Avalanche Incident in Ptarmigan Area

As mentioned in the previous post, Thursday morning was an eventful one, as crews began the huge task of controlling slopes that had been pounded by over 50cm of new snow and hit by moderate strength winds blowing from the south-east and south-west. Throw in a weak snowpack that existed prior to the storm and expectations were that control work would produce numerous results. In fact, as crews reached the upper mountain that morning, it became clear that a number of natural avalanches had occurred since the end of the storm, including one that released along the ER 4/5 fence line (dividing Paradise Bow and Upper ER5), and ran down and into Hell’s Kitchen. Brownshirt Main Gully and most of Whitehorn II also ran naturally.

A further indication of the touchiness of the snowpack occurred Friday when control teams placed an explosive shot towards the skier’s right side of ER3, and the resulting blast cleared out most of the slope, and also caused a sympathetic release at the top of Swede’s that cleaned it out and ran down and into Hell’s Kitchen. The ER3 slide ran down onto and past the bench far below it.

As control work was proceeding Thursday morning, access to the back side was given through the gate at the top of the Grizzly Gondola, giving skiers the terrain that exists below Pika – Exhibition, Ptarmigan Glades, Old Ptarmigan, Ptarmigan, Raven, and Pika Trees (Ptarmigan Chutes stayed closed). This access can almost always be given while control work is ongoing on the rest of the back side, which remains closed until the work is complete.

When the gate for Pika at the top of the Gondola was opened, most skiers headed toward the Exhibition area. The first pitch of Exhibition, which runs directly underneath Ptarmigan Chair, is a less steep section that leads to the main, and much steeper, pitch that makes up the run. Immediately to the skier’s left of the top of this steeper pitch is a treeless knoll, and three skiers made their way to the top of this feature. The first skier on the slope went down the centre of the slope, without incident. The second dropped into the right side, and the third skier started down the left side. As the third skier got onto the slope, he triggered a slide, but was able to grab a tree to prevent going down the slope further. He was unable to see the first two skiers, but did yell out. The second skier later told us he sat down as soon as the slope began to avalanche and rode a short distance on top of the debris before it came to a stop, then got back up and continued to ski.

Avalanches and approach routes of involved parties (photo from November 2009)

When the slide had stopped, the third skier could not see the other two skiers. Unharmed, he made his way to the bottom and to Temple Patrol near the base of Larch chair, where he found a patroller and reported what had happened. The patroller immediately called the avalanche forecaster, who was with me and a few others performing control work in Flight 2. The initial information we had was that there were three people involved in an avalanche, and that two of the involved parties were unaccounted for. As a result, we immediately initiated our rescue plan, with the forecaster heading down to his office to act as Base Rescue, and the rest of us in that group making our way to the Gondola so we could get to the scene. At the same time, the Snow Safety Manager was at Pika Corner, a few hundred metres above the base of Paradise chair, and he and his partner made their way to Ptarmigan chair so they too could get to the scene.

While the various patrollers were making their way there, more pieces of the puzzle continued to fall into place. By the time we had reached the top of the avalanched slope, it was apparent that there had been two incidents – the one first reported, and another on the top steep pitch of Old Ptarmigan, which is just to the north of Exhibition. This second avalanche was smaller, and there were no involvements.

As part of the rescue plan, we had notified the Parks service, and a few Public Safety Specialists began to make their way to the ski area.The avalanche forecaster also asked for a dog team, and a helicopter was dispatched from Canmore to transport the team to Lake Louise. Normally, a Parks dog team would be dispatched, but as they were unavailable at the time, the helicopter flew instead to Sunshine Village ski area, where they picked up patroller Tim Ricci and his dog Cholo, who are a certified CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association) rescue team. Another Sunshine Village patroller, Martin Lefebvre, was available as well and joined Tim and Cholo for the flight.

As Parks teams were en route to Lake Louise, the two skiers who had up to that time been unaccounted for identified themselves to patrol. Unable to provide absolute certainty that there were no other parties involved, the search and rescue operation continued, which by now involved a number of patrollers at the avalanche site using various methods to search the slide zone and debris. On scene were two Recco receivers, and every patroller had their beacons switched to receive and their probes out and assembled, fanning out and covering as much of the debris field as possible.

