Positive reinforcement: Avalanche learning coming to Valemount

by Andru McCracken


Darryl Polyk spends a lot of time in the backcountry and although he has never triggered an avalanche, he knows it isn’t because he’s an avalanche expert.

“It’s probably luck as much as anything else,” said Polyk. “I could have been five feet from triggering something.”

Polyk said that one of the key ingredients in avalanche accidents is a sense of overconfidence that develops because of past successes in avalanche terrain.

“There is a tonne of positive reinforcement,” he said.

Positive reinforcement sounds like a good thing, but it is a common killer in the backcountry. In his book ‘Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain,’ author Bruce Tremper defines positive reinforcement like this:

“You go out into avalanche terrain, nothing happens. You go out again, nothing happens. You go out again and again and again; still no avalanches. But… any particular avalanche slope is stable 95% of the time. You automatically get a nineteen-out-of-twenty success rate.”

“Thus, nearly everyone mistakes luck for skill.”

Polyk is hip to the threat and is a fan of greater education, and that’s why he organized a Backcountry Avalanche Workshop for skiers and sledders on Thursday, January 17 at the high school auditorium.

The workshop will bring Avalanche Canada’s Grant Helgeson, an avalanche forecaster; and Bruce Strand the snowmobile coordinator to Valemount.

Curtis Pawliuk, manager of VARDA (Valemount and Area Recreation Development Association), applauded Polyk’s work to bring the workshop to town.

“Backcountry recreation use has been growing in Valemount; it’s the core reason Valemount is growing,” he said.

Pawliuk said that both the sledding community and non-motorized backcountry recreationalists face similar challenges and are adapting.

“Avalanche hazards are a part of life and awareness is the key,” he said.

Pawliuk said more and more recreationalists are getting training.

“We’re making huge steps forward,” he said.

A recent announcement means more support for avalanche education as well.

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s fall economic statement Nov 21 included a one-time endowment of $25 million to Avalanche Canada.

Avalanche Canada is non-profit and non-government; it was established in 2004 to be the national public avalanche safety organization which provides daily public avalanche forecasts, avalanche safety education and snow safety research.

Did you know the Goat could not operate without people buying the newspaper? Subscribe today!