Avalanche in Sheol Valley

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

  

Avalanche start zone, 200m above skiers.

Avalanche start zone, 200m above skiers (photo: Parks Canada)

Top of the avalanche path, looking down into Sheol Valley. Skiers were just above treeline.

Top of the avalanche path, looking down into Sheol Valley. Skiers were just above treeline (photo: Parks Canada)

Getting ready to fly  (photo: Brian Webster)

Getting ready to fly (photo: Parks Canada)

4-longline

Longlining (photo: Parks Canada)

Ambulances wait near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise  (photo: Brian Webster)

Ambulances wait near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (photo: Parks Canada)

 

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The End of a Remarkable Career

Sunday March 22, 2009, marked a special day for the Lake Louise Ski Patrol, and for the larger Lake Louise family as well. Peter Spear, a member of the Canadian Ski Patrol System and Calgary resident, patrolled his last day at Lake Louise after an amazing 45 years on the patrol. With knee surgery quickly approaching, Peter though it a good time to hang up his pack. He fully intends to be back on the slopes once the recovery is over, just not in a patrol jacket.

Peter has seen the Lake Louise Ski Area evolve from two little and separate ski areas into what it is today, and is full of amazing stories about how it was to patrol over the decades. For example, he estimates that over those 45 years he drove 130,000km to and from Calgary, and has ridden a total of seventeen lifts in various places and incarnations at Lake Louise. Peter was also the one who resolved the mystery of where the Paradise Pocket avalanche path got its name when I wondered about it in an earlier post (Avalanche Areas Below Tree-Line).

Much to my delight, Peter has agreed to spend a bit of his recovery time writing about his time patrolling at Lake Louise so that I can post it here. His great memory and deep involvement with the ski area will provide lots of interesting stories, and I look forward to being able to help him share them. His presence on the Ski Patrol will be missed, but we look forward to seeing Peter on the slopes of Lake Louise in the near future.

Thanks Peter!


Spring Hits the Lake

Even though we had a week or so of spring back in January, it really felt like it on Saturday at Lake Louise, as sunny skies and warm temperatures combined with over 10cm of new snow to make for fantastic conditions and a great day on the slopes. Despite the weekend crowd suggesting otherwise, there were fresh tracks to be found well into the day. As much fun as it is to be out skiing in the middle of a snowstorm, having great visibility with the soft new snow makes it hard to have a bad day.

Skiers make their way along the Corridor, with Larch in the background.

Skiers make their way along the Corridor, with Larch in the background.

Boomerang has lots of fresh tracks for those willing to hike for them.

Boomerang has lots of fresh tracks for those willing to hike for them.

 

Along with the new snow came a period of natural avalanche activity just outside the ski area boundary. A dramatic example was in an area called the National Geographics (or “Geos” for short) – the collective name for the south-facing gullies on an outlying ridge of Mt. Richardson, visible from the ski area boundary at the top of Boomerang. Each one of those gullies avalanched on their own during the night.

And yet, despite all of this activity, people are still venturing into closed avalanche areas or going outside the boundary into places that probably aren’t all that safe. One closed area that got traffic was the Ptarmigan Chutes. I stopped a few people as they were about to duck the closure right next to a “Closed” sign. They explained that they had ridden the Summit platter and asked the patroller at the top what West Bowl was like, and were told that they’d be crazy to go there given the touchy conditions. They heeded the patroller’s advice, which is encouraging, especially since they did not have any rescue gear with them.

However, they decided that they’d head over to the Ptarmigan Chutes and ride the closed area there. They barely broke stride when ducking the fence, and when I called them back and got their story, I was amazed that they had gone so far as to ask a patroller about conditions, then completely ignored the implications and went into another area – this time an avalanche closure and arguably more dangerous, since the entire slope had been exposed to the warm sun all day. In the end, I don’t think they understood why places are closed, but they seemed to respect the fact that they could not enter avalanche closures, and went on their way.

There is plenty of good skiing to be found inside the area boundary for those with no interest in leaving it, and with more snow forecast to fall this week, things continue to look up.


Avalanches Hit Close to Home

Avalanches have been a hot topic this season, thanks to the screwy weather that has contributed to less-than-ideal snow stability not only in the Canadian Rockies, but in many places all over North America. Recent events in the Lake Louise area have also shown that avalanches can strike anywhere and anyone, no matter the level of preparedness.

On my days off I heard of an avalanche that occurred in Shoel Valley, across the Bow Valley and a few kilometres south of the Lake Louise Ski Area. Preliminary news reports said that a party of four was involved in an avalanche, with two of the party members becoming caught in and buried by the slide. I new that when I returned to work I would get the details of the incident, but was unprepared to discover that the involved party consisted of friends and coworkers, and that the two who were buried were lucky to escape with their lives. I’ll post more about their trip in the next few days. 

In the meantime, despite a winter’s worth of news reports describing the destruction wrought by avalanches and no shortage of available information describing the touchy snowpack of this season, there are no shortage of people out there who still insist on going to dangerous places despite all these warnings.

Yesterday (Tuesday), the Ski Patrol received report of someone with a missing ski requesting a courtesy ride from around the base of Paradise chair. The guest was reluctant to give too much information, and when asked by the patrol where he may have lost his ski (so that if it turned up later they could return it),  he didn’t seem worried and gave a vague answer.

