A heli-skiing avalanche on Dec. 30 that claimed the life of skier Greg Sheardown has triggered memories of another fatality a year ago, causing a family member to speak out about their experiences with the system since then.
Revelstoke resident Evan Donald was an employee with the Regent Inn, a long-time local supplier for heli-skiing company Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). On Feb. 22, 2011 the backcountry enthusiast jumped at the opportunity to fill an empty seat in a CMH helicopter – one of the perks of his job. It was on this excursion that Evan Donald, 23, died while snowboarding.
It’s now known that Evan fell into a tree well and suffocated. Despite a buddy system designed to help guard against tree well immersions, nobody witnessed the incident, and by the time he was located, he was unconscious. He was treated and transported to hospital, where he later died.
New Brunswick resident Trevor Donald, 27, remembers his younger brother as bright, enthusiastic winter sports lover who dreamed of moving to B.C. to live the backcountry life. “He had a dream where it was always winter,” he told the Times Review in a story shortly after Evan’s death.
In the year since, Trevor says his family’s experience dealing with the system in the wake Donald’s death has been far from satisfactory. This includes criticism of the immediate investigation, the subsequent and ongoing Coroners report and the regulation of heli-skiing in B.C. He also wonders if more awareness is needed of tree-well immersions.
Heli-skiing industry regulation
Trevor points to a largely self-regulated heli-skiing industry. “I don’t think that’s right,” Trevor says. In times of financial hardship, he feels the pressure will be on companies to cut corners for profit.
For example, Trevor says at the time of Evan’s death, not all heli-skiing guests carried radios. CMH has since changed their policy this season, requiring all guests to carry radios. Trevor cites this as an example of something that could have made a difference in Evan’s case.
Another issue specific to Evan’s death was the ‘buddy system’ amongst skiers. Heli-skiing guests receive hands-on instruction about tree-well immersions, usually caused when a skier falls head-
first into the hollow space below a tree well. They become stuck and buried in the snow and can suffocate. Rescue is often required even if there is no injury.
Trevor says the buddy system failed in this case. It’s his understanding that his buddy last saw Evan’s tracks in the snow, and a search was eventually commenced when he didn’t regroup at the bottom of the slope. Trevor wonders how strictly the system is enforced, and also wonders if those like Evan who are given free tickets receive the same amount of supervision as the paid guests.
Rob Rohn serves at the Director of Mountain Operations for CMH. He’s also the president of HeliCat Canada, an industry association and self-regulatory body for heli-skiing and cat skiing operators in Canada.
On their website, HeliCat Canada notes that accidents and incidents will happen in the industry, but operators and guides are trained professionals who do everything in their power to prevent them and learn from their mistakes.
“Avalanches are what makes the headlines,” Rohn says in a telephone interview. Tree wells are “one of the major hazards that we deal with,” noting everyone gets tree well training. It’s “a huge part of our safety training with guests.”
Rohn says HeliCat firmly believes that safety decisions should remain with the operators, not government. “I personally believe it would be misguided,” he says, adding he doesn’t believe there is any government body positioned to make safety recommendations to the industry. A key factor, says Rohn, is that while guests do take on some risk while on their vacation in the mountains, the pilots and guides take on that risk every day. “We’re constantly examining everything,” he says of HeliCat’s safety committee.
CMH and the industry emphasize that they’re not pushing boundaries or involved in extreme activities; they’re providing guided wilderness experiences.
“The worst thing possible for our business is accidents,” Rohn says. “No level of accidents is acceptable,” he adds. But he underscores that their role is to optimize risk, not eliminate it, which is impossible in the business they’re in.
Rohn points to the implementation of a new system that requires all guests to carry radios this season.
What about tail guides? Snowcat operations typically operate with a lead and a tail guide, mainly because the Snowcat can’t respond to a critical incident like a helicopter can. Rohn said that’s the key difference. “I’m not convinced it would have made a difference,” Rohn said of the incident leading to Evan Donald’s death.
Rohn said that HeliCat had been involved with WorkSafeBC for years, and welcomes their contributions to overall safety.
The BC Coroners report
The Times Review has been at a distinct disadvantage in reporting on this story because the report into the incident is not yet available; many of the allegations Trevor makes are essentially hearsay until it can be confirmed via official documentation contained in the report.
Trevor is critical of the RCMP’s response to the incident, including the level of attention paid to the scene.
The Revelstoke RCMP didn’t respond to a request for an interview. Mark Coleman, regional Coroner for the Interior said he couldn’t comment much on the case because it was open and still being investigated. He anticipated it would be done in the coming weeks or months, though he said he couldn’t put an exact date on it. BC Coroners reports can take years to complete, their findings and recommendations diminished as the actual death has often faded from public memory, if journalists or other watchdogs bother to read the report on the results at all.
Trevor says that one of the guides with the party that day was not interviewed by the RCMP. The foreign national has since left the country. This fact could not be confirmed.
He also said Evan’s ‘ski buddy’ was also not interviewed; again, this could not be confirmed. “That leaves other questions unanswered,” Trevor said. “Did she lose sight of him, or [did she have] a radio?
“Essentially it’s two guides’ accounts,” adding the Coroners’ report will rely on written statements from the guide. Trevor feels the report will be overly-reliant on reports by the operator in these incidents, which by their nature occur in remote locations.
Although a Coroners report is not intended to determine a ‘guilty’ party, Trevor feels that a report based on insufficient inputs, missed interviews and inadequate information will be flawed.
Rohn emphasized that CMH was fully cooperative with the Coroners investigation, providing all necessary reports to them.
Tree well immersions
Trevor feels more could be done to track and report these incidents. Unlike headline-grabbing avalanche deaths, tree well immersions fly under the radar. Unlike avalanches, there is no tracking system for immersion deaths. Risk of immersions and death increases with the depth of snow. Trevor points out that when heavy snowfall coincides with higher avalanche risks, there is more skier traffic in safer sub-alpine terrain, leading to further risk of serious incidents. “I think the information should be collected,” Trevor says, noting there are far more close calls than actual fatalities.
Family considers further legal action
Trevor says his family hasn’t decided on their next course of action. This could include legal moves against CMH or their insurers. He admits to me that – unlike his brother – many aspects of mountain culture are foreign to him, including the idea of flying to the top of a snowy mountain in a helicopter. “That’s kind of bizarre for me, almost,” he says. Trevor travelled to B.C. in the wake of the incident, including to the CMH headquarters in Banff, in order to understand it better. He sees room for improvement in heli-skiing safety, and hopes the Coroners report will have some recommendations for improvement, despite what he feels was a flawed investigation.
He realizes the heli-skiing industry is an important component of the Revelstoke and regional economy. “I know everyone in it to make some money, the communities profit.” He hopes that better third-party oversight could also make it safer.
Friends gather for tragic anniversary
Family and friends of Evan Donald are planning an anniversary memorial on Feb. 22 of this month in his hometown of Sackville, New Brunswick. Several Revelstoke residents are scheduled to attend.
What do you think?
What do you think about the state of regulation in snowcat and heli-skiing operations in B.C.? Is the status quo satisfactory, or is there room for improvement?
Would further government regulation be a step in the right direction, or a wrong-headed step backwards?
Are you a current or past guide, pilot or employee in the industry? Your insights are particularly valued. Do you know of other safety issues not mentioned in this story? Please feel free to comment via Facebook below.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the incident happened on Feb. 23, 2011. In fact it occurred on Feb. 22. Likewise, the annual memorial is on Feb. 22, 2012.
Clarification: In addition, the story mentions Evan was last seen by one tree buddy. Trevor Donald says that there was a third buddy also assigned to that group.