Despite all the recent news of avalanche fatalities in North America and despite no shortage of warnings of high to extreme avalanche hazard in the backcountry of Banff National Park, two riders found the lure of untracked powder too powerful to resist today just outside the area boundary of the Lake Louise Ski Area.
West Bowl is located immediately west and outside of the Outer Limits boundary fence, and is probably the most travelled area outside the boundary due to ease of access. It can be reached from the top of Outer Limits or through the Window, which accesses the very top of the bowl as you head towards Boomerang.
Below is a diagram that’s posted at the Outer Limits access point to West Bowl:
About mid-afternoon today (which, by the way, was Avalanche Awareness Day at Lake Louise), a patroller working in the Summit area was skiing down Outer Limits, and stopped to look into West Bowl. She saw a startling sight – West Bowl had avalanched, and there was a boarder above the slide climbing back to the top of the ridge, and another in the debris pile trying to dig himself out. The avalanche was reported to our Avalanche Forecaster, who immediately instructed patrol dispatch to contact the Parks Canada warden service to prepare for and assist with a possible rescue, then started to head that way with other members of the avalanche control team.
As I mentioned in a recent post, Lake Louise Ski Patrol will respond to an out-of-bounds rescue, but the avalanche forecaster is the only person who can authorize any staff member to leave the area boundary, and except in very low-hazard conditions, only those patrollers with their Canadian Avalanche Association Level 2 avalanche course certification will be involved in the rescue. The public safety wardens called for a helicopter to assist in the rescue, but once it was confirmed that the two people we observed were the only ones involved in the avalanche and no rescue was required, it was called off. The wardens also stood down and let us do our thing.
A staff member was sent to the Window to intercept the person climbing back to ridge-top, and after ensuring their own safety, two patrollers skied in towards the rider who had by now dug himself out of the debris and was waiting for assistance. It’s possible to ski West Bowl most of the way down and still get back to the bottom of the Summit lift, but the avalanche had carried this one person well below that point, so he and the patrollers skied down the one prominent gully below called Deep Throat and down to the Monkey Trail (aka Star Wars), which is the long forest traverse that returns people to the resort via Juniper Jungle. Once in the avalanche forecaster’s office, they were able to tell their story…
The two were both snowboarders from Calgary in their 20′s, and, deciding to take advantage of the untouched powder, entered West Bowl through the Window. Even in good snow years, you need to pick your way through a few rocks to get down to the actual bowl since the top ridge gets scoured clean by the wind. Once they did so, the first rider decided to do a quick traverse across the top of the slope, but as he did so, he hit a rock that forced him to turn down into the slope. He then decided that since he was on the slope he might as well keep riding. He only managed a few turns when he realised the slope was starting to slide around him. As this realisation sunk in, and before he had a chance to react, the slide suddenly increased in width so that it covered almost two-thirds the width of the bowl – about 250m.
The avalanche slid to ground, and while the snow depth was only about 40cm or so, the depth and width combined to make a large avalanche – a size 2.5, which is enough to bury or kill a person, and typically has a mass of 100 tonnes. The rider was swept up and carried down the slope, and he described being tossed around, alternatively ending up on top of the debris and being completely buried, over and over again. He “fought like crazy” and tried to swim to stay on top, but the avalanche was just too powerful. When it came to a rest about 250m below where it started, the rider was upright and buried up to his chest. He looked up slope to see that his friend had not been caught in the slide, and noticing that there was still snow that had not avalanched, yelled for him to climb back up to the top rather than try to get to him and possibly start another avalanche. He had managed to free himself from the debris by the time patrollers arrived.
As he recounted his story, an hour or more had passed since the incident, and as the adrenaline faded, he broke into tears realizing how lucky he was to be alive. Had he been completely buried, the lack of oxygen would mean he only had about fifteen minutes before brain damage was likely, and his chances of survival would have plummeted. It was lucky that a patroller observed what was going on just after it happened and was able to report it, but even then, getting to the victim in fifteen minutes or less would have been unrealistically optimistic.
Both of these riders had taken avalanche awareness courses in the past, but the message appears not to have sunk in (although there’s no doubt in my mind it has now). Also, as the victim and patrollers arrived at the start of the Monkey Trail, there was a group of eight snowboarders who had just come down Maintenance, another out-of-bounds run near but not quite as big as West Bowl. Not one of them had avalanche rescue gear, and one of them, upon seeing the rider with the patrollers, remarked “Riding alone? What an idiot”. If only he knew…
The two boarders were asked to come to the avalanche office to tell their stories, because there are always lessons to be learned from an incident like this for both those involved and others as well. No doubt they’ll tell their families and friends about this. They were not punished, since they did nothing wrong from a policy point of view. Our boundary is open, and these two crossed it in a way that contravened no laws or resort regulations. What they did contravene are the protocols for safe travel in avalanche terrain – among others, know the hazard, have and know how to use a beacon, shovel, and probe, tell people where you’re going, and have a plan.
The two left here today with a new attitude about avalanches, and we hope they’ll spread that experience to as many people as they can. Others haven’t been so lucky.