Experts are urging anyone heading into the Sea to Sky backcountry to practice 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 when Poop Chutes, on Phalanx Mountain near Blackcomb Glacier, released a size 3 slide.
Those events came following 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 the last [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 were touring on Phalanx Mountain, an out-of-bounds area above Blackcomb Glacier on Friday afternoon when two of the skiers were caught in a wind slab that measured 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 metres, 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 out-of-bounds zone off the Spearhead Glacier. The individual was carried over several rocks and left with severe injuries requiring evacuation by air ambulance.
As of Sunday evening, Sea to Sky RCMP had confirmed the single fatality but had not released any additional details regarding the identity of the individuals who were caught up in either of the avalanches near Blackcomb Glacier Friday afternoon.
Whistler Search and Rescue (SAR) crews were on standby but were ultimately not needed after Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol successfully handled both incidents, Whistler SAR manager Brad Sills told Pique in a phone call Sunday, Feb 14.
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 told Pique.
(Pique was not able to determine if those caught up in the two Blackcomb backcountry slides were wearing transceivers.)
The Sea to Sky’s avalanche forecast on Friday was rated at “considerable” for alpine terrain.
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 hectares within Blackcomb Glacier Provincial Park for which it has a Special Use Permit for operation—which includes Phalanx and portions of the Spearhead region—that has been in effect for decades. This agreement contains commitments from Whistler Blackcomb to carry out avalanche control in the area.
Whistler Blackcomb is not commenting 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 long-standing 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 ten 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.
“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 1000 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 about 15 kilometres south of Whistler Village. He was wearing a transceiver when he was swept up in a small wind slab.
RCMP confirmed Saturday afternoon, Feb. 13 that the man had died.
Friends took to social media to identify the victim as Squamish resident Dave Henkel, a long-time Sea to Sky local who had extensive and exceptional experience in the backcountry.
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, the missing snowboarder 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.
Sills could not confirm the condition of the search subject at the time of his 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 this week led to light, faceted snow that’s easily blown around by the 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, this week’s 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 added.
"South- and west-facing slopes are the ones that are in play right now,” he said.
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.
Though Storm kept returning to the words “unusual and surprising” when describing current avalanche conditions in the region, Flann didn’t necessarily agree with that phrasing.
“Usually every year we have a cycle where we get a fairly major Arctic outbreak, we get a fairly major deep freeze and usually we get stiff slabs when that happens,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it unusual. It’s not a common thing that happens every week, but I would say that it definitely happens once or twice a year.”
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 practice caution right now, agreed Storm.
“If I was going out there right now with my skills [as a professional avalanche forecaster], it's time for recognizing that the usual things that you do may not serve you well,” he said. “You have to be extra attentive everywhere that you travel, you have to be doing slope-by-slope assessments with a recognition that you're on the lookout for unusual conditions where [slides] might be bigger than expected, and propagating wider than expected… Personally, I'd be using my surface hoar toolbox from the Interior, if I was skiing out on the coast range right now.”
Before heading into the mountains, “Get as much information as you can,” advised Flann. “When you're out there, look for signs of slab development… and just be conservative right now.”
With about 15 centimetres of new snow expected to accumulate over the corridor by the end of the day on Monday, Feb. 15, Avalanche Canada’s bulletin for the region as of Sunday evening is warning backcountry users that the precipitation will likely feed into existing wind slab problems.
Forecasters currently rate the Sea to Sky’s avalanche risk as “considerable” for the alpine and “moderate” for terrain at and below treeline.
While Storm acknowledged that Avalanche Canada’s public forecasts are “a good starting point, they don’t do everything for you.” He added, “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].
“Our forecasts… help orient you. But it needs to go beyond just looking at the danger rating these days.”
Following the abundance of avalanche activity within the corridor, AdventureSmart BC is hosting a free webinar this week that will discuss snow safety in the backcountry. The virtual event is set to take place on Wednesday, Feb. 17 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
- With a file from Dan Falloon