Coroner recommends ways to reduce risk 

CAA supports recommendations, including forming association of backcountry guiding companies

The Revelstoke Coroner investigating the deaths of seven backcountry travellers on the Durrand Glacier last January tabled his final report last week, making several recommendations to improve backcountry avalanche safety in the province.

The fatal slide trapped 13 people out of a group of 21 and killed four Canadians and three Americans. Snowboard legend Craig Kelly was among the victims.

The incident was officially ruled an accident and the report did not suggest that Selkirk Mountain Experience, the company guiding the fatal backcountry trip, was in any way negligent. However coroner Charles Purse’s investigation identified several ways that the ski touring industry could reduce the risk of similar incidents in the future.

Among the coroner’s findings:

• The Canadian Avalanche Association stated in its daily Infoex release that skier remote triggered avalanches were occurring in the backcountry. Selkirk Mountain Experience did not subscribe to Infoex, and only had access to the general backcountry avalanche report issued by the CAA that gave the avalanche rating as ‘Considerable’.

Infoex is a daily backcountry avalanche report that is made up of the information submitted by a wide range of Infoex subscribers, including heliski companies, snowcat skiing companies, and other backcountry user groups. The Infoex reports are updated more regularly than the CAA’s general avalanche bulletins, and are more specific geographically.

• Professional guides must meet certification guidelines set by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, but the ski touring industry is unregulated. There are no guidelines to specify what constitutes an acceptable risk, how many people should be on a slope at one time, or how many people should be in each ski party.

In recognition of the growing popularity of the sport, and the importance of having the most up-to-date information available, the coroner made the following recommendations:

• "…that all commercial operations, where client safety could be affected by avalanches, be required to participate in Infoex. Program participation in Infoex could be a requirement of the land use tenure."

• "Avalanche courses and snow seminars are offered on a regular basis and should be attended by certified guides on a regular, or scheduled, basis. With the increase in the number of commercial ski touring lodges and hut operations comes the need for these operators to promote standards of safety, client care and operating methods for the industry.

"The formation of an association, similar to the British Columbia Helicopter Skiing and Snowcat Operators Association, would serve the interests of everyone involved in the ski touring industry."

The CAA fully supports Purse’s recommendations.

"I think the report should be taken in the same context as the other reviews and recommendations and report to come out as a result of last winter by Parks Canada, the Solicitor General, the Tweedsmuir Report," said Clair Israelson, the executive director of the CAA.

"In that context, it’s extremely positive.

"One of the things that was apparent in these reports was an implicit understanding that if we could take that day, or any other days back, we would do things differently. It’s not to lay blame, but more out of a genuine need to learn more, and make a commitment to do better," he said.

The Infoex program itself was created more than a decade ago as a result of another avalanche tragedy, a heli-ski expedition in the Bugaboos that killed nine skiers, says Israelson. The same incident brought about the creation of the B.C. Helicopter Skiing and Snowcat Operators Association, which created a uniform set of safety and guiding standards for the industry.

With more and more companies and individuals ski touring in the backcountry every year, Israelson believes companies should have to subscribe to Infoex as part of their tenure requirements. He also supported the creation of an organization for ski touring companies, and regular certifications for guides.

"Anywhere there are lives in the balance it makes good common sense, and we hope to see a strong commitment across the board (to adopting these recommendations)," said Israelson.

"Following these major incidents last winter, there was a major crisis of confidence. People who were making plans for vacations were wondering if it was safe. An economic report stated that $10 million (in tourism) was lost last year, and the crisis of confidence is still there."

The only way to re-earn the confidence of the public and continue to grow the industry is to show that the ski touring companies are doing everything they can to make the backcountry experience safe, says Israelson.

In terms of avalanche deaths, last winter was the deadliest on record for B.C., with 24 people dying in avalanches. In addition to the seven killed on the Durrand Glacier, seven Grade 10 students were killed two weeks later while ski touring in Glacier National Park.

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