Jennifer Coulter leads an all-female team that’s changing the face of avalanche communication
Tragedy creates change
Avalanche Canada issues avalanche forecasts for the largest single swath in the world—more than 155,000 square miles spanning from the U.S. border to the Yukon—the backbone of which is a stream of data from professionals at ski areas and guided operations.
At the helm of the South Rockies field team, the only one in the region, is Jennifer Coulter, leader of the group that was created in 2009 after a series of heartbreaking avalanche accidents.
Any given day in winter finds Coulter, an avalanche dog trainer and instructor coordinator with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, heading to different zones with her Belgian Malinois, named Pika, in tow. She spends her daylight hours ski touring or sledding to cover as much terrain as possible, digging snow profiles and making observations that she reports back to forecasters in the Revelstoke office.
Along the way, she’ll take a slew of photos and video as part of the South Rockies team’s one-of-a-kind communications strategy that’s revolutionizing broadcasting avalanche information and modeling safer behavior.
Occasionally, we still get some people making jokes like, “Do you actually even hire guys on the field team?” since it’s been all-female the past few years. The hiring happens to be done by all men—who hired the women on this team because we’re the best qualified for the job.
We did used to get asked how we “found our way around the backcountry without a guide,” and “where are the dudes/boyfriends you are riding with,” but that doesn’t really happen anymore.
I was a ski patroller and dog handler for Fernie Mountain Resort, and avalanche technician for my local search and rescue group. We got a SAR call for the Sparwood accident, where eight local snowmobilers were killed. I worked all three days on that rescue/recovery mission, and it had a profound effect on me.
I saw that community at its most vulnerable, far outside the stereotype, and it was a community reeling from the effects of that tragic event. It’s why, when a position on the new South Rockies field team came available in 2012, I jumped at the chance to work in public avalanche safety. It was a way to bring together so many skills, and a way to work through that avalanche accident.
We started out making some Youtube videos, and then we started a full communications strategy using Facebook and Instagram, where we speak directly to the public. It’s a slight shift from the top-down model in that we’re taking a “show” vs. “tell” approach, where people see good terrain and travel choice over and over again in an engaging way.
I love the influencing behavior, problem solving, and clear communication of dog training.
Pika is a lot of dog and definitely keeps me humble as a trainer, pushing my skills further than I would have ever needed with an easier dog. Her parents were both working dogs—her father was actually a disaster search dog—that had the character, heart, and drive I was looking for in a search dog. I love the energy and enthusiasm she puts into her work, and everything she does.
I know I’m supposed to say that my favorite part of my job is the powder, but it’s actually the people.
I’m so busy I rarely get to just go skiing anymore, but that doesn’t change my love for working in the mountains. Because they’re awe-inspiring, beautiful, challenging, and, quite frankly, a little bit scary. No two days are alike, and there are mental and physical challenges to keep you occupied for an entire lifetime.
‘Bring Your Dog to Work Day’ is every day for Coulter and Pika. Photo: Martina Halik