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Raising awareness of the danger of avalanche

(March 23, 2000, Gazette)

Keith Nicol, Grenfell environmental science instructor, examines a block of snow that has been sheared.

Grenfell photo

By Pamela Gill

Keith Nicol is spreading the word about the dangers of avalanches.

The environmental studies instructor at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College said most people in Newfoundland are unaware of the hazards that avalanches pose.

“What it comes down to is that we simply don’t know how frequently avalanches occur,” he said.

But the sporadic nature of avalanches here certainly doesn’t diminish the threat they pose to human life.

According to information provided by the Canadian Avalanche Association, 35 people in this province have died as the result of avalanches, the most deadly geological hazard affecting Newfoundland and Labrador. Fatal avalanches have occurred in southern Labrador, as well as on the Northern Peninsula, in the Bay of Islands area on the Baie Verte and Avalon Peninsulas. Another 44 people have been injured. Most people killed or injured were in their homes when the avalanches struck.

In fact, more people have died in their homes in this province due to avalanches than in any other part of Canada.

In recent years, people engaged in recreational activities are being caught and killed – a fact that further emphasizes the need for avalanche training.

“And in the last few weeks many avalanches have run in areas where people commonly ski and snowboard near Corner Brook,” said Mr. Nicol. “We’ve just been lucky so far this winter.”

The dangers of avalanches was the subject of a series of courses held by the Canadian Avalanche Association on the west coast earlier this month, said Mr. Nicol. Ski touring guides and winter trip leaders attended the first course in Woody Point, a community within the boundaries of Gros Morne National Park. Snowmobile guides and trip leaders headed to the Lewis Hills just outside of Corner Brook for the second course, and the third course was held in the Blomidon Mountains in the Bay of Islands for search and rescue managers and personnel as well as police.

Earlier this winter, Mr. Nicol took an eight-day level two ava-lanche course based in Golden, B.C. to enable him to teach basic avalanche courses in this province.

Mr. Nicol incorporates ava-lanche training in the outdoor pursuits component of his environmental courses at Grenfell. He teaches students such techniques as noting snow conditions, choosing routes that are less likely to cause avalanches and digging through snow layers to observe the strengths and weaknesses of areas to be trekked over.

“With more avalanche awareness, hopefully we will not repeat the high number of deaths that have occurred in Western Canada over the past few years,” said Mr. Nicol.