Bernadette’s Take #33

A Love Affair with Avalanche Research

Pascal Haegeli from Vancouver

PascalHaegeli3 - CopyTake a close look: This is what a Swiss-born avalanche researcher in Canada looks like … (Photo Pascal Haegeli)

Swiss-born Pascal Haegeli was supposed to study atmospheric science in Canada.

You don’t know what atmospheric science is? Call it “the weather”.

Well, if you have to know about the weather, you have to come to Canada. Nobody is so prolific about weather like the Canadians. They must have about 150 different weather zones. At least.

Pascal Haegeli, originally from the Swiss city of Basel, was 24 years old and he needed an internship as part of his undergraduate studies at ETH in Zurich. He came to Vancouver first for six months in 1996 and during his visit, he fell in love with the place.

After his internship he went back to Switzerland to finish his degree at ETH. In 1998 he applied to UBC (University of British Columbia) to do his PhD in air pollution meteorology (just call it the weather, too. It makes things easier.)

But after the first year at UBC, Pascal knew: “This was not the way to go.” Luckily there was Dave McClung, professor at UBC and a very well-known avalanche researcher. He accepted the guy from Switzerland who had been a backcountry skier and has had his very first exposure to avalanche rescue practice in a school camp in his home country.

PascalHaegli4Fifty years ago, Pascal could have been one of the Swiss avalanche pioneers in Canada. (Photo Pascal Haegeli)

This is a nice thing about the Swiss. They cannot help but try to rescue people.

I am not talking about the Red Cross whose founder was Swiss Henri Dunant. That was a long time ago.

I am talking about guys who travel to other countries and end up doing Swiss rescue stuff. Like avalanche research in which the Swiss have excelled for centuries. Okay, I am boasting a bit much here.

But when your towns and villages are in an avalanche’s path, you need to learn about avalanches.
Or you perish.

PascalHaegeli - CopyNice view – if you are up in the air and not under the snow! (Photo Pascal Haegeli)

But how does a Swiss avalanche researcher do in Canada?

I had to place an

UPC (Urgent Phone Call) to Pascal Haegeli:

Pascal, are Canadian avalanches different from Swiss avalanches?

No, the physics of avalanches are the same in both countries. Of course we have a greater variety of snow climates here, simply because Canada is so much bigger. The avalanche conditions around the area of Golden, B.C., are probably most similar to the avalanche climate in Switzerland.

But what is different in Switzerland?

The focus of avalanche protection is different in the two countries. In comparison to Canada, Switzerland has a lot more infrastructure in avalanche areas, towns that are exposed a lot more to avalanches. That is why Swiss avalanche research goes back so long. In Canada, we don’t really have that problem. Revelstoke is not like Andermatt. The focus is more on recreation, on helicopter skiing and snowmobiles.

DominikBrun - CopyIn Switzerland, a lot of towns are exposed to avalanches. But you can also get buried without them. (Photo Dominik Brun, taken in Engelberg, Swiss canton of Obwalden)

So do you work together with mountain guides in Canada?

Yes, in my opinion they are the true avalanche experts. They are out in the snow and assess the avalanche conditions every day. My role is to I bring my academic view and research skills to the table. These two perspectives nicely complement each other, which creates a great working environment.

Right now, I am working on a project developing a new information exchange system for avalanche safety operations. The new system will help mountain guides and avalanche technicians to more easily see what is happening around them and assess the conditions in their operation.

grouponlakeHurry up, Pascal, we are all waiting for your avalanche report. Can we venture out or not? (Photo B. Calonego, taken on frozen Bachelor Lake B.C.)

Being Swiss, do you have more clout in the avalanche community in Canada?

It might give me some street credit. (He laughs.) But there are a lot of Swiss in the Canadian avalanche community including many Swiss mountain guides. Really, with respect to avalanche work, I am much more Canadian than Swiss. I have had all of my professional training in this field in Canada. But it certainly makes it easier for me to keep close connections to avalanche researchers in Switzerland, which is very important to me.

So being from Canada gives you clout in the Swiss avalanche community?

Maybe. I feel proud of having the Canadian connection and I believe that my research experience within the Canadian avalanche community has given me insights that would not have been possible in Switzerland. When I go to Davos, Switzerland, to give a speech at the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, the Swiss researchers appreciate this outside perspective.

Unfortunately, I have to give my presentations in English. It is a bit embarrassing, but I can barely speak about avalanches in German. In English, it is less painful for the audience!

So you are only one of the many Swiss in the avalanche community in Canada?

Yes, especially in winter, there are many mountain guides from Switzerland because there is lots of ski-guiding work in Canada. Canada has a big heliski industry and offers some of the world’s best powder skiing. Both the Swiss and the Austrians were the ski and avalanche pioneers in Canada.

PascalHaegeli2 - CopyThis is the warning sign of somebody who knows almost everything about avalanches – we better listen to him. (Photo Pascal Haegeli)

Swiss pioneers in Canada? Tell me more about it!

Peter Schärer is really the Godfather of the avalanche community in Canada. He came over from Switzerland in the sixties as a young engineer to protect the newly built Trans Canada Highway from avalanches in Rogers Pass. Later he founded the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) and started the professional avalanche training program for Canadian mountain guides and avalanche technicians.

Peter has been a very strong Swiss influence on the Canadian avalanche community, and his work was honored by the Queen with the Order of Canada. He is probably close to 90 years old now, but he still comes out to the annual general meeting of the CAA.

Have you ever been in an avalanche?

I have triggered a few smaller avalanches, but luckily nothing too serious.

Would you rather be buried in a Swiss or Canadian avalanche?

I don’t really want to be buried in any avalanche anywhere. The best way to survive an avalanche is not getting into one in the first place. But if I had to be buried in an avalanche, I would pick Switzerland, because medical help is much more easily available.

I love the remoteness of the mountains in Canada, but getting medical help in an emergency takes much longer in Canada. First, it is hard to call for help – in most places you cannot use your cell phone. It takes a long time for a helicopter to get to you and hospitals are far away.

Where do you prefer to ski – in Switzerland or in Canada?

In Canada, I feel safer simply because I live here. I am more familiar with the territory. Here in Canada, safety is really up to yourself. Oh I forgot!

houseinsnowPascal forgot about me – I am still wondering whether I am safe outside in the snow – or is there an avalanche lurching?
(Photo B. Calonego, taken in Roberts Creek B.C.)


Hans-Jürg Etter, the former head of the avalanche warning service at the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF), has recently immigrated to Canada to enjoy his retirement. He and his wife have moved to 108 Mile House and are running a B&B up there. See, there are many Swiss in the avalanche community here.

The head forecaster from the Lawinenforschungsinstitut in Davos?

Yes. He was leading the group that publishes the avalanche bulletin every day to let everybody know what is going on.

Here is another difference between Canada and Switzerland. In Switzerland, the institute is entirely funded by the Swiss government. In Canada, the Canadian Avalanche Centre is a not-for-profit organisation that gets some funding from the government, but not all of it and they constantly have to fight for it.

Also, avalanche research in Canada is primarily conducted at universities, while in Switzerland, all avalanche related matters are happening at the Lawinenforschungsinstitut in Davos.

Do Canadians ever ask you about St. Bernard dogs that have small barrels around their necks and who supposedly help in avalanche rescue?

Sometimes it comes up, but only as a joke!

grouponbachelor-lake - Copy (2)No avalanche warning this time – we go snowshoeing on Bachelor Lake B.C. – without a St. Bernard dog! (Photo B. Calonego)

P.S. Do you have an interesting story to tell or do you know somebody interesting? Don’t hesitate to contact us at!

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