rating system for non-commercial recreation areas. The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) website calls ATES “an effective tool to help amateur recreationists quantify exposure to avalanche terrain threatening travel routes, choose trips that are appropriate for the current conditions, and avoid avalanche accidents.”

Many maps, guidebooks, trip-planning websites and organizations use the ATES system’s “Simple, Challenging and Complex” rating scheme to identify terrain. ATES ratings have been integrated into the CAC’s public avalanche warning service program and the Avaluator 2.0 Trip Planner to provide guidance for public recreation in avalanche terrain.

While the avalanche professionals who were rating terrain had extensive and vast knowledge of the backcountry, guiding and snow science, they may not have had many previous opportunities to enjoy the backcountry on snowmobiles. This opportunity created a great shared learning environment for me (an aspiring avalanche professional) and the avalanche professionals from the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA), who learned some of the skills needed to operate a snowmobile in a mountain environment.

Sledders may take for granted the noise, blue haze and busy atmosphere of a popular staging area or a packed alpine cabin at lunchtime, but for a newbie, it may be a bit of a spectacle. I still remember seeing the look of awe in Matt Peter’s eyes as we unloaded the sleds in the Allen Creek staging area while preparing for Day 1 of the 10-day project, as massive four-by-four rigs roared into the snow-filled parking area. Over the 10 days, this project was full of spills, rolls and a few damaged trees, although we did turn Matt into quite a respectable sledder. He has even asked me to help him hunt down a snowmobile.

“My normal vehicle to enjoy winter’s bounty is a helicopter and a pair of skis,” said Matt. “Last year I had the opportunity to trade in the rotors for a long track to work on the Canadian Avalanche Centre ATES project. The only problem was, I had never ridden a sled. Fortune had it that Curtis (Pawliuk) was there to put me through the paces so I could get to all the places necessary for the project. We did a lot of digging, but even more smiling and laughing. It was so much fun to experience snow in a new way!”

In the next opportunity, I had the pleasure of riding with Mark Bender, another CAA avalanche professional, whom I had just met the night before. We began our experience together with me slipping backwards 30 m.p.h. down a trail icy from the previous night’s rain/freeze. OK, time to change plans! We tiptoed back down the ice and adjusted our itinerary. This was the first event of a great two days of mutual instruction—he schooled me on avalanche science, and I like to think I taught him a thing or two that he can bring along on his next snowmobiling experience.

I love introducing new people to our sport, especially individuals who already have a love for snow. After spending several days on sleds, I can assure you that these two guys, who each have a vast experience in mountain terrain, now have a new way of looking at sledding that they may never have realized without our two worlds coming together for a mutual purpose.

For more info on Valemount and its snowmobiling opportunities please visit www.visitvalemount.ca or www.valemountrecdevelopment.com.

Please read more about CAA’s ATES program and general avalanche safety.

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