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Slippery slope: 'Valuable lessons' to be learned from deadly avalanche season

More tragedy in the Sea to Sky backcountry showcases the danger of this winter's snowpack

Experts are urging anyone heading into the Sea to Sky backcountry to practise extreme caution after a problematic snowpack and wind-loaded slopes resulted in a string of avalanches that killed two people and injured several others.

A 45-year-old Sea to Sky local is dead after getting swept up in a slide while snowboarding in Brandywine Bowl on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 13, less than 24 hours after a skier was killed and another badly injured in a size-3 slide on Poop Chutes, on Phalanx Mountain near Blackcomb Glacier.

Those events followed an initial Friday-afternoon avalanche off Spearhead Glacier that severely injured another skier.

That’s in addition to an event that took place in the Supercouloir area near Mamquam Mountain in Squamish on Thursday, Feb. 11. Military helicopter assistance was required to rescue two men who were in the area at the time, one of whom broke his leg after reportedly being caught in an avalanche.

The two skiers, both from Squamish, are lucky to be alive, and lucky that CFB Comox’s 442 Rescue Squadron was available to offer its services at the time: The aircrafts normally used by Squamish search and recue pilots were deemed unsafe to fly in the high winds that were blowing Thursday, while the military’s larger and sturdier Cormorant helicopter was up to the task.

“[There were] four serious search-and-rescue calls in … [three] days, [two] of them fatal, and a multitude of serious injuries,” said Sea to Sky RCMP Sgt. Sascha Banks in a release issued after Saturday’s fatal avalanche in Whistler.

“The calls speak for themselves ... The backcountry in the Sea to Sky is not stable at the moment, it’s time to wait and postpone your touring trip here for another time. This is hard on all of us: Search teams, bystanders, police, and most importantly the loved ones of those who have died and been injured. Their stories have valuable lessons … which we all need to learn from.”

Friday afternoon avalanches kill one, injure two near Blackcomb Glacier

A group of three skiers was touring on Phalanx Mountain, an area beyond Whistler Blackcomb’s boundaries above Blackcomb Glacier on Friday afternoon when two of the skiers were caught in a wind slab measuring approximately 50 centimetres thick and 60 to 80 metres wide, according to Avalanche Canada’s preliminary accident report.

The size-3 slide reportedly travelled a distance of 650 m, fully burying both subjects in the process. “One person was recovered near the toe of the slide with injuries. The second was found higher in the path but did not survive,” the report read.

The incident occurred at “almost the same time” as a skier was swept by a stiff slab just a few kilometres away, in a similarly beyond-the-boundary zone off the Spearhead Glacier. The individual was carried over several rocks and left with severe injuries requiring evacuation by air ambulance.

Sea to Sky RCMP have confirmed the single fatality but have not released any additional details regarding the identity of the individuals who were caught up in either of the avalanches near Blackcomb Glacier on the afternoon of Feb. 12.

Whistler Search and Rescue (SAR) crews were on standby but ultimately were not needed after Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol successfully handled both incidents, Whistler SAR manager Brad Sills told Pique in a phone call.

The woman who survived the Phalanx avalanche was left with several “pretty complicated injuries,” explained Whistler-based avalanche expert Wayne Flann, but likely owes her life to a group and its instructor who were in the area as part of an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) level-2 course. They witnessed the slide and quickly jumped into action to dig her out.

“If they wouldn’t have been there, there might have been a different outcome,” Flann said.

One of the members of the AST2 group was Nathalie Morel, who shared her perspective of the “miraculous, surreal, and eye-opening” experience in an Instagram post.

“As we toured up to East Col, our teacher made the call for us to turn around because the winds were so strong. We skied down the Blackcomb Glacier stopping left of the bottom of Corona Bowl to examine a small, 1.5 sized avalanche that someone was being helped out of. At that moment, one of us looked over towards the Poop [Chutes] and yelled out, ‘Avalanche!,’” she recalled.

“Here we all are, during the middle of an AST-2 course, watching this massive, size 3 avalanche happening right in front of us. Minds blown.”

Morel’s instructor immediately reported the slide to ski patrol, while one of her course-mates spotted a skier at the top of the cliffs who appeared to be attempting to descend the slope.

“They’re trying to yell something, but it’s so hard to hear with the wind. We eventually figure out that he is telling us there are others that have been caught in the avalanche,” she wrote. The group skied towards the debris while their instructor determined whether or not it was safe to enter the area.

“We turn our beacons into search mode and head in, and the reality of what we’re about to be involved in kicks in—we are about to do a real avalanche rescue.”

