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The Connaught Creek drainage in Glacier National Park draws backcountry skiers on a winter weekend like watermelon draws flies on a warm summers day. Saturday, February 1 st , wasnt much of an exception. Among the skiers who skinned up and headed into the valley on a trail that can see upwards of 200 skiers on a busy weekend were Rich Marshall and Abby Watkins, professional mountain guides from Golden on a busmans holiday.
The avalanche information bulletin posted by Park staff advised travelers the avalanche danger rating was "moderate" below treeline and "considerable" at treeline and in the alpine. It also warned of the different weak layers in the snow pack and included this prescient language:
"Natural avalanche activity in the past 24 hours has been relatively small with a few size 2 avalanches noted from steeper terrain. The possibility of a human triggering avalanches at the surface hoar layer remains as does the potential for a triggered event to step down to one of the deeper instabilities."
Connaught Creek runs from west to east towards Rogers Pass. From the trailhead at the highway, its about 6 kilometres to Balu Pass. The valley drains high mountains on either side and while giving a sense of spaciousness, you dont so much walk through it as you wear it. Looking up at the mountains on either side, what you see are numerous natural avalanche paths.
Around mid-morning, Rich and Abby passed a school group from Calgary. The 14 Grade-10 students, two teachers and a chaperon were sensibly paired up and spaced out 10 to 15 metres, a standard precaution for a large group traveling in avalanche country.
Not long after passing the students, Rich and Abby skied up into a stand of trees on the north side of the trail towards Hospital Gully and stopped for a snack and warm drink. As they drank, they watched the students wend their way up valley some hundred metres below their position.
Eric Dafoe was in attendance at the CMH training last December. Erics the senior Park warden at Rogers Pass and explained what happened next. Nearly a year after the incident, no ones certain what exactly lit the fuse on that February morning. Visual inspections conducted by helicopter, when the weather cleared enough to safely fly a couple of days later, revealed a medium-size chunk of cornice missing from the ridge below the peak of Cheops Mountain. Best guess speculation is that it might have broken off, dropped down high in a chute on a 45º slope and propagated a fault along one of the shallower weaknesses in the snow pack.
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