CANADA FOCUS B.C.

In the blink of an eye

A series of avalanches takes the lives of nine outdoor enthusiasts

CHRIS WOOD January 19 1998
CANADA FOCUS B.C.

In the blink of an eye

A series of avalanches takes the lives of nine outdoor enthusiasts

CHRIS WOOD January 19 1998

In the blink of an eye

A series of avalanches takes the lives of nine outdoor enthusiasts

CHRIS WOOD

D'ARCY JENISH

CANADA FOCUS B.C.

For more than a decade, Larry Bosch has been making half a dozen trips each winter from his home in Medicine Hat, Alta., to the surveyors’ clearings and seasonal roads south of Sparwood, B.C., drawn by the excitement of snowmobiling in the rugged mountain wilderness. And at first, the auto mechanic’s excursion on Jan. 2 seemed no different from the rest. Along with five companions, each on their own machine, Bosch, 37, roared through powdery, dry snow on the 900-m climb to the shores of Elliott Lake.

It was on the way back down that things began to go wrong. Friends started waving frantically from the bottom of the slope, and he instinctively looked behind him. “It looked like a pile of snow about a foot thick coming down,” he recalls. “No big deal.” But within seconds, a torrent of flowing snow caught up with Bosch’s sled, enveloping him in eerie darkness. “There was so much snow you couldn’t see your hands on the handlebars. It ripped the windshield off my sled. It was sucking my helmet off.” The terrible darkness lasted only moments. But when it was over, two of Bosch’s five companions had vanished.

Bosch and his three remaining friends quickly found and uncovered one of the buried snowmobilers. But it would be 90 minutes before they found Murray Perrin, 38. Even though he was an experienced snowmobiler who had dug others out of avalanches, Perrin alone among the party was not wearing an emergency locator beacon that day. By then, he was dead—one of nine people who died under avalanches as 1998 opened with a rash of tragedies in the southern B.C. Interior. On the same day that Perrin died, other avalanches snuffed out the lives of two downhill skiers near New Denver, about 500 km east of Vancouver, and buried a group of six cross-country skiers in Kokanee Glacier Park, just north of Nelson. At least half a dozen other avalanches in the same 24-hour period produced close calls for as many more alpine adventurers. Experts say the spate of tragedies reflected the convergence of bad timing, unusual weather patterns at least partly caused by El Niño, and a growing number of winter sports enthusiasts. “This danger was expected,” said Evan Manners, manager of the Canadian Avalanche Centre in Revelstoke.

The tragedies were all the more disturbing because most of the victims were experienced in the outdoors. Dr. Robert Driscoll, 36, a Nelson anesthesiologist who was among the six skiers who died at Kokanee Glacier Park, was a veteran mountaineer who had taken avalanche safety courses. “Robert was extremely cautious and knowledgeable,” said one grieving friend, Bruce Fairley. “He was dependable and had good judgment.” Another victim in the same accident, Lise Nicola, 29, had been a ski patroller and mountain climber and had hopes of becoming a back-country guide.

Added to five deaths in November and December, the accidents on Jan. 2 bring the total number of fatalities for the 1997/1998 season to 14 so far—compared with the 1990s average of 10 deaths a year. But experts say the province’s overall avalanche risk has not been abnormally severe this season. In fact, in the most closely monitored avalanche terrain in the country—the 50-km Rogers Pass between Revelstoke and Golden—avalanche activity this winter has been only “80 to 90 per cent of average,” says David Skjonsberg, manager of avalanche control for Parks Canada, which is responsible for the Pass.

But, in the closing weeks of 1997 and the first few days of 1998, several factors conspired to escalate the danger to critical proportions in the area where the tragedies occurred. One was a series of weather patterns created by the El Niño phenomenon—a huge body of warm water in the Pacific Ocean that disrupts the world’s weather patterns every two to seven years. “El Niño tends to make more precipitation occur as rain rather than snow,” notes the Avalanche Centre’s Manners. “That produced less snow on the ground in November.”Then, in December, El Niño caused a distortion of the usual west-toeast path of the high altitude jet-stream, looping its course through Alaska rather than across southern British Columbia. Il As a result, much of the southeastern Interior basked in clear, dry air during most of December, further limiting the depth of the snowpack and encouraging the creation of light, feathery frost crys|£ tais on the surface.

