When the snow turns treacherous

Canada endures one of its deadliest avalanche seasons

MARY NEMETH April 24 1995

When the snow turns treacherous

Canada endures one of its deadliest avalanche seasons

MARY NEMETH April 24 1995

When the snow turns treacherous

Canada endures one of its deadliest avalanche seasons

Pierre Giroux did not see the fracture line that rippled across the pristine powder as he was skiing down Bow Summit in the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary last month. What he did see, moments later, was the two-metre-deep mass of snow beneath him fragmenting into millions of pieces-it seemed to form a funnel and suck him downhill. He remembers trying to “swim” and then going over a cliff. “I was freefalling long enough to dread the moment of impact,” says Giroux. “And I was afraid all the snow would pile on top of me and I would never see daylight again.” But in one of the deadliest avalanche seasons ever recorded in Canada, Giroux was exceptionally fortunate. Although the avalanche swept him down 1,000 metres of mountain, the 43-year-old former teacher who now works the front desk at an alpine centre in Lake Louise, Alta., sustained only a fractured pelvis. And he landed close enough to the surface to dig himself out of the suffocating snow. Giroux and a companion were eventually airlifted to safety. “The way I see it, the snow deposited me as gently as it could considering the force of the avalanche,” says Giroux. “I was very lucky.” Many others were not. Fifteen people have been killed in avalanches across Canada this year—the highest number in more than two

decades—and the avalanche season has about another month to go. Some experts attribute the high toll to the volatile weather—a series of cold spells that left behind loose, unstable layers of snow, followed by warmer weather and layers of stronger, well-bonded storm snow. “It’s kind of like building a house on a bad foundation,” says Clair Israelson, public safety specialist for four national parks in southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia. “The people out recreating only feel the stuff on top—they can’t appreciate the fact that those weak layers are down there hiding.” There are also more of those people than ever before. Five of the fatalities this year involved snowmobilers; until about a decade ago, snowmobiles were not even found in the danger zones—only recent technical innovations have made them light or powerful enough to climb steep slopes. Meanwhile, although statistics on back-country skiers are scarce, one area that has a mandatory sign-in program, Rogers Pass in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains, has seen the number of day-trippers more than double in the past five years, to about 5,000 a year. “It used to be a small, exclusive group, limited to guides and enthusiasts,” says David Skjonsberg, a Parks Canada highway manager at Rogers Pass. “But the numbers of recreationists have exploded, and the reason we

have more incidents now is simply a case of putting more people in potentially dangerous situations.” In fact, four back-country skiers and two mountain climbers have been among the dead this year. And two teenagers were killed while sliding down a slope on garbage bags. All but two of the 15 fatalities occurred in British Columbia and Alberta; the exceptions, a father and son, were killed in their sleep last month in northeastern Quebec, when an avalanche buried their home.

What avalanche experts call “industrial” accidents—in homes, on logging roads, near ski resorts—accounted for many of the deaths in decades past. Now, active avalanche-control programs help prevent most such accidents. One of the oldest and largest programs is at Rogers Pass, a scenic 40 km-long stretch of rail and Trans-Canada Highway that crosses 134 regular avalanche paths. Skjonsberg says that an estimated 200 people died in avalanches after construction on the railway began at the pass in 1885. But his group of 11 experts now monitor the area, calling in the military to trigger potential avalanches with a 105-mm howitzer before they can accumulate too much snow—and while there is no traffic on the road. They have also built bunkers to protect some stretches of road, and gullies to divert snow paths. Only two Parks staffers have been killed since the program was inaugurated in 1959.

The back country, of course, is too vast for such efforts. But experts monitor the danger levels in well-travelled areas near the pass and put out advisories. Skjonsberg tells skiers to check avalanche reports and to carry emergency equipment, including a collapsible probe to prod the snow for buried companions, a shovel to dig them out and avalanche beacons that broadcast a buried skier’s location. Skiers, he says, should also take courses to learn how to assess terrain—a bare slope, for example, is more likely to have had avalanches than one that is heavily treed. And skiers should learn to dig pits in the snow to look for weak layers.

According to Alan Dennis, manager of the Canadian Avalanche Centre in Revelstoke, B.C., a failure to follow precautions contributed to several deaths this year. But whether more people have thrown caution to the wind or simply got caught is difficult to calculate. “With avalanches, there is an element of luck, and maybe this year the luck ran out,” says Dennis. ‘We hope it’s an anomaly.”

Giroux was prepared and experienced—he has been skiing for four decades. His group dug a snow pit and tested it, he says; they were confident the snow was strong. Preparedness, he says, actually helped save one of his three companions: she was buried and rendered unconscious—but was wearing an avalanche beacon that helped her two friends locate her quickly. And while Giroux concedes that the avalanche “terrified” him, he will not give up skiing fresh powder in the mountains. Touring the back country is a “mystical experience,” he says. “As anywhere else, stuff happens, and people should respect the environment. But I don’t think they should be paranoid.”

MARY NEMETH