Later in the day, it was reported that an avalanche had occurred in Corral Creek, which is on the east end of Richardson’s Ridge and not far outside the ski area boundary. This area is visible to those using the trail to Skoki Lodge, and also from the Larch area. The reporting person confirmed they saw one set of ski tracks going into the slide area, and one set of footprints (actually more of a track in the deep snow) coming out and back towards the ski area. It was then realised that the person requesting the courtesy ride was likely the same one who triggered the avalanche in Corral Creek, and had lost his ski in the slide.

Assuming that’s the case, this skier left the ski area boundary, which he was allowed to do. He had avalanche rescue gear with him, but was alone, and all of that equipment would have been useless to him if he was buried in an avalanche. There would also be no one to report the burial, making rescue and any chance of survival a long shot.

Another concern is that he did not report the avalanche, even with a perfect opportunity to do so. Reporting is common practice, both inside and outside the ski area boundary, as it helps the avalanche control department better manage their activities and also gain some insight into how people make decisions in these types of events. So, when the avalanche forecaster was informed of the Corral Creek slide, it was not yet confirmed that tracks were seen coming out of the avalanche debris, which would indicate that the sole skier was able to get out on his own.

The park Warden Service was called, and they assembled a rescue team with dog and started to make their way to Corral Creek. The Lake Louise dog team and other patrollers were also mobilized. Once confirmation of the exiting tracks was received, the search was called off. By not reporting the avalanche, the skier put at risk those who would come to rescue him. For example, the rescue team would almost certainly need to go onto the avalanche debris field to rescue the skier, but since only 15% or so of the whole slope had avalanched, there was still lots of “hangfire” left that would need to be controlled before they could do so. We also lost a chance to get valuable information about the experience.

 Meanwhile, over on Larch, two people ducked a rope and went right past an avalanche closure sign at the top of the chair and began the march up towards Elevator Shaft. By the time a patroller spotted them, they were way up the slope. About half way up, they veered right and started making their way up to the top of the south-west slopes of Lipalian Mountain. They started down a slope above an avalanche slide path called Lipalian 4, the top of which was scoured and had a few rocks poking through. When they reached the rocks and prepared to enter the slope below, an avalanche released below them and ran the whole length of the slope – a size 2 avalanche, enough to bury a car. The two made their way down, and ended up back inside the area boundary. Neither had avalanche rescue gear.

Over on Summit, two skiers were peering into the Dogleg, which is an out-of-bounds run near West Bowl. They tested the slope right at the top, and released a size 2 avalanche, running the full length of the path. Obviously, these skiers decided to go elsewhere.

Poachers, for whatever reason, have decided that skiing in avalanche closures must now be okay, as we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of people venturing into places they’re not allowed. People are also heading into some out-of-bounds places completely unprepared and with no knowledge of safe travel in avalanche terrain. For example, four snowboarders were witnessed riding down the centre of an untracked West Bowl, all in a bunch and jumping off of whatever features they could find. They were not carrying any rescue gear, and if one didn’t know otherwise, it appeared as though they were trying to get the slope to avalanche. Luckily, they did not succeed.

It’s days like these that remind us of the challenges involved in educating the skiing and riding public. We’ll continue to do our best, but we need cooperation and participation from anyone thinking about going into closed or out-of-bounds areas.


Great Skiing Saturday, and More Snow Overnight

With 7 cm or so of new snow overnight Friday, skiing at Lake Louise was surprisingly good on Saturday, with higher amounts of snow in leeward aspects making things nice and soft for the weekend crowds. The day was mostly overcast, but even so, visibility was unexpectedly good, and the occasional (and brief) windows of sunlight that showed up made for some fantastic runs if you were able to time it right.

Saturday night saw a few more centimetres of snow, so there’ll be a nice soft cover on top of what we got yesterday. Forecasts are calling for more snow tonight and then off and on through the week. As is usual for Lake Louise, you’ll find more snow on leeward slopes (backside), and in many places the temperature crust from January is quickly becoming a distant memory. Temperatures are currently around -11C at mountain-top, which is a nice change from earlier in the week, and are expected to remain unchanged for the next few days.

Enjoy the great skiing!


Snow has Started

The cold has finally left, and along with more seasonal temperatures, snow has arrived as well, earlier than the forecasts predicted. Mountain-top temperatures at 0700 were -9C, and we recorded -7C at our Pika weather plot, located uphill of the base of Paradise chair.

As for overnight snowfall, we had received about 5cm as of 0700 this morning, and a couple more have been added since then. The forecasts, while not predicting heavy snow, are saying we should expect the bulk of the forecasted snow tonight and tomorrow morning. No matter what happens, we have new snow, and conditions are better for it.


Goodbye Cold, Hello Warm

Thursday at Lake Louise was a day of change, as the frigid temperatures of earlier in the week dissappeared over the course of yesterday and last night, and we were all happy to arrive at the resort this morning to see that the mountain-top temperature was a balmy -9C, and that snowflakes were beginning to fall. Depending on which forecast you look at, it looks like we can realistically expect 10cm of snow in the next few days, and those with a little more optimism may see the potential for 20cm.

We’ll certainly take anything that comes our way, as recent winds and bits of snow have improved skiing like only they can at Lake Louise, and the crust that has prevailed since the warm weather in January just keeps getting more buried and harder to find. Whatever snow we get in the near future will help make it all but disappear.

Even though it’s snowing lightly now (0830), it wasn’t forecasted to start until later today, so unless the forecasters are way off, we’re not expecting any serious accumulation over the course of today. Click on the two Lake Louise weather links on the right to see what the experts are saying, and have a great weekend!