It’s been two weeks now since an avalanche buried two people in Sheol Valley south of Lake Louise. A party of four went for a ski tour, making their way to Surprise Pass. Crossing a large gully feature on the south face of Mt. Fairview, an avalanche started at the top of the slope and carried two of the party over one thousand vertical feet to the bottom of Sheol Valley, which separates Sheol Mt. from Mt. Fairview and Saddle Mt, and drains into Paradise Valley. This incident made news right away in a season that has seen avalanches on the front pages of many newspapers, but it hit especially close to home once we realised that the two who were caught in the slide were a Lake Louise ski patroller and the wife of another.
The party of four, all of whom are experienced backcountry skiers and have years of ski patrolling and guiding under their belts, drove up towards the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and parked in the public lots close to the lake. The route to Surprise pass starts by following the summer hiking trail to Saddleback Pass, then continues around to the south side of Mt. Fairview into Sheol Valley and up to Surprise Pass, which lies between Mts. Aberdeen and Fairview and leads down to the Plain of Six Glaciers hiking trail. The route starts in the forest, emerging just below the final approach up to Saddleback Pass. From there, the route follows tree-line and makes its way around to the south-facing side of Mt. Fairview, which is where the first avalanche slope of the route is located.
The slope is a long gully feature that starts near Fairview’s peak and runs all the way to the bottom of Sheol Valley. It is typically a cross-loaded feature, meaning it gets filled by wind-transported snow from the side rather than from over the top. This means the skier’s right side of the gully has more snow than the left, at least in the part that receives the wind-blown snow.
The group had done some test snow profiles and had been discussing the stability of the snowpack the whole way up, and when they reached the gully feature, they judged it suitable to cross and decided to do so one by one. Skier 1 crossed the slope with no trouble. Skier 2 crossed as well, and was waiting behind the first skier for the other two to cross. As Skier 3 began to cross the slope, a fracture line appeared along the skier’s right flank of the slope and zipped with lightning speed almost to the top, where the snow began to slide. All of a sudden the entire slope was in motion, and Skiers 2 & 3 were hit by the snow already sliding quickly down from above. The two skiers were carried over a kilometre through small trees and open slope, ending up far apart from each other once the sliding snow hit the valley bottom and spread into a fan.
Skier 2 heard the fracture as it started, and barely had time to react before the snow began to move. She recalls trying to self-arrest, but was unsuccessful. Her only other memory was of trying to clear a space in front of her mouth with her hands as the debris came to a stop . She ended up at the bottom of the slope, face down and completely buried by snow.
Skier 3 was also carried the entire length of the slope, but on the skier’s left side. When the debris stopped moving, she was face up and partially buried. Her head, arms, and legs were out of the snow, and she was able to dig herself out and begin the search for her companion as the two skiers who weren’t caught in the avalanche joined her. With their avalanche beacons, they located Skier 2 and started to dig her out. They reached her head, and when they pulled her head out of the snow, she had been buried for around fifteen minutes, which is widely considered the maximum amount of time a person can go without oxygen before suffering irreversible brain damage. She was unconscious and not breathing, and her hands and face were blue from lack of oxygen. As soon as they uncovered her head, though, she began to breathe on her own, though she didn’t regain consciousness right away.
Once Skier 2 was uncovered and awake, Skier 3 complained of a sore neck. Another party member, her husband, also noticed her bleeding from an injury on her face and from an avulsion on the top of her head. The others immediately used extra clothing to fashion a cervical collar to stabilize her neck, and got her to lie down on a pair of skis to keep her rigid and unmoving. With the party out of immediate danger, the husband made his way back to the Fairmont hotel to call for help.
Shortly after, a helicopter with rescue crew was dispatched to the scene, and two ambulances made their way to the parking lots by the lake to use as a staging area. All party members were flown out, with the two buried parties being taken to the hospital in Banff. Skier 3, with the neck injury, was transported by STARS air ambulance to Foothills hospital in Calgary. It was later confirmed that she had six fractured vertebrae – three in her neck. The doctors there expressed amazement that she was not paralyzed given her injuries.
Skier 2 spent a short time in the Banff hospital, then returned to her home in Lake Louise. She had suffered severe frostbite to her hands, since when the body is deprived of oxygen, the extremities are the first places to stop getting circulation, and her hands froze up right away, later requiring lacerations to relieve pressure from the swelling. Her hands are almost back to normal, and after four or five days of fatigue and soreness, she has returned to work on the patrol. She heads back to her real home in New Zealand in a few days for some much needed relaxation.
Skier 3 spent some time in hospital in Calgary, and has been home now for about a week. She is wearing a halo for the next two or three months to keep her head and neck still while the fractures have a chance to heal. While her recovery will be slower, she will recover, and is expected to return to 100%. She has a few staples in her scalp to treat the avulsion, and had a loose tooth repaired as well.
For the two skiers not caught in the slide, they both knew right away as it happened that this was serious. As soon as the debris came to a stop, they checked above to ensure there was no further possibility of avalanches on that slope, then skied down the slide path to begin the search for the other two. Skier 4, the husband of Skier 3, didn’t allow the fact that his wife was in serious danger to distract him from performing the search safely and according to his training.
We’re all relieved beyond words that our friends and coworkers emerged alive from an event that otherwise could have had a very different outcome. And, while the physical wounds will heal, I can’t imagine this event will be one any of the four will ever forget.
The Google Earth diagram linked to below shows the approximate route to Surprise Pass from the parking area near the Chateau Lake Louise, as well as the avalanche path as it ran that day and the locations of the skiers. All are approximate. The photos below the diagram were taken by Parks Canada wardens from the helicopter that perfomed the rescue.
Click link for diagram —> sheol-valley1