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How Tragedy Prompted Canada to Become a Leader in Avalanche Safety

‘It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me and it’s been my greatest teacher.’

Amanda Follett Hosgood 27 Jan 2023The Tyee

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

Ken Wylie remembers the sense of dread he felt brushing his teeth that morning.

It was Jan. 20, 2003, and Wylie was an assistant ski guide at a backcountry lodge in the Selkirk Mountains. It was a challenging work dynamic. He felt at odds with the lead guide and uneasy about a lack of shared decision-making.

As they set out, Wylie put one ski in front of the other, following in the path the lead guide had made up a steep, narrow gully known as La Traviata, about 30 kilometres northeast of Revelstoke, B.C. The up track felt like a highway with no off-ramp.

“Everything was fragmented, but we just kept going,” he says. “I’ve lived the consequence of that for 20 years.”

As Wylie’s group moved along the lower slope, a wall of snow released from above. Seven people were killed. Wylie himself was completely buried for 45 minutes before rescuers located and uncovered him. He walked away from the disaster with minor injuries — but deep psychological wounds.

And his ordeal wasn’t over.

Less than two weeks later, as the mountain community was still reeling from the La Traviata avalanche, Wylie was skiing at Rogers Pass, about 30 kilometres to the east. Nearby, at Connaught Creek, a group of teens and three instructors from the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Calgary were skiing along the valley bottom when an avalanche swept down the slopes of Mount Cheops. Seven youths were killed.

Wylie was among the first responders. “It felt like a warzone,” he says, as he recalls standing amidst the debris, helicopters circling overhead. It was Feb. 1, 2003.

Two decades later, that winter remains the worst avalanche season in recent history. The death tolls are surpassed only by the 1910 railway avalanche that killed 58 people in Rogers Pass. In 2003, 29 people died in avalanches, including the La Traviata and Connaught Creek tragedies — roughly double the average number of annual fatalities at the time.

The avalanche conditions that year were exceptional. In November, rain had fallen to the mountaintops, encasing their peaks in ice. As a layer of snow accumulated on top, the ice deteriorated, leaving a weakness deep in the snowpack.

Current snow conditions in B.C. have been compared to that season. On Tuesday, the province put out a statement urging caution in the backcountry. Five people have died in avalanches in Canada since the start of this year, all of them in B.C.

But the tragic events of 2003 also dramatically changed how we communicate avalanche risk. Canada went from lagging behind in the field of public avalanche safety to implementing changes that were replicated in alpine nations around the world.

Driven by the students’ families and a national outpouring of grief, the Connaught Creek avalanche galvanized the mountain community into action. Avalanche safety transformed from a highly technical field to a household product, available to the most casual backcountry users. The number of people taking basic avalanche training has roughly doubled over the past decade and current avalanche conditions now appear in daily newspapers alongside the weather report.

A man in a red ski jacket stands in a mountain environment next to a vertical wall of snow that is almost twice his height.
A BC Coroners Service investigation into the La Traviata avalanche that killed seven people northwest of Revelstoke on Jan. 20, 2003, determined the slab that released was up to 280 centimetres — almost three metres — as its thickest depth. Photo by BC Coroners Service.

In the past two decades, despite an exponential growth in backcountry users, the average number of annual avalanche fatalities here in Canada has dropped by about 30 per cent.

The 10-year average peaked at more than 15 deaths annually following the 2003 season, and sits at about 10 today. Last year, six people died as a result of avalanches in Canada.

“I consider that winter to be a watershed winter for avalanche safety in Canada,” says Grant Statham, a mountain rescue specialist and avalanche forecaster with Parks Canada, about the 2003 season and the changes that followed.

That winter, Statham was living in Canmore, Alberta, working as an avalanche consultant and guide. He still remembers where he was — driving the Trans-Canada Highway near Banff — when he got a call about the La Traviata avalanche.

Not two weeks later, Statham was teaching an avalanche course at a backcountry hut when news reached him about a second deadly avalanche. “I was just wrapping up the course and we got the news of this terrible avalanche with these kids,” he says. “I remember being really stunned that this had happened. I couldn’t believe it.”

He remembers bringing the group together and telling them, “This is obviously going to have some implications and I have no idea what those are going to be.”

It was a perilous time for avalanche safety in the public realm. Although it’s impossible to gauge exactly how many people use the backcountry in any given season, the outdoor community had grown in leaps and bounds over the previous decade. The death of Michel Trudeau, brother of now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at B.C.’s Kokanee Lake less than five years earlier had created awareness around the need for better avalanche forecasting.

