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.


One Comment on “Avalanches Hit Close to Home”

  1. Graeme says:

    Wow, all of those incidents you describe around LL are pretty scary. It’s amazing how willfully ignorant people are being. It’s not like the risk hasn’t been well publicized in the media this year. I think with more and more people seeing ski/snowboard films (and clips online) and getting onto bigger rockered skis/boards this problem will continue unfortunately.

    There was another death in my area (I live in Prince George now), down by Valemount, two sledders, haven’t seen a report yet on if they had gear but the guy had to leave the scene after he couldn’t find the other one buried so I assume not. Sketchy conditions right now up here too (new snow, warming temps). Sad.

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