The avalanche was a size 1.5, which can often be harmless to people when only considering the mass of the slide. There are bunches of trees below the open part of the slope, and since debris can pile up deeper above trees, this is where probing efforts were focused.

Even though we were reasonably certain that all involved parties were now accounted for, that certainty wasn’t 100%, so the search continued. When the searchers reached the bottom end of the avalanche debris, we left the slope clear so that the dog team, which was now minutes away, could have full access to the slope.

The helicopter arrived just above the top of the avalanched slope, and after patrollers, Public Safety Specialists, and the dog team discussed their plan, Tim, Cholo, and another patroller headed toward the slope, with Cholo having no choice other than to follow their ski tracks through the deep snow. The team made quick work of checking the slope, and with Cholo not indicating any “hits”, the slope was declared clear once the completed the search.

Now that the incident has passed, we’ve had a chance to get a clearer picture of what happened. In previous reports of avalanches that have appeared on this site, the decisions made by involved parties always played a large part in telling the story. Why did people pick the route they used? What observations did they make about the snowpack? What information was gathered prior to the trip? How well-prepared were they to be in avalanche terrain? What was the experience level of the party members?

Given that this incident occurred in-bounds, these questions are largely irrelevant here. There’s usually no expectation that special knowledge, equipment, or experience is required to ski in open, in-bounds terrain. The people involved were likely thinking of nothing other than how great their powder turns were about to be, and rightly so.

For an incident like this, a rescue begins by “shrinking the mountain”. In this case, Top of the World chair was closed so patrollers could be freed up to join the rescue effort. We can never leave an area unpatrolled if staff are required elsewhere, so the decision to close an area is key to providing the needed resources.

The photos below were taken by a Parks Public Safety Specialist from the helicopter that was flying overhead while the dog team searched below. The video shows the helicopter arriving and the dog team making their way to the avalanche scene.

(Click on any photo for larger version)

Photo: Parks Canada

Photo: Parks Canada

The following shots were taken as patrollers readied themselves for the probe search at the top of the pitch, and on the slope itself as the search was conducted. One shot gives an idea of how far down the slope the debris ran through the trees.

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7 Comments on “Avalanche Incident in Ptarmigan Area”

  1. eric frigon says:

    i was involved in the second slide btw. (wich i did report) i was able to keep it upright and to free myself from the debris pile.

  2. Brett says:

    Great read,

    This article is in invaluable for a first time skiier heading to LL who knows little about av conditions.

    Thanks for keeping us safe mate 🙂

    Brett

  3. Mark Klassen says:

    Hey Boys. I had an incident very near there back in the early 90s sometime. Skier accidental, no witnesses, single ski track in and out so we didn’t have to initiate a rescue. There were two winters back in the day where we had a big early season storm on a thin facetted snowpack with a few close calls in terrain we didn’t normally have to think about. The first was 92-93, another one a couple of seasons later. Skier accidentals in Exhibition, below Meadow cat-track, liftline below Friendly Giant, Grizzly Bowl, Flight 1, Lookout Trees, Crow Bowl. Christmas 92 was pretty western: unforecasted storm and only Iles and myself on deck. Everyone else was “home for the holidays”. Everything below treeline that was steep enough was running. The 2 of us controlled 3/4 of the area by ourselves over 3 days before reinforcements arrived and we managed to get onto Summit and the Eagle paths. Good times.

    • lakelouiselowdown says:

      Hey Mark,

      Thanks for that. Rocket mentioned the same thing about the Exhibition incident, not sure if it’s the same one. I remember him taking me for my first time to the Paradise Pocket, and thinking that I had been patrolling for years at Lake Louise already and had no idea that slope even existed! I’ve had a respect for those little tucked away places ever since.

  4. Rob Miller says:

    This is excellent reporting on the incident and clears up a lot of the vague rumours that have been circulating. Good to hear no one was injured! If you want to see a 3.5 avalanche check out this video. http://youtu.be/O65CFK0zoFk

  5. Howard says:

    If those areas slid, can imagine there will be a lot closed for avalanche work. Ski Ptarmigan trees quite often seems like a relatively low risk area for slides, just tells you signs are up for a reason.

  6. Jeff Haack says:

    Best source of public information I found on the incident, truly the Lake Louise ‘lowdown’…


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