By Laura Keil
A 35-year-old backcountry skier from Fernie lost his life in an avalanche northeast of Valemount, the result of a class 3.5 avalanche that also swept up two fellow skiers.
The man was skiing with two friends in the Swift Creek valley on Tuesday Feb 23rd when the avalanche hit around 2:55pm.
The two other skiers, who had deployed avalanche airbags, were able to self-rescue, but they were unable to locate their friend, who’d been pushed into a gully on the other side of a swath of trees, according to a rescuer.
Robson Valley Search and Rescue located him buried under roughly 1m of avalanche debris the following day, after nightfall and stormy weather postponed their efforts.
SAR member Dave Cochrane said before arriving on site, they had to ensure the slope was safe for rescuers to land, as several “hangfires” (overhead hazards such as wind-loaded snow) were visible above the avalanche fracture, deposits from stormy weather the previous weekend. Flying in through Swift Creek valley, he saw lots of other fracture lines due to the big storm on the weekend which had “overloaded everything.”
Cochrane, a former heli-ski guide for 41 years, joined the rescue on Wednesday and helped secure the avalanche bombs. They dropped six bombs on and above the avalanche slope but nothing moved. Satisfied with the stability of the slope, they decided to land and begin the search. They landed away from the area where the other skiers had been picked up the day before in order to preserve any scents for the avalanche dog.
As a team they swept the avalanche path, a debris field roughly 400m wide and 800m long. Several sweeps turned up nothing. One person decided to check out a gully on skier’s left of the main avalanche path. That too, turned up nothing. Eventually he went even further left, through a thicket of trees to another larger gully. He soon picked up a transceiver signal.
“I got 34,” he called into the radio, referring to the number of metres to the sending signal, followed shortly by “I’m at 1.”
The man who died had been swept into the second gully, quite a distance from his friends. Avalanche transceivers have a limited range (most between 40 and 80m) and are susceptible to interference by the landscape and other electronic signals.
He said the three men had to be relatively high up on the slope for him to have been swept sideways into that gully. Being swept in that direction was just bad luck, Cochrane said.
He added they were fortunate he wasn’t buried too deeply and they could get him out of there. He estimated it took a couple hours for the rescue crew to locate him and dig him out.
Police said all three were experienced backcountry skiers. Cpl. Jacob Joslin of the Valemount RCMP said no local residents were involved.
A report on the avalanche.ca website said the three skiers had skied down the south-east facing slope already and were ascending for another lap at an elevation of approx. 2000m. As they climbed up their earlier skin track through the trees, one person felt the snow settle and told the others. Shortly after, a much larger settlement occurred and triggered a wind-loaded section at the ridgeline above them, triggering the remaining slope. One person came to rest head down but was able to dig themselves out, remove their backpack and call for help using their InReach device. The person travelled upslope and, using their transceiver, found another skier partially buried. After the second skier was freed, the pair continued a beacon search for the third missing group member but were unable to maintain a signal. An intermittent signal was found and chased from 70m to 20m before it disappeared, numerous times. Search and rescue arrived on scene at 5pm and helicoptered the two survivors out.
The avalanche ran nearly to valley-bottom and was likely remotely triggered from below. Avalanche Canada said the characteristics of this slide and other avalanches in the area that look like they occurred around the same time, suggests the January 24th persistent weak layer of snow was the failure layer.
Avalanche Canada issued a special public avalanche warning February 25th for recreational backcountry users in the North Rockies, Cariboos, South Rockies, the Lizard & Flathead, and Waterton Lakes National Park. The initial warning was in effect through the weekend.
A persistent weak layer in the North Rockies is suspected in two recent fatalities, the warning said. This layer is also the suspected cause of a near-miss incident in the South Rockies, which resulted in serious injuries. The layer of concern is widespread throughout the province, but was most susceptible to human triggering in the warning regions, they said.
The Goat reached out to the BC Coroner, but they were unable to speak to the avalanche due to the ongoing investigation.