Michelle Christensen follows a routine before she heads to the backcountry for a day of skiing. It’s a safety routine, and it starts in her living room.
She checks the weather and road forecasts, and logs into the Avalanche Canada website for trip reports — where skiers post conditions to a forum, like the Yukon hiking website. When the Yukon’s avalanche forecast is up and running in February, she’ll check that, too.
She says, “Like, if the roads are closed, the wind is blowing 60 kilometres an hour, and it just dumped 50 centimetres, I won’t be going.”
But if conditions are more favourable, she proceeds with her routine by checking the batteries in her transceiver — a device worn by skiers so they can be tracked in case they are buried in an avalanche. She checks her probe and shovel — tools every skier should carry in case they have to dig someone out of an avalanche.
Christensen then gets friends together, and tells someone who’s staying home where they’re going. As she’s driving to the pass, she watches for slides and other signs of recent sketchy conditions. Upon arrival she decides where to ski based on conditions, like the direction of the wind.
“ If conditions are bad you can always go for a tour” — which means keeping to flat, protected areas, and not going down any slopes.
Christensen can always find a way to get into the mountains once she’s there, but she maintains that safety is a central aspect to backcountry skiing.
Christensen grew up skiing, but it was only when she moved to the Yukon 12 years ago that she really started touring, because in the Yukon, “the only place to ski is the backcountry.”
The first thing she did when she became interested in touring was to take an avalanche course, and she recommends any one thinking of getting into the lifestyle do the same.
Skiing is what makes Christensen tick, “I just feel really alive when I’m out there, having to make decisions. It’s just you and the mountains. It fills me up.”
“ That and hockey.”
She laughs. “And my kids and family.”
“ There’s nothing like skiing down the side of a mountain in powder.”
She wants other people to experience the same feeling, but she wants them to do it right.
Christensen was hired on to the Yukon Avalanche Association, as its outreach coordinator, and she’s organizing an Avalanche Awareness day. It’s on January 17 at Mount Sima.
There will be people from the avalanche association, Parks Canada and the Canadian Ski Patrol on hand to answer questions. There will be a transceiver search, and a demonstration by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association. There will be cheap food, music, and talks from avalanche forecasters.
Christensen says the idea is to be visible and accessible to “people who don’t yet backcountry ski. If they see us they might remember what they need to be safe.”
“ I think there are people out there who go out without a probe, beacon or shovel. They put themselves at risk, and other people.”
Christensen thinks they probably know people who go out and have always been okay; they don’t think it can happen to them. But she says that avalanches are part of her experience as a skier — “I’ve never had to dig anyone out, thank God ” — she knocks on wood, “but if you’ve got mountains and snow you’ve got avalanches, at some point, with the right weather and conditions.”
Ski touring is a whole new world, and it is intimidating. There’s lots of gear, and lots of knowledge required. And it’s important to have a crew to ski with. Christensen hopes the casual, fun nature of the Avalanche Awareness day will make people comfortable to approach the experts who will be on site. They can ask questions, find out how to sign up for courses, and which websites to check for conditions and maps.
Ultimately, Christensen says, “if you’re out there, you need to know where you are and what you’re doing.”