Nine people have been killed in B.C. avalanches this season, including four since Feb. 11. Avalanche Canada has warned that this year’s snowpack is dangerous and difficult to forecast.
The avalanche deaths of two skiers in British Columbia’s central Interior this month have prompted an emotional plea about this season’s dangerous conditions from the head of a volunteer search and rescue team.
Rick White, the chief of the Central Cariboo Search and Rescue team in Williams Lake, announced Thursday that one of the people killed in a slide on Potato Peak on Feb. 11 southwest of Williams Lake was a member of his team.
Calling the member’s death “devastating,” White’s statement highlighted the “horrifically unforgiving” avalanche risks this season across the province.
Nate Fochler, a ski guide in Revelstoke, said this year’s snowpack has indeed created dangerous conditions in the backcountry, with spikes in freezing temperatures creating what’s known as a “deep persistent weak layer” of snow.
“The likelihood of triggering it is low, but the consequences would be very high if you did trigger it,” Fochler said. “Industry wide, everyone’s kind of trying to avoid the same kind of terrain.” Fochler said the snowpack this year is similar to that in B.C. in 2003, a particularly deadly year for avalanches after two slides within two weeks of each other claimed 14 lives near Revelstoke.
The risks inherent in the backcountry can never be eliminated, only mitigated, Fochler said.
“Nature is bigger than us,” he said. “Even guides with decades of experience still end up in bad situations.”
Fochler said it’s understandable that search and rescuers would warn people against going into the backcountry where avalanche risks always exist, but for guides like him, it’s his livelihood.
“Even if it is dangerous, I still have to go do my job,” he said. “In a perfect world, we would just not go ski when it’s dangerous, but that’s not always reasonable, so it’s just a matter of mitigation and trying to deal with the hazards the best way that we can.”
In a statement published in late January, Ryan Buhler with Avalanche Canada outlined concerns about upcoming weather conditions that could have motivated “people to push into terrain that was previously unappealing in poor weather.”
“The temptation might be strong, but we are cautioning people against pushing into untracked or unfamiliar terrain,” Buhler says.
Here is a timeline of avalanche events this season:
Dec. 31: A skier suffers life-threatening injuries in a slide near Emerald Lake in southeast B.C., near the Alberta border, Avalanche Canada says in a report.
Jan. 5: Avalanche Canada warns of a touchy snowpack, with various weak layers created by long periods of drought and cold weather. “Riders have triggered large, scary avalanches with high consequences,” the advisory says.
Jan. 9: Two off-duty police officers are caught up in an avalanche near Kaslo, B.C., while backcountry skiing. Nelson Police Service Const. Wade Tittemore, 43, dies and Const. Mathieu Nolet, 28, sustains severe internal injuries.
Jan. 21: Nolet dies of his injuries in hospital.
Jan. 21: Two snowmobilers riding at the base of a slope near Valemount, B.C., accidentally trigger an avalanche from above, sending a slab of snow onto one rider while the other escapes. The buried rider is found unresponsive and dies.
Jan. 23: Heli-skiers and their guide are caught in an avalanche near Revelstoke, B.C. The two guests are dug out of the snow unresponsive and are both declared dead in hospital. The guide is taken to hospital in stable condition.
Jan. 23: A slide comes down on a one person near Cherryville, B.C. Emergency health services says the person is taken to hospital with undetermined injuries.
Jan. 24: Brothers and American businessmen Jonathan and Timothy Kingsley are identified by Pennsylvania-based Kinsley Construction as the victims of the slide near Revelstoke on Jan. 23.
Feb. 11: Two skiers are caught in an avalanche on Potato Peak, in B.C.’s Chilcotin area. Search and rescue were notified when the victims were reported overdue and their bodies were recovered at the site of the slide.
Feb. 16: Five snowboarders and a skier were caught in an avalanche in a backcountry area near Golden, B.C., burying two people and partially covering a third person. The partially buried person survived, while the two others were killed.
The Canadian Press