Avalanche Fatalities in B.C.

People are beginning to hear about the two avalanche-related fatalities at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden, B.C., and while I don’t want to add too much to the rivers of ink that will likely flow as a result of this tragic accident, I was disappointed to see that a Calgary newspaper failed to make the distinction between out-of-bounds and a permanent avalanche closure, using both descriptors to describe where these two skiers were when the avalanche struck. They were not out-of-bounds, but were in a permanently closed avalanche area.

When there were avalanche-related fatalities in Whistler in January, I posted an article about this issue, specifically as it applies to Lake Louise. It’s copied below:

 

“Closed” vs. “Out-of-Bounds” (Jan. 2, 2009)

With avalanche fatalities making news on a number of fronts lately, it seems a good time to outline the policy at Lake Louise with regards to boundaries and closures, and what the differences are between the two. And while I suspect that most of those reading this blog have a good familiarity with these aspects of the resort, it’s still probably a good idea to provide a reminder.

Most relevant to our operation were the two fatalities in Whistler, one each in separate avalanches on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. News reports stated that each person had entered an “out-of-bounds” area, but also that both areas, while normally open during good snow years, were closed due to poor conditions – namely, high avalanche hazard and a minimum of control work. In our neck of the woods, out-of-bounds and avalanche closures are two separate things, and people need to be aware of those differences.

One of the things that makes public education a challenge is that there is no single universal policy in the ski industry when it comes to dealing with these areas. In some places, those leaving the resort boundary are subject to criminal prosecution. Others allow you to leave the resort, but make it clear that those requiring assistance or rescue will be responsible for the total cost. Given that many serious injuries require the use of a helicopter, patients could find themselves faced with a bill in the thousands of dollars.

Because Lake Louise is located in Banff National Park, the situation here is somewhat unique in the industry. Since those skiing at the Lake have entered the national park with a park pass, that pass covers any sort of rescue that may be required. This includes hikers who injure themselves far from the trailhead, and climbers who get stuck high on the mountain. (Having said that, those who make a habit of getting into enough trouble to require rescue may find themselves faced with the bill. This should prevent people from just assuming that a helicopter will come and whisk them off the mountain at the first sign of trouble).

Officially, the resort boundary dictates who will perform a rescue – inside is ski patrol, outside is Parks Service. Unofficially, the ski patrol will assist with backcountry issues close to the boundary, and the parks service will assist inside the boundary if their help is requested. This results in a great working relationship between the resort and the public safety wardens.

Out-of-Bounds

At Lake Louise, out-of-bounds means just that – any area that lies outside our operational boundary, which is marked with orange rope and bamboo fencing, and is identified with orange signs stating “Ski Area Boundary – Not Patrolled”. Our entire boundary is open, meaning there is no restriction with regards to when or where someone can leave the resort area to enter the backcountry (as long as they don’t travel through an avalanche closure to do it). At the same time, anyone considering a backcountry trip needs to realise that there can be a whole new set of hazards and implications involved with their decision.

First and foremost is the fact that no avalanche control is performed outside the resort boundary (except in a few cases where out-of-bounds terrain has the potential to avalanche into in-bounds terrain). So, even though a piece of backcountry terrain has the same characteristics (slope angle, aspect, elevation, etc) as somethings in-bounds, it has not received any of the ongoing control work that makes terrain safe for skiing.

Related to avalanche control work is skier compaction. The more traffic a piece of terrain gets, the more the snowpack gets compacted and pounded into the mountain face, adding to stability. Within the boundary we have a very good idea of the amount of skier compaction that has occurred on any given run. This is not the case for terrain outside the boundary, meaning that the stabilising effects of skier traffic are mostly unknown.

Another thing to consider when traveling outside the boundary is that rescue can take much longer to perform. Within the resort, assistance is only minutes away. In the backcountry, the rescue effort can be much more involved, and rescuers must ensure their own safety when approaching the site, especially in avalanche terrain. A serious injury such as a broken femur can be life-threatening, and if it takes a few hours for the injury to get reported and the patrol to locate the site and perform a rescue, it could be hours the patient does not have.

Avalanche Area Closures

Within and separate from the resort boundary are areas identified as avalanche zones. These are areas, mostly in the alpine, that the avalanche forecaster has deemed to be unsafe for skiing. Like the boundary, these areas are marked with orange rope and bamboo fences, but have different signage. These signs are stop sign-shaped, and use mainly red and white markings with the text “Closed – Avalanche Danger”. Unlike the boundary, entry into these areas when closed is not negotiable nor open to interpretation. Not only could the terrain be unsafe, but the patrol may be performing avalanche control work with explosives.

Entry into avalanche closures can be dealt with in a few ways. Generally, we aim for an “education, not alienation” approach when talking with “poachers”. However, if a poacher appears to have a bad attitude or lack of appreciation for why the terrain is closed, or if they appear unwilling to learn from the experience, then pass removal is the usual outcome. Season or multi-day pass holders  must successfully complete an avalanche quiz at the end of their suspension in order to have their pass returned.

CLOSED! (tracks belong to patrollers - or those studying for a quiz)

CLOSED! (tracks belong to patrollers – or those studying for a quiz)

Poachers almost never have any understanding of avalanche hazard and how it relates to weather or snowpack development, nor do we expect them to. We expect that people trust our experience and decision to keep terrain closed due to hazard, and that they obey all posted signage. A good example of poor knowledge came from one poacher who claimed “Well, it was open last year and it was okay then!”.

Anyone who rides Paradise chair already knows the most heavily poached spot on the mountain – the ER 4/5 fenceline (the fact that poachers are visible to a chair full of people never seems to occur to some of them). The common excuse we hear is “I was just inside the fence, how dangerous could it have been?”. We then explain that:

  • by placing tracks in a closed area, you send the message to others that the terrain is open to be skied (sucker tracks).
  • you endanger the lives of those who may be skiing below in open terrain.
  • you endanger the lives of those who would come to your rescue in the event you got into trouble.
  • you may have been by the fence, but the next person will go in further to get their fresh lines, and so on until people are skiing right in the heart of an avalanche slope.  

In the end, all we can hope is that people respect the closures in place within the resort boundary, and that those traveling outside the boundary be prepared. The Ski Patrol at Lake Louise is always available to answer your questions. If they can’t, they’ll point you in the right direction to find out all you need to know.

*****

Public education is the biggest challenge when dealing with these issues, and innaccurate  reporting does nothing to help those who are trying hard to provide a safe skiing experience for all, and for those who choose to leave resort boundaries.

Play safe!

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