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LETTER: SD8’s reasons for cutting avalanche course are misleading

From reader Keyes Lessard

Re: Changes to Nelson high school’s avalanche training course criticized, Dec. 2

I have been teaching avalanche courses for approximately 20 years at Selkirk College, and feel I need to comment on what I believe are misleading points.

Disclaimer: I have worked with Graeme Marshall teaching public avalanche courses, I have volunteered on ATLAS outings (as many other outdoor professionals in Nelson have), and my son was in the program.

The article states the district is changing ATLAS to comply with WorkSafeBC regulations. This is misleading as the course has been in compliance since its inception. Regulations state that if a person is working in avalanche terrain, an avalanche risk assessment and an avalanche safety plan need to be completed and implemented by a certified avalanche professional. Graeme Marshall is a certified avalanche professional.

The article also implies the district is doing good work by “moving the course out of dangerous terrain.” The course teaches students how to identify dangerous terrain and conditions and then mitigate the associated risks by avoiding it. Avalanche courses have very low-risk tolerance, where the goal is avalanche education, modelling safe travel, and disciplined decision making. The majority of course time is spent in non-avalanche terrain.

For me, an avalanche course taught entirely within resort boundaries is like teaching our kids to drive solely in the mall parking lot, and then sending them off with their N on the snowy hills of Nelson.

I feel that the changes proposed to the ATLAS program are unnecessary and will negatively impact a strong program and, by extension, the students who’ve worked hard to take it. Graeme has an impeccable safety record and has taught upwards of 200 Nelson area youth (17- and 18-year-olds) the importance of safety in the backcountry. I question why these changes are being made, and would appreciate clear messaging from the district.

Keyes Lessard