Four heli-skiers dead in avalanches in less than a week 

First incident claims biathlon champion

A frozen layer, high winds and a heavy snowfall are being blamed for the four heli-ski avalanche deaths that occurred over the past week, including one death in the Pemberton area.

The first incident occurred in Birkenhead Provincial Park on Thursday, Jan. 24 on a popular heli-ski run known as Baked Fresh Daily. Three skiers in the five-member group, not including two guides, were caught and trapped in the slide, which occurred at approximately noon.

One of the trapped skiers managed to free himself, and with the help of the guides dug out another skier who was partially buried. Both of these trapped skiers were uninjured.

Using avalanche transceivers, the skiers and guides located the third skier a few minutes later, who didn’t display any vital signs.

"Emergency life support was attempted for this person by qualified persons at the scene," said Sergeant Norm McPhail of the Pemberton RCMP. "The person was later pronounced dead at the scene by an on-site physician."

The life support was performed by a doctor who was with the group. When they flew the victim back to Pemberton, the Emergency Health Services crew that met the helicopter found him dead on arrival.

The skier has been identified as 30-year-old Jay Poss of Sterling, Alaska. Poss, in addition to being an experienced backcountry skier, was the American national biathlon champion in 1997. The following summer he broke his back in a paragliding incident, missing his opportunity to ski for the U.S. at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.

Poss was part of a group that booked the heli-ski tour with Cayoosh Helisports, a Pemberton-based company that received tenure to operate heli-skiing and heli-hiking tours last summer.

According to Sgt. McPahil, the incident is under investigation, although foul play has been ruled out.

"It has been reported that the heli-skiing company involved was acting in accordance with regulations at the time of the incident. The company had properly briefed the skiers involved on safety protocols and procedures prior to the accident."

The cause or mechanism of death has not been determined yet, says Brian Pothier, the coroner for the Sea to Sky area.

"Because it happened in the backcountry, we’re waiting for the report from the avalanche investigation, and we’re awaiting the report from the pathologist," says Pothier. "The report should be ready within four to six weeks."

According to the Canadian Avalanche Association bulletin, the avalanche danger on Jan. 24 was "Considerable." Considerable is the third highest classification for avalanche danger on a five step scale that includes Low, Moderate, Considerable, High and Extreme.

Although the official avalanche report has yet to be completed, the CAA believes the size of the slide was about a 2.5 in terms of its path and avalanche destruction potential.

A size 2 avalanche has a path of approximately 100 metres, and could bury, injure or kill a person. A size 3 avalanche has a path up to 1,000 metres, and could bury and destroy a car, damage a truck, destroy a small building, or break a few trees.

A number of natural slides had been reported, with most slabs between 20 and 50 cm thick.

Three dead in Nelson

Three backcountry skiers from the U.S. died in an avalanche on the afternoon of Jan. 28 in the Kaslo area, north of Nelson.

Four out of five skiers in that group were caught in the avalanche on Mount Carlyle, but only one skier was able to ski out of danger.

According to the local RCMP, they were skiing single file down the slope. Three of the skiers had made it down, and the fourth triggered an avalanche which trapped the three people below him.

The group dug the victims out over a two hour period, then returned to the backcountry cabin to notify the police through a radio-telephone. The bodies were recovered on Tuesday, and taken to Trail, B.C. for autopsies.

The group of eight Americans were staying at Kootenay Mountain Huts on Mount Carlyle, 10 km north of Kokanee Glacier provincial park.

They didn’t have guides, but the group was comprised of experienced backcountry skiers.

The three victims, two men and one woman, were from Washington.

Once again the avalanche risk was rated Considerable.

According to Evan Manners, the operations manager for the Canadian Avalanche Association, the majority of accidents involving avalanches occur during Considerable conditions.

"Basically what’s happened is we’ve had two waves of the same storm come through as we started the weekend, and later on in the weekend, and it left behind a lot of snow and the danger jumped to high for most of the province. Now that things had calmed down a bit on Monday, we downgraded the risk to considerable," he says.

"We know from our research that the greatest number of accidents occur when the danger is rated as considerable. When it’s a high hazard, it’s usually during or immediately after a big storm, and not as many people go into the backcountry during a big storm.

"After the storm, the snow is great for skiing and snowmobiling. The further away from the storm you get, you start to lose natural indicators, like natural avalanches, snow cracking from skis, or settlements. There’s not many signs left. We do our tests and make a call."

You can read semi-weekly avalanche bulletins at the Canadian Avalanche Association Web site at www.avalanche.ca.

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