Ruedi Beglinger and his wife Nicoline at Selkirk Mountain Experience.

Out of the snow: Ten years after La Traviata

People involved in the La Traviata avalanche speak about their experiences, and what has changed since.

The Durrand Glacier Chalet is located on a ridge beneath Goat Peak. Surrounded by glaciers, massive snowy mountain faces with a spectacular views all around – including a clear sightline to the west, it is not surprising Ruedi Beglinger chose to start his backcountry ski touring operation here.

Across the valley to the north lies the massive south face of Tumbledown Mountain, a 1,300-metre face that once released a class five avalanche – the largest possible on the scale.

“Ten days ago we had super-stable conditions and we skied it,” Beglinger told me one day last month. It was last skied in July 1989, he said, but the conditions were right to ski it in January.

“To find such stable conditions in a face like this is almost unheard of.”

Beglinger had me flown up to the Durrand Glacier Chalet early one Saturday morning last month. It was a cold but perfectly clear day, The sun lay behind the mountains to the east as I met the legendary mountain guide at the base of his Selkirk Mountain Experience ski touring operations. He managed to squeeze in a meeting with me as one new group of skiers arrived and another left. He wanted to show me how he operated, how he studied the snowpack, and how he decided where to ski each day.

Beglinger’s legend precedes him. He started ski touring from his home in Glarus, Switzerland, when he was six, became a fully certified mountain guide at the age of 22 and opened SME in 1985, with 76-square-kilometres of exclusive terrain. He has the reputation of being a tough guide, who takes his guests on big days and demands they follow his instructions.

“He’s got the ability to take you places that you wouldn’t go on your own,” said John Seibert, a frequent client of his.

Seibert was at SME on Jan. 20, 2003, when 13 people were caught in an avalanche while ascending the La Traviata West Couloir, Seibert among them. Seven people died.

***

I was interested in talking to Beglinger about that day and how about the La Traviata avalanche impacted him and his operation. Beglinger wasn’t interested in talking about that day, but he did want to talk about SME.

“Avalanche safety, for the public and for the commercial companies, is not, ‘we had an accident, we change,’ he told me. “The only drastic change I’ve ever seen was the Connaught Creek accident, which instantly changed the public bulletin, but did not change the commercial forecasting.”

Not everyone agrees. Clair Israelson, who was the executive director of the Canadian Avalanche Association in 2003 and is now the operations manager at Norther Escapes Heli-Skiing, told me that La Traviata had a definite impact on the guiding world, calling it a “tremendously humbling” event for the professional community and made it look even closer at things like snowpack development and risk taking.

“All those things that drive professionalism over time simply make us better,” he said.

Seibert, who has gone on a number of trips to backcountry lodges in British Columbia since 2003, said one thing he has noticed since La Traviata is that there is more communication between guides and clients. They discuss route decisions and the snowpack. “It’s not just a bunch of sheep following a super mountain guide,” he said. “It’s more of a group of people that communicate.”

***

Beglinger faced a huge amount of criticism after the avalanche. The coroner’s report said the avalanche was likely triggered when the first skiers reached the top of the couloir and hit a shallow spot in the snowpack that triggered the avalanche on a deep, persistent layer. The coroner classified the deaths as accidental. Still, people asked why were so many people going up the same steep slope at the same time and why were they out skiing when the avalanche danger rated considerable? Why wasn’t he using the InfoEX, an online service used by commercial backcountry skiing operations to share information about the snow pack?

An analysis of the avalanche commissioned by family members of one of the deceased and written by Frank Baumann was very critical of Beglinger, saying that he didn’t properly evaluate the snow pack, that he made poor route decisions and he took too many people up the slope at the same time.

“The trouble with any accident is that anytime somebody gets injured, no matter what they’re doing, the critics come out of the woodwork,” said Seibert, who was partially buried in the avalanche.

***

At his chalet, Beglinger told me he didn’t want to sleep for three days after the avalanche. He didn’t go out skiing and replayed the incident over and over again trying to figure out what went wrong.

“You ask yourself questions. It’s like a puzzle and in the long run it’s almost like a movie,” he said. “You don’t understand, you rewind it in your mind then you look at the pictures again until you understand it. If you don’t understand the picture, you’re not going.”

Later, he added: “That movie I told you – I rewinded it probably 10,000 times until I had it.”

Right after I arrived, Beglinger took me behind the chalet to the snow study plot he had set up. There he had three boards set up to measure snowfall – one for overnight, one for daytime, and the third for 24-hour snowfall. There was a snow pit where he could monitor the snow pack as it changed over time.

“For daily observations, you’re probably wondering – does he take more snow profiles? Yes, that’s out in the field,” he said.

Beglinger holds his operations level 3 from the Canadian Avalanche Association – a certification that requires years of experience to obtain. He said he models his snow studies on the industry he considers the best – the Canadian heli-skiing industry.

After La Traviata, Beglinger hired two consultants to look at his operation. He said their conclusion was that he was doing a lot right and shouldn’t change too much.

***

Beglinger brought me into his office where he and his apprentice guide have their meetings. He showed me sheets and sheets of paper of snow pack data and other information they collect over the course of a winter. “I can guarantee you what you see here, you won’t see in other touring operations,” he said.

The one thing he sought to make clear is that La Traviata didn’t trigger any instant changes. “Now, did anything change over the years in the commercial forecasting? Absolutely,” he said. “And it will keep changing. What we’re doing today is probably different than what we’ll do 20 years from now.”

As an example, he said that three years ago he changed how they do snow profiles in the field. Instead of digging a pit at a random site, he has set up several pre-designated snow study sites so he can monitor the snow pack at different elevations and different aspects over time. But changes like this came over time, he said, and weren’t a reaction to any specific incident.

“The whole observation has changed, but not because of La Traviata,” he said. “It has changed as time goes on. It has changed even before and it will keep changing.”

***

Ken Wylie was near the bottom of the La Traviata West Couloir when the avalanche swept over him, leaving him buried for close to 30 minutes before he was dug out, amazingly unharmed. The 10 years since have been ones of reflection and he is currently working on a book on what he has pieced together.

Wylie was an apprentice ski guide in 2003, in his third week of work at Selkirk Mountain Experience. He told me he was thinking about quitting. “The morning of the avalanche accident my feet hit the cold floor and I said I was going to quit on Friday,” he said. “I didn’t feel like we were listening.”

Listening – that is what he says is the biggest lesson he took away from La Traviata. Listening to yourself and listening to others and listening the environment. His book includes seven chapters on the seven lessons he said he learned, and listening is chapter one.

“If we take the time to listen, without superimposing a judgement or an opinion, we end up finding the information we need to make better decisions in avalanche terrain,” he told me.

The second lesson, he told me, was courage – the mental courage to speak up. The morning of the avalanche, he said he was feeling nervous about the conditions, but didn’t have the courage to express his concerns to Beglinger.

“That morning I was terrified,” he said. “Every bone in my body was telling me not to go where we were going that day and yet I rationalized the situation intellectually and followed the lead guide.”

That failure to communicate, the way people tend to defer to authority, and how group dynamics work in the mountains is one of the lessons he took away from La Traviata.

Since La Traviata, Wylie has done less guiding but has still been involved in outdoor education, teaching in the adventure tourism program at Thompson Rivers University and with Outward Bounds. He has also helped develop a program that provides counseling to military veterans by guiding them in the mountains. He said he is going back to graduate school to get a counseling degree.

“What I look to do in the future, this whole experience has made me interested in working with people in the mountains ­– but not just for fun,” he said.

 

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