February 20, 2004 Features & Images » Feature Story

Feature - Sometimes, knowledge isn’t enough 

What makes snow slide has been studied by scientists and mountain guides for years, but we’re still a long way from understanding avalanches

By G.D. Maxwell

"It’s a simple equation. The more time you spend in the field, the greater your chances of being caught up in an avalanche."

The field the speaker was referring to was snowy mountains. The audience he was speaking to consisted of a handful of snow scientists, a couple of "guests" and a whole lot of people lucky enough to spend enough time in the field to call it their office – Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) heliskiing guides.

Chris Stetham, who was speaking, knows what he’s talking about. He’s spent a lot of time in the field himself. Most of it has been as a trainer, teaching people the art and science of deciphering snow packs. Of unlocking their secrets and making informed decisions – decisions with life and death hanging in the balance – based on what they reveal.

He’s spent a lot more field time researching snow that’s moved. Avalanches. Some have been benign, leaving only silence and a changed landscape in their wake. Some have been deadly, leaving torn bodies, shattered lives and unanswered questions. When he investigates a deadly avalanche, Chris tries to answer the ones he can, the How it Happened and Why it Happened questions. He prefers to leave the unanswerable ones, like Why Were They There, to others.

I have a feeling one of the questions Chris was trying to answer that day last December was what the heck I was doing in the audience. The answer, if not the circumstances, is the same one so many people who narrowly miss being swept up in an avalanche generally give: Just lucky, I guess.

Lucky enough to be invited to sit in on a week’s training and find out for myself what some of these people, who remember the horrific toll avalanches took last winter, think about heading back out into their field to spend endless days skiing untracked – and uncontrolled – powder in some of the most magnificent and rugged mountainscapes British Columbia has to offer. Lucky enough to get a glimpse of what it takes to keep the biggest heliskiing operation as safe as people can make it and still give their customers the thrill of a lifetime. Yeah, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

But what I was thinking about when Chris posited his simple equation was this: If he’s right, why aren’t these guys dead? What I learned about what they know shed some light on the answer to that question.

A Winter of Discontent

Last winter wasn’t the deadliest winter for avalanche deaths in B.C. history. In 1910, avalanches rolling down onto the Canadian Pacific line at Rogers Pass took the lives of 62 people. In 1965, 35 loggers and miners on the north coast were killed in two separate slides.

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