Morel said the group found a signal “within seconds” of walking into the debris. “As one of our group was getting closest, within a couple meters (sic), I followed with my probe and got a strike right away. It was obvious what it was. We all start digging in a line, as we learned, to get rid of as much snow out of the way as possible,” she wrote. “You hear about how tired you get, but it’s worse than that. That snow is so heavy. Doing that alone would be SO difficult. Once in a while you look up in exhaustion and make eye contact with one of your teammates and know you’re both thinking ‘is this really happening’ while you continue digging.”

She continued, “To have learned what we had in those two days and end up in that situation was beyond miraculous. We were able to help save a life. We saw first hand (sic) what those mountains are capable of and what the outcomes would be like.”

Blackcomb Mountain’s Controlled Recreational Area encompasses 2,094 hectares on the north and east side of Fitzsimmons Creek, while Blackcomb Mountain’s ski terrain includes an additional 219 ha. within Blackcomb Glacier Provincial Park for which it has a Special Use Permit for operation—including Phalanx and portions of the Spearhead region. This has been in effect for decades. The agreement contains commitments from Whistler Blackcomb to carry out avalanche control in the area.

A representative for Whistler Blackcomb said they would not comment further on the Feb. 12 avalanches beyond pointing to this agreement.

Flann, however, confirmed ski patrol would have conducted avalanche control in the Phalanx area via helicopter that morning, as part of the longstanding agreement to provide avalanche mitigation for the out-of-bounds zones adjacent to the ski resort.

Whistler Blackcomb crews generally “only do mitigation when they’re worried about an avalanche actually going into their designated run,” Flann explained.

Though their bombing tested the stability of the slopes, Whistler Blackcomb “reported basically zero results for that morning” of Feb. 12, he said. But conditions can vary greatly throughout a single day, explained Flann, which likely contributed to the avalanche that occurred later that afternoon.

“You can’t throw a bomb in every little tiny slope, either,” he added. “You’re only going for the targets that you think might release, and you can’t throw a bomb in every little pocket because you’d be out there all day.”

Additionally, the skiers who were caught “were way up high, on a slope in an area that, normally, I don’t think gets skied very much,” Flann said. “They were in very steep terrain, and unfortunately that’s where [wind] slabs like to grow.”

The size-3 slide that resulted from that slab means the fatal avalanche was large enough to destroy a small building or bury a car. The avalanche grading system operates on a scale that sees each numbered level increase in scope by approximately 10 times that of its predecessor. So, for example, a size-3 avalanche is typically around 100 times bigger than a size 1, explained Avalanche Canada forecaster Ilya Storm, over the phone from Revelstoke.

“All you need is 100 metres in length, typically a size 2—which isn’t necessarily that big—and you’re in the game where you’re playing for keeps,” Storm said. “If you go 10 times larger, an avalanche that is going 1,000 metres or a kilometre down … to survive as a skier, or boarder or snowmobiler, it takes an element of luck.”

Experienced local snowboarder killed in Brandywine Bowl

Another tragic blow occurred less than a day later, when first responders received a call about a snowboarder missing after an avalanche in Brandywine Bowl, near the Callaghan Valley.

RCMP confirmed Saturday afternoon, Feb. 13 that the man had died after being swept up in a small wind slab.

Friends took to social media to identify the victim as Squamish resident and longtime Sea to Sky local Dave Henkel, who police said had “extensive” backcountry experience and knowledge of the region.

According to his mother, Leslie Newton, “there was apparently a small avalanche that knocked over [his partner] first, and he got her secured and got their boards on and decided they had to get out of there fast,” she said in a phone call on Feb. 16, three days after the accident.

“He zoomed ahead and she was following, but the rest of the mountain came down and that was it.”

Newton described her son as a kind, generous soul who “was willing to give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.”

She said the expert snowboarder “[loved] adventure to the fullest and pushed the envelope, and loved rock climbing, snowboarding. Those were his passions.” He often passed on his knowledge of those sports to the many friends he met along the way, she added.

But while Henkel lived for extreme sports, Newton said he took pains to practise them safely.

“He loved his family. He loved life. He was a free spirit,” she said. “He was doing what he loved.”

Whistler SAR’s Sills told Pique that volunteers worked with numerous other agencies to respond to the call, including Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol. “Typically we ask for [an avalanche] dog, a doctor, and two level-2 [Canadian Avalanche Association] technicians, and that allows us to go to the site and collect the pertinent information, upon which we can build an avalanche operations plan,” he said.

“There is a process before we actually insert members into a site. We have to do a full report, and we do that for our own safety.”

