Safety Advisory: If you hear a loud bang, look up

This was sent to me this morning by John Kellas, relating an incident on the Pipestone trails yesterday:

My spouse Sharon and I had narrow escape this afternoon. We were skiing the Pipestone Loop, probably about the same time you were on the Tak Falls Road? The track-setters had just gone past us and I was trying to take advantage of the ‘hot track’ by skiing as fast as I could behind them.

I had just given up when I could not hear the sound of their sleds anymore, when I heard a very large bang. It sounded to me like a 12 gauge shotgun going off very close. Then, I heard the crashing sound of breaking and falling tree branches behind me.

As Sharon was behind me I panicked, turned around, and skied back about 75 meters to find a tree laying lengthwise along the the middle of the trail for about 7 meters. While I was frantically scanning under all the branches to make sure she was not under any of this shintangle, much to my relief, she skied up. She had not realized it had come down between us, and I had to explain what had just happened.

I couldn’t find a tell-tale stump anywhere. So we inspected it further, and realized it was the top half of a large trail-side tree that was still standing, and apparently still very much healthy and alive.

If either of us had been a minute different, or the Track Setters a couple of minutes delayed, the day could have ended very badly. A few minutes later we caught up with the Track Setters, Rich and Tanya, and I related to them what had just happened. Rich observed that in the absence of any wind events, the snow has been accumulating in the trees for many weeks. Now the latest warm weather is consolidating that heavy snow in the canopy, and severely loading trees in certain areas such as the Pipestone, that are protected from the wind.

I never foresaw that skiing a benign track set trail in the woods could have potential consequences such as these. We look for avalanche paths and continuously do other risk assessment as we ski. When the winds are high I do turn a wary eye to the swaying trees along the trails.

What I took away from this event was perhaps until we have a significant wind event, have a look at that sleepy tree canopy when you are skiing in densely forested areas such as along the Pipestone. There may not be even a hint of a breeze in the air. But if the canopy above you is still holding a fair snow load, treat your terrain much as you would an avalanche run out zone and don’t make unnecessary pit stops until you are in a safer area. And if you are about to embark on one of these densely forested trails, and the wind is coming up or in the forecast, you may want to re-assess your objectives for that day.

I’d say for the immediate future, you may want to consider the tree canopy, and if relevant for your objectives for the day, the forecast for wind as being just as important as the avalanche hazard for example.


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  1. Trees have killed more people in Banff and Kootenay National Parks in at least the last 30 years than bears and cougars combined. I was on Hawk Creek this year in the burnt forest during a wind storm. My son and I heard seven trees fall around us. First, the crack as the tree breaks off the roots, then the crash as it hits the ground. There is not much time between the two sounds. It was very scary. We ran as hard as we could to get out of the danger zone and out to the road.

    • I was on Hawk Creek to Ball Pass Aug 29th last summer…..wondering if it was the same day as you were on the trail? We might have met you at the top as we briefly talked to a son and father trail running, who started on Redearth and ran over top of Ball Pass and came down Hawk Creek trail? You have reminded me to take that one off my hiking list-it was totally freaky coming down hearing “dead tree-works” sounding like fireworks all around us the entire descent.

      • Yes, that was me and my son. I wondered who it was that was doing such an unfashionable trail. It could be a good trail, but it is not in good condition. You and your companions were the only people we saw between Shadow Lake cabins and the trail head (such as it is) on Highway 93.

  2. I seem to recall a thoughtful contest submission photo here a year or two ago that showed trees bent over the trails in PLPP, and the caption warned how they tend to start snapping in warming weather, and to edgeamacate your younglings to never reach out and touch, sit on or try to rest against – a snagged half-fallen tree.

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