Death by Snowshoe

I’m working on an article on the mechanisms by which snowshoers near Vancouver tend to get in trouble (injury and death).

The summary is this: snowshoers tend to have slip-and-fall injuries on hard snow during periods of sunny weather either in the spring or during midwinter Arctic high pressure or Arctic outflow conditions. the hard snow in the spring is caused by melt-freeze cycles, the hard snow in mid-winter is caused by warm fronts bringing rain to the top of the local mountains, followed by cold weather which freezes a thick ice crust into the snow.

I’ve been working on this article since last year, but given the death on the north shore this weekend (first article below), I figure a warning can’t wait. Every single year I’ve been a SAR volunteer there’s been an injury or death directly attributable to a snowshoer (or hiker) falling on hard snow.
My article will go into more detail on the causes and avoidance of this kind of incident. Below are a quick selection of news incidents from the past few years:

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4 comments on “Death by Snowshoe
  1. Anonymous says:

    Mike,

    For the most part, snowshoers lack snow sense. They also lack mountaineering sense but that doesn't usually hurt them too badly since the method of transportation is so limiting they can't get far unless conditions are this hard-packed.

    Is there opportunity for manufacturers, retailers etc to get onto education?

    —— Lee Lau

  2. Tom Zajac says:

    Mike, do you think part of the problem is the fact that the subject's entire purpose of being out there is to "go snowshoeing." Unlike general mountaineering where the mode of transportation is not the objective. These people bought snowshoes and they want to use them during good weather. No evaluation of whether snowshoes are actually needed is made. These people aren't just out for a hike in the snow, carrying snowshoes in case conditions require their use. They are their to walk on snow with special footwear that they just dropped $150 on.

    Unlike skiers who regardless of mountain "snow sense" from a safety perspective, know icy sideslopes make crappy ski conditions. As a result they stick moderate angles. Kind of the opposite of snowshoers in avalanches where high avi conditions/terrain make for difficult shoeing terrain. Making the correct choice by accident not good mountain sense.

  3. Lee; to clarify, I'm not certain that this is a problem anywhere else but the local coast mountains. The scenario is that people drive to the TOP of the mountain to go snowshoeing; these tops are defined by the weather regimes described, and also by the classic "U" shaped, glacier carved valleys of the coast.

    These are precisely the same qualities that make for so many SAR calls in the rest of the year: people hiking and skiing so close to Vancouver that they can smell the coffee think that if they head downhill they'll arrive at the doorstep of a Starbucks. Instead they end up in a gulley or off a cliff.

    As far as snow sense, I'm not sure that the skiers/boarders we rescue have any more sense. It's also not really a matter of distance, as the Theta Lake incident shows, even 1km from the top of a lift can result in a two free nights in a snow cave with free morphine.

    I'm not certain if the manufacturers could/should/will get involved. Very few ski manufacturers do (G3 excepted).

  4. Tom; I've seen that "snowshoing for the purpose of…" style hiker many times on all three local mountains; they've got the gear and they're damn well going to use it weather they need to or not.

    I agree, what happens is that they quickly realize that the trail is so pounded down that the snowshoes are not required; in order to feel like they are necessary, they have to leave the trail.

    Another factor is the sense of freedom that moving over snow gives you; there's no bush or undergrowth to push through, just a white surface to travel on.

    However, I think there's more to the effect of steep snow that causes these accidents that I will get to when I publish my next article.

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