That initial crew of first responders was swiftly followed by a second helicopter carrying Whistler SAR volunteers, Sills said, adding that it took 42 minutes from the time he received the call for the first helicopter to lift off of Whistler Mountain.

According to police, Henkel was located about 45 minutes after the call came in.

Though the avalanche was on the smaller side, with Avalanche Canada grading it a size 1, Sills said the snowboarder had been caught in trees about halfway down a steep, technical slope with “a lot of remaining hazards overhead,” forcing crews to carry out a long-line rescue.

Henkel’s death represents the loss of yet another knowledgeable, well-prepared powder-hunter to the mountains this winter, something Sills said is becoming a disturbing pattern.

“What’s emerging, and what’s quite different this year is that at least four of the five fatalities that we’ve had here in the Sea to Sky country have been with well-above-average—I would say very experienced—snow travellers,” he told Pique.

“There’s something pushing people with a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge into decision-making regimes that are not faring out very well. And, most likely, the culprit here is that we have a very complicated snowpack this year, quite unlike the snowpacks that we typically get on the coast.”

He added, “Behaviours that have been acceptable in past years are not acceptable this year.”

So what is the combination of factors leading to this unusually high number of tragic incidents recently?

Wind slabs proving problematic after a week of cold weather and north-easterly winds

The windy, cold weather Whistler experienced recently led to light, faceted snow that’s easily blown around by strong gusts, explained both Flann and Storm. “When you get strong winds in variable directions and transportable snow, it produces wind slabs,” Flann said.

While Whistler’s winds typically blow from the south or southeast, the recent Arctic outflow meant they were instead coming from the opposite directions, carrying that loose snow with them and reverse loading slopes in “unusual places, surprising places” where flakes don’t usually pile up, Storm said.

“South- and west-facing slopes are the ones that are in play right now,” he added.

Typically the snowpack on those aspects is “scoured and thin,” Storm told Pique, meaning it’s “weaker, has facets, sugary granules of snow, might have thin sun crusts. So we have weakness, which is almost a persistent weakness, being covered up by wind slabs.”

To that end, Friday’s slide off Phalanx occurred on a west-facing aspect, while Saturday’s avalanche in Brandywine occurred on a southwest-facing slope.

In this case, the low temperatures and gusty conditions also developed wind slabs that were quite firm.

When it comes to these harder-packed slabs, “It doesn’t take much to initiate them and then they move quickly, easily,” Flann explained. “So you don’t really have time to get off them, and they move pretty fast so you gain speed pretty quick.”

The skier- and rider-triggered slides came following widespread natural releases of size-1 and size-2 avalanches that occurred in the Whistler area on and since Thursday, Feb. 11, said Flann.

Heading into the backcountry? Here’s what you need to keep in mind

With conditions remaining on the sketchy side for the foreseeable future, Sills advised local backcountry enthusiasts to “dial it way back” as winter continues.

“Get some nice cruise-y ski [days] in,” he said. “All the ski hills are empty; go rip it up on the groomers. It’s really difficult, even for the snow scientists, to understand with any great amount of confidence what’s happening. And it’s so varied in the snowpack this year, there’s so many pockets of instability and there’s so many people [in the backcountry] that every piece of the landscape is getting stepped on.”

Even those with an above-average level of experience in the mountains should play it safe and practise caution right now, agreed Storm.

“[I]t’s time for recognizing that the usual things that you do may not serve you well,” he said.

In a Feb. 16 advisory to Pique, Avalanche Canada said an incoming atmospheric river, commonly known as a “pineapple express,” is expected to hit the mountains this weekend.

“These long, narrow plumes of moisture deliver heavy amounts of precipitation and mild air, and are a recipe for rising avalanche danger. This is a good time to dial your terrain choices back and wait to see how the snowpack responds,” the advisory read.

Forecasters urged “patience and a conservative approach” to avalanche terrain, recommending choosing low-angle slopes and avoiding areas where the snowpack is thin.

“This could be a time to brush up on your backcountry travel skills with something like a one-day Managing Avalanche Terrain course. If you’re new to the backcountry, check out Avy Savvy, our new online tutorial or take an Avalanche Safety Training course,” it went on.

While Storm acknowledged that Avalanche Canada’s public forecasts are  “a good starting point, they don’t do everything for you.  

“Especially right now with these surprising and unusual conditions, people do need some skills, some smarts and to take on some of the responsibility [of managing themselves and their group].”

Avalanche Canada forecasts are intended to “help orient you. But it needs to go beyond looking at the danger rating these days.”

- With files from Dan Falloon and Steven Chua of the Squamish Chief.