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Volunteer’s death spurs warnings that B.C.’s avalanche conditions are ‘unforgiving’

9 people have died so far this season in B.C.
A photo posted by Avalanche Canada shows Potato Peak, 40 kilometres south of Tatla Lake in central south British Columbia, where two skiers died in an avalanche on Saturday, Feb 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Avalanche Canada

The avalanche deaths of two skiers in British Columbia’s central Interior this month have prompted an emotional plea about this season’s dangerous conditions from the head of a volunteer search and rescue team.

Rick White, the chief of the Central Cariboo Search and Rescue team in Williams Lake, announced Thursday that one of the people killed in a slide on Potato Peak on Feb. 11 southwest of Williams Lake was a member of his team.

Calling the member’s death “devastating,” White’s statement highlighted the “horrifically unforgiving” avalanche risks this season across the province.

Nate Fochler, a ski guide in Revelstoke, B.C., said this year’s snowpack has indeed created dangerous conditions in the backcountry, with spikes in freezing temperatures creating what’s known as a “deep persistent weak layer” of snow.

“The likelihood of triggering it is low, but the consequences would be very high if you did trigger it,” Fochler said. “Industry wide, everyone’s kind of trying to avoid the same kind of terrain.” Fochler said the snowpack this year is similar to that in B.C. in 2003, a particularly deadly year for avalanches after two slides within two weeks of each other claimed 14 lives near Revelstoke.

The risks inherent in the backcountry can never be eliminated, only mitigated, Fochler said.

“Nature is bigger than us,” he said. “Even guides with decades of experience still end up in bad situations.”

Fochler said it’s understandable that search and rescuers would warn people against going into the backcountry where avalanche risks always exist, but for guides like him, it’s his livelihood.

“Even if it is dangerous, I still have to go do my job,” he said. “In a perfect world, we would just not go ski when it’s dangerous, but that’s not always reasonable, so it’s just a matter of mitigation and trying to deal with the hazards the best way that we can.”

In a statement published in late January, Ryan Buhler with Avalanche Canada outlined concerns about upcoming weather conditions that could have motivated “people to push into terrain that was previously unappealing in poor weather.”

“The temptation might be strong, but we are cautioning people against pushing into untracked or unfamiliar terrain,” Buhler says.

He says they often use terms like “conservative” or “patient” in their forecasts for a reason.

“We use these to mean people should to stick to simple, safe terrain and not be lured into bigger terrain features by boredom or ambition. It takes a lot of discipline to spend the whole season with simple objectives, but this is the attitude that professionals are using at the moment.”

Fochler said this year’s snowpack has been “scary” but not unmanageable, and he will stick to safe and familiar terrain rather than adventuring out as wild swings in temperature are in the forecast.

“This year is just not the year to go get radical really,” he said. “Those mountains will still be there next year … Is skiing that line worth potentially taking your life? Probably not.”

Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press

READ ALSO: Chilcotin avalanche victim a member of Central Cariboo Search and Rescue

READ ALSO: ‘Horrifically unforgiving’ risks: A timeline of avalanche deaths in B.C. for the 2022-2023 season

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