Holger Achim Fritz was a passionate skier who loved the outdoors. On Friday, he was leading a group of five skiers into the backcountry beyond Greeley Lake when disaster struck.
“We knew it was dangerous but Holger was very confident. He was definitely the leader of the group,” David Fritzsche told me. “He was the first, he made the tracks.”
The group was skinning up from Greeley Lake towards an out-of-bounds run known as Birthday Chute early Friday afternoon. They weren’t planning on skiing the chute, but were instead going to descend along the ridge back in bounds.
The group was in the alpine and, recognizing the avalanche hazard, they decided to go one at a time up the slope. Fritz went first while the other four waited in what they thought was a safe spot.
“We waited for Holger to traverse. He was maybe 10 metres in front of us and we waited on a spot we thought it was safe,” said Fritzsche. “The guy behind me screamed … I just saw from the right, coming from top, huge clouds, noise. I set my skis into the direction of the slope, pulled my backpack. Everything was white, there was snow in my mouth. I was tumbling, tumbling.”
Fritzsche opened his avalanche airbag and was able to remain above the snow. Another in his group also wound up on top of the debris field. Two others were able to stay out of the avalanche. When the snow settled, they called out to each other to say they were OK.
“We thought for a moment everyone was safe,” he said. “We couldn’t see the guys on top and they couldn’t see us. We screamed, ‘We are OK.’ They screamed, ‘We are OK too.’ That was a problem.”
When they realized Fritz was missing, they started a search. They found him lower down the slope. He had been swept over some large cliffs.
“That’s what makes me and the other guy more lucky, that we didn’t go down that cliff,” said Fritzsche. “There was only 10 metres difference between Holger and us. We were very lucky.”
Fritz, 24, from Stuttgart, Germany, worked in the rental/repair shop at the resort. Rob Elliott, the general manager of RMR, described Fritz as someone who loved skiing and the outdoors.
“He was a great, outgoing gentleman,” Elliott said. “He’s a very bright young man who was finishing school and he was following his passion for skiing and the outdoor lifestyle.”
Fritz was in Revelstoke to enjoy the ski season and had been actively exploring the resort and the backcountry around Revelstoke, said Elliott. He said they had a number of discussions about skiing together.
Fritzsche said he didn’t know Fritz that well, but they had been skiing together once in Germany and stayed in touch because they were both coming to Revelstoke this winter. “Skiing was such a big part of his life,” Fritzsche said. “He was always so stoked to go skiing. He was always happy.”
Fritz was wearing an avalanche airbag, which he was able to deploy, but the trauma from the fall over the cliffs likely killed him. Fritzsche said they performed CPR to no avail. He skied back inbounds to get help while the rest of his group tried to carry Fritz inbounds using skis as a toboggan. However, the snow was deep, it was getting dark and they were cold and wet.
They left him in the backcountry; his body was recovered by Revelstoke Search and Rescue on Saturday morning.
“People are affected pretty traumatically by it all. He was a genuine character, he got along with everybody and it’s tough to get over it,” said Elliott.
The avalanche danger for the alpine and treeline was rated high on Friday, and remained high throughout the weekend, meaning natural avalanches were likely and human-triggered avalanches very likely. The day was characterized by heavy snow and wind, with the resort reporting 23 centimetres of new snow over 24 hours as of 4 p.m. on Friday.
The avalanche bulletin said a spike in natural avalanche activity was to be expected on Friday. “Direct action storm slabs and deeper persistent slab avalanches are very likely with this system,” the bulletin states.
According to an incident report filed with the Canadian Avalanche Centre, the avalanche was up to a size two slab avalanche that fractured 60 metres wide. A size two avalanche is considered capable of burying and killing a person.
It is not yet known if the avalanche was natural or skier-triggered.
“It was not a good day for touring. We shouldn’t have gone up there,” acknowledged Fritzsche, adding that they knew the risk and had experience skiing in the backcountry. He also said there some confusion immediately after avalanche and they didn’t realize that Fritz was missing right away.
The area the group was skiing is a popular backcountry area that is easily accessible from the resort. Fritzsche said he does not want to go back there, but eventually his group would like to go back and place a memorial for Fritz.
“He was always so positive. He was a great guy,” said Fritzsche. “It’s very sad.”