Finally, in late December, a layer of I § warm, moist air from the Pacific blanketed the mountains, dumping as much as 50 cm of dense, heavy snow on slopes in the last 48 hours of 1997.

Falling on top of the unstable layers of earlier snow and frost, the new snow created an effect that Manners likens to placing several sheets of plywood over gravel on a steeply pitched roof. By the time that Driscoll, Perrin and the other victims set out for a day of skiing and snowmobiling on Jan. 2, “the snowpack was very close to threshold level,” says Manners. “The weight of a person or a snowmobile was enough to cause an accident.”

For Driscoll and his party, the sequence of events was a tragic reversal of what had initially seemed like a lucky break. Along with Driscoll, pediatrician Carrie Fitzsimons, his wife of barely a month, and four companions, had won a lottery for a week-long stay at Silver Spray Cabin, a lodge high on Mount Woodbury in the Kokanee Glacier Park; the retreat is so popular with back-country skiers that only a quarter of those who apply to rent it are able to do so. On Dec. 27, Driscoll and Fitzsimons, with friends George Patrick Von Blumen, Geoffrey Liedal, Scott Bradley and Von Blumen’s girlfriend Mary Cowan, were taken by helicopter to the cabin. With them was Lise Nicola, a paid cabin attendant. On Jan. 2, despite published bulletins warning of a high avalanche risk, all but Fitzsimons set out for a day of crosscountry skiing. When the party did not return by dusk, Fitzsimons used a radio to call for help. Darkness and continuing heavy snow hampered search efforts, however,

and it was not until Jan. 8 that the last of the six victims’ bodies was retrieved.

By the time Fitzsimons placed her radio call, other avalanches had already claimed three more victims. At about 1:30 p.m. the same day, some 50 km west of the Silver Spray Cabin, Kevin Jewett, 27, and Simon Lewis, 28, had just come to the end of a downhill ski run through remote terrain when an avalanche poured over them. Others in the party of eight located the two buried skiers within 15 minutes, but efforts to revive them failed. The avalanche that claimed Perrin swept down about three hours later.

Despite the horrendous start to the year, avalanche experts say there is little reason to expect such extreme hazards to persist. To the contrary, snowpacks are likely to settle and stabilize over the weeks ahead in most avalanche-prone areas. That said, Bruce Hendricks, who teaches wilderness leadership skills at the University of Calgary’s faculty of kinesiology—and who himself survived being buried in an avalanche in April, 1995—predicts that the growing popularity of back-country recreation will produce a larger number of avalanche victims in the future. “It’s like traffic accidents,” says Hendricks, “If more people go on the roads, you’re going to get more accidents. With snowmobiles, you can get into avalanche terrain very quickly now.”

At the same time, the nine deaths underscored the deadly power of a phenomenon that is an ever-present winter danger in much of British Columbia. Avalanches, which are sometimes triggered in a fraction of a second, can travel at up to 160 km an hour, with sufficient force to knock a freight train off its rails. The snow torrent that claimed Perrin, says Bosch, punched straight through the ice covering Elliott Lake. “It threw slabs of ice 20 inches thick and the size of a small car through the air,” Bosch said. The most deadly avalanche on record in Canada were two slides that each claimed 60 lives, at Rogers Pass in 1910 and at Dyea, near the Yukon border, in 1898.

For victims, quick rescue is critical. Studies have shown that almost all avalanche victims die within the first 20 minutes after they are buried. “Past 20 minutes,” says Manners, “survival rates drop off quite quickly.” Like other experts, he recommends that skiers, snowmobilers and ice climbers who intend to travel in avalanche country take safety courses and carry three crucial items of equipment: a shovel, a collapsible snow probe and an emergency locator beacon which costs about $300. Given that few avalanche victims survive long enough for professional search and rescue teams to find them alive, Manners notes: ‘Your only hope of surviving burial is for every member of your party to carry those three articles.”

As with other types of deadly accidents, however, a better course is to avoid avalanches entirely. Manners urges recreational wilderness travellers to take advantage of risk bulletins that the Canadian Avalanche Centre produces twice weekly during the winter, available at most park offices in avalanche country and on the Internet at www.avalanche.ca. Soberingly though, most of those who died on Jan. 2 appear to have been aware of that advice. They died anyway—a measure of humankind’s limits in the face of nature.