For Ken Wylie, the memories of January 20, 2003, are vivid. He remembers the thundering whumpf and the snow shifting beneath his feet. He remembers watching helplessly as the group he was guiding was swept up in an avalanche. He recalls the sensation of being buried in snow and drifting into unconsciouness. He remembers getting dug out of the snow 30 minutes later, mostly unharmed, only to find out that seven people he was ski touring with that day died after being caught by an avalanche in La Traviata couloir while skiing with Selkirk Mountain Experience.
Eleven days later, Wylie was skiing in Rogers Pass when an avalanche struck a group of 14 high school students and their three teachers who were touring up through the Connaught Creek drainage. All of them were caught up in it, and seven died.
Both avalanches emerged out of vastly different scenarios, but they both caused the public at large to ask questions about why so many people were dying in avalanches; and people on the inside to go looking for solutions.
January 20, 2003 began like most other days at Selkirk Mountain Experience, with a morning guides’ meeting, breakfast and two groups of skiers heading out at 8 a.m. One group was under the guidance of Ruedi Beglinger, the legendary mountain guide, who’d built the Durrand Glacier Chalet in 1985 and established it as one of the world’s leading backcountry skiing lodges.
“I always tell people I had 49 of the best days I’ve ever had in the mountains with him and I’ve had the worst day I’ve ever had with him,” John Seibert, a guest at SME that week, and several times prior, told me.
The other group was with apprentice guide Ken Wylie. Normally they would both go to different location, but on this day, they both found themselves heading towards La Traviata West Couloir. Beglinger’s group made its way up the steep couloir first and Wylie’s followed not too far behind. Beglinger and seven guests crested the top of the slope when they felt a large settlement. A series of three avalanches were triggered – one class three avalanche to the southeast of the group, a second smaller one in between that slide and La Traviata, and, finally, the fatal slide that cascaded down the couloir.
“It was unmistakable with the size of the whumpf, the whole world started shifting,” said Wylie. “It’s a very surreal experience to have the whole slope you’re on start to shift and become liquid underneath your feet.”
12 other people were caught in the avalanche, includig Seibert. Beglinger and his seven guests that were above the fracture line went into rescue mode – Beglinger directing the rescue on the site and calling for extra help. They were able to rescue six people. Seven guests died: David Finnerty, Naomi Heffler, Craig Kelly, Kathleen Kesller, Vern Lunsford, Jean-Luc Schwendener and Dennis Yates.
Eric Dafoe was on his way to the hardware store on his day off when the call came in on February 1 telling him he needed to go to work. As the head of the public safety program in Glacier National Park, he was used to getting called in on his days off, and on this occasion, he was hoping to avoid it. Then he was told what happened – 17 people were involved in an avalanche accident and a number of them were still unaccounted for.
“It was hard for me to fathom how 17 people could get caught,” Dafoe said. “The message I had was they are buried or partially buried. I found that difficult to fathom, I wanted to see it.”
That morning, 14 grade 10 students and three teachers from from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, a private school near Calgary, left to go ski touring through the Connaught Creek drainage towards Balu Pass. It was part of a weekend trip to Rogers Pass, the culmination of their outdoor education course. They were there to put all their avalanche education to use in the field.
According to one consultant’s report, the students received the classroom education equivalent to a avalanche operations level one course. They had spent months preparing for this trip that hundreds of students from their school had done in the past.
By all accounts, they were doing everything right while they toured up the drainage. They stayed spread out on the skin track, and were careful crossing the frequent avalanche paths that ran down from the mountains on the south side of the valley.
Rich Marshall and Abby Watkins, two guides from Golden, were also in Connaught Creek that day. They were stopped for lunch when they saw an avalanche thunder down from Mount Cheops on the valley’s north side. They yelled a warning, but it was too late. All 17 members of the group were swept up in the huge avalanche that swept down the Cheops North 4 slide path.
“When it released it brought down the entire winter’s snow pack,” said Dafoe, who was first able to see the magnitude of the avalanche when he was flown over the area not long after being called.
Marshall and Watkins were the first on scene and they immediately launched a rescue operation. A steady stream of rescuers came from Glacier National Park, other national parks, neighbouring heli-skiing operations, and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Marshall and Watkins were credited with saving five lives. Seven students died: Ben Albert, Daniel Arato, Scott Broshko, Alex Patillo, Michawl Shaw, Jeff Trickett and Marissa Staddon.
The two avalanches triggered an array of questions and responses. The La Traviata avalanche made people ask how a trip with one of Canada’s most experienced and trusted guides could go so wrong.
The Connaught Creek avalanche made people ask what a group of school children were doing in an area with such a high avalanche danger.
A series of reports were commissioned. The BC Coroners Service investigated both avalanches; Parks Canada analyzed the Connaught Creek accident, and an independent consultant did likewise for Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School. The Province of British Columbia conducted a review of its public avalanche safety programs. Later, a lawyer was hired to give a second look at the La Traviata avalanche.
The coroners report into the La Traviata avalanche, prepared by Chuck Purseand released in November 2003, pointed out that there was an instability deep in the snowpack and that a number of commercial operators had reported widespread avalanche activity between Jan. 2 and Jan. 19, 2003. These were reported on the InfoEx, an online service used by avalanche professionals to share information, that Selkirk Mountain Experience did not subscribe to at the time. The InfoEx reports also indicated that skier-triggered avalanches were occurring. Still, the report classified the deaths as accidental.
The coroner’s report recommended all commercial backcountry skiing operations be required to subscribe to the InfoEx and that commercial ski touring operations form an association for the purpose of sharing information and knowledge.
It was the Connaught Creek avalanche that truly spurred drastic changes in public avalanche safety; investigations into it produced recommendations that led to the establishment of the Canadian Avalanche Centre and a series of initiatives that led to much of what the public experiences today when it comes to avalanche safety.
To be continued next week…