Nelson students enrolled in the ATLAS outdoor education program relax during a backcountry trip in early 2022. School District 8 is moving the avalanche training part of the program out of what it deems is dangerous terrain. Photo: Sam Kitch

Nelson students enrolled in the ATLAS outdoor education program relax during a backcountry trip in early 2022. School District 8 is moving the avalanche training part of the program out of what it deems is dangerous terrain. Photo: Sam Kitch

Changes to Nelson high school’s avalanche training course criticized

The district says moving the course out of dangerous terrain complies with WorkSafeBC regulations

Graduates of a popular L.V. Rogers outdoor education program say the district’s move to change the course’s avalanche training will ruin it for future students.

School District 8 announced Nov. 25 that the Adventure, Tourism, Leadership and Safety course, more commonly known as ATLAS, will move the location of its avalanche safety component out of the backcountry in order to comply with WorkSafeBC regulations.

The district added it consulted with WorkSafeBC, the B.C. Schools Protection Program and education lawyers experienced with outdoor education before making the change.

Superintendent Trish Smillie said the program will ostensibly remain the same despite the update to its field trip procedures. Backcountry touring, she said, will remain in ATLAS even if the avalanche safety courses happen to be held within the bounds of Whitewater Ski Resort.

“The avalanche training still goes on. They’re just changing locations. And so for those two days, they’ll just be in an area that’s avalanche controlled.”

The ATLAS program, founded in 2006 by LVR teacher Graeme Marshall, teaches backcountry navigation, ski and snowboard touring, first aid, CPR and outdoor survival skills to Grade 12 students from January to June.

The course provides 16 credits toward graduation and includes three different Avalanche Canada certifications.

Marshall declined to comment when contacted by the Nelson Star. He instructed the course last year, but a job posting on the SD8 website advertises an opening for a full-time ATLAS instructor. Asked if Marshall will remain on as the program’s instructor, Smillie said she can’t comment on personnel issues.

Backcountry avalanches are common in the West Kootenay. Avalanche Canada said Thursday there was “considerable” avalanche danger for the area surrounding Nelson, while travel in avalanche terrain wasn’t recommended for nearby Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park and Valhalla Provincial Park.

But that, according to Sam Kitch, is exactly why the training should be held in avalanche terrain.

Kitch graduated from LVR last summer after a semester with the ATLAS program. He thinks moving the safety training out of avalanche terrain undermines the benefits of the course.

“Say you go out into the backcountry to do avalanche training, and you go to a flat field where there’s no avalanche danger. You don’t really get much more learning from that than you would sitting in a classroom hearing about it,” said Kitch.

“The whole teaching part of ATLAS is that you are out experiencing these things that you are learning about, and that’s what makes it safe.”

Kitch also said he thinks the district misunderstands the training, which isn’t limited to just two dedicated days but is ongoing during the ski season that runs from January to April.

ATLAS alumna Adonia Martineau agrees with Kitch. The training, she said, teaches students to take outdoor safety seriously. Martineau, who graduated in 2021, added she now avoids backcountry touring with people who haven’t completed a similar program.

“I respect the power of nature so much more. I think it’s really easy to not quite realize how intense that force is. So I actually gained so much respect for avalanches and I think I ended up walking out of the program way more cautious than I was when I went into it.”

Kitch and Martineau also each stressed the importance of Marshall to the program. The teacher made his students feel safe while also being able to show firsthand how to navigate avalanche terrain.

“I think that not allowing kids to have that experience and then then going out into the backcountry nonetheless is really irresponsible,” said Kitch. “It’s actually more dangerous for avalanche safety than continuing ATLAS.”

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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