A bar graph shows the number of avalanche deaths gradually increasing from 1990, spiking in 2003 and gradually dropping until 2022.
A chart provided by Avalanche Canada shows avalanche fatalities from 1990 through last year. While the number of deaths due to avalanches gradually crept up through the ’90s and into the early 2000s, the 10-year average has steadily dropped since 2003.

But services still lagged.

The Canadian Avalanche Association formed in 1981 to represent professionals working to provide avalanche control in sectors such as B.C. highways, ski operations and remote industries like mining. It was stretched thin trying to provide public avalanche forecasting. In fall 2002, a newly elected B.C. Liberal government announced it would pull what little funding it provided to the CAA to support public avalanche safety.

“Then 2003 happened,” Statham says. “Those kids were killed and that just changed everything. I think the whole country was grieving.”

In the months following the Connaught Creek avalanche, Parks Canada formed an independent panel to review its avalanche programs. Because the school group had been travelling in a national park, it fell under the federal government’s jurisdiction. In June 2003, it released the Parks Canada Backcountry Avalanche Risk Review, which made 36 recommendations for improving backcountry avalanche safety.

That November, Statham was hired as Parks Canada’s first-ever avalanche and mountain risk specialist. He was given the daunting task of implementing the report’s recommendations.

“It’s one thing to have a report full of recommendations — it’s a whole other thing to turn that into deliverable projects,” he says. “The first few months were very intense.”

But things moved ahead quickly. Statham, new to government and blissfully ignorant of the bureaucratic challenges that could stand in his way, dove in. He was overwhelmed with offers from other agency staff that wanted to help usher the process forward.

By February 2004, Statham was in Calgary, wearing a rented suit, to present a plan to then-federal Minister of the Environment, David Anderson.

Its effectiveness was in its simplicity.

Portrait of a smiling man with greying hair wearing a blue ski jacket. He stands in front of forested background.
Grant Statham was hired by Parks Canada in 2003 and given the daunting task of implementing 36 recommendations from an investigation into the Connaught Creek avalanche. He set out with a goal of simplifying avalanche risk for the general public. Photo by Tim Banfield, provided by Parks Canada.

“Part of this coming of age of ‘public’ avalanche safety was a retooling, or a new way of understanding, that communication is just such an important part of our work,” he says. “It’s everything in public avalanche forecasting, the risk-communication piece.”

That meant demystifying avalanche risk assessment and making it accessible to the general public. Inspired by TV weather reports, Statham had sketched for his colleagues simple icons that could easily convey current backcountry conditions. By late 2004, the Backcountry Avalanche Advisory was available to mainstream news outlets through Meteorological Service of Canada’s media portal and the icons would later be incorporated into the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale.

But current snowpack conditions are only a piece of a complex puzzle, Statham adds. It’s a puzzle that also includes terrain and human behaviour.

In the years that followed, terrain ratings were developed. When cross-referenced with avalanche conditions, they provide options for low-risk terrain during high-risk conditions. The Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale attempted to easily convey how much risk a backcountry user might be expected to face in any given area.

A gloved hand holds a card with red, yellow and green areas denoting avalanche risk. Blue sky and snowy trees are blurred in the background.
In the years following the 2003 avalanche tragedies, experts worked to make avalanche safety more accessible to the general public. The Avaluator, a tool that can be easily carried on backcountry trips, helps easily determine avalanche risk and cross-reference it with terrain. Photo courtesy of Avalanche Canada.

The Avaluator combines these variables in a trip planner card, something easily tucked into a ski jacket for help making decisions in the backcountry.

There existed a tension, Statham acknowledges, between the highly complex science of snowpack study and the pressure to present information that was easily accessible to the public. The goal was to provide sufficient information while also keeping it simple.

Today, Statham says, it’s gratifying to hear people make straightforward statements like, “I never go into the backcountry if the danger is ‘considerable’ or higher.'”

As the products developed, so did related academic fields, such as Simon Fraser University’s Avalanche Research Program. “The research supports a lot of the things that we’ve tried to push ahead — that the messages have to be simple and straightforward,” Statham says.

Anther recommendation, one that came in the wake of both major avalanches that season, was the establishment of a national avalanche centre. In November 2004, the Canadian Avalanche Centre was born. It would later become Avalanche Canada.

The decade that followed saw Avalanche Canada gradually branch away from its professional counterpart. The former took responsibility for public forecasts, public awareness and recreational avalanche courses, leaving the Canadian Avalanche Association to focus on professional standards and training for people working as guides, highways avalanche controllers or instructors of recreational avalanche courses.

“We all refer to it gently as ‘the divorce,’” says Canadian Avalanche Association executive director Joe Obad. “It wasn’t acrimonious but there was a need for each organization to define its focus.”

A man wearing a helmet and backpack stands next to a rock face high above a mountain valley.
Gilles Valade brought a background in insurance risk management and teaching adventure studies to his role as executive director of Avalanche Canada. 'Really, we’re a communication organization,' he says about the organization that formed in 2004. Photo submitted.

The focus for Avalanche Canada has been on making sure avalanche risk is communicated in a co-ordinated way across the public, media and governments, says Gilles Valade, who joined Avalanche Canada as executive director a decade ago. He brought to the position past experience working with risk management in the insurance industry combined with 20 years teaching at Thompson Rivers University’s Adventure Studies Department.

“Really, we’re a communication organization,” he says. “Unfortunately, it took this very bad year with lots of fatalities to spur the authorities into action.”

Perhaps most importantly, Valade says, is the culture shift that’s occurred within the mountain community. There’s growing awareness that avalanche risk needs to be talked about — both by rehashing experiences during the après ski or amongst peers on social media, and also while in the backcountry.

“I think that’s changed a lot and 2003 was, I’d say, the spark that got that going,” Valade says. “More and more we train people to speak their minds and when they're not comfortable, it’s time to say ‘no.’”

In the decades since, Canada has become a leader in public avalanche safety. “Pretty much every country I can think of uses some form or another of work that we have done over the years,” Statham says.

But Wylie doesn’t believe the mountain guiding community has kept pace.

He says a culture of silence and fears over litigation prevent open discussions — something that could improve the industry and make backcountry trips safer — in the wake of guided avalanche incidents. While the mountain community faced a reckoning in the wake of Connaught Creek, he says it also served to distract from the tragedy that proceeded it.

“It was used as a toreador’s cape, consciously or not, to hide the fact that the guides had a big frickin’ wreck 12 days before,” he says. “The cultural issues that underpin La Traviata still persist and the reticence to drop into conversations about La Traviata is the litmus test.”

Sheila Churchill experienced that silence firsthand after her husband of 39 years, Doug Churchill, was killed by an avalanche in February 2016.

The Canmore, Alberta resident was on a guided backcountry ski trip near Golden, B.C., with a group of friends when the couple and eight others were buried in an avalanche that engulfed the group, sweeping them nearly a kilometre down the slope.

Everyone was quickly located and Doug was flown to hospital in Calgary. But he died of his injuries three days later.

In the aftermath, Churchill struggled to get answers. In addition to grappling with her own grief, she was left fighting for any shred of information about what had occurred as the fear of legal action hung over the industry. She had questions about her guide’s conduct and wanted accountability from the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, a self-regulated organization that trains and certifies mountain guides.

As a last resort, just as the two-year window to file a lawsuit was closing, Churchill sued the ACMG in a desperate attempt to bring them to the table.

“It was a secondary trauma that our group had to go through the process of the ACMG,” she says. “My intention was never to have a lawsuit, ever. It was simply a means to an end, to keep the ACMG at the complaint process and do an investigation.”

A man and a woman stand in a mountain setting. The man wears black ballcap, backpack and grey fleece hiking shirt. The woman wearing a matching pink tuque and athletic jacket.
In 2016, Doug and Sheila Churchill were on a professionally guided ski trip with friends when an avalanche struck their group. Both were buried and injured, and Doug died from his injuries. Sheila says it took years — and ultimately a lawsuit — to get information about what had occurred. Photo submitted.

She says the professional organization only ever heard the guide’s perspective on what had occurred. “They never once asked us what happened. There were nine clients, and they never got our story,” she says.

She channelled her grief into pushing for change. The lawsuit was eventually withdrawn and, with support from the ACMG, Churchill and two others formed Backcountry Safe. The group’s goal is “bringing together stakeholders to talk about how to learn from incidents and bring greater accountability to Canada’s alpine guiding practice.”

In 2020, the ACMG hired Statham and Thompson Rivers University associate professor Jon Heshka to review its critical incident procedures. The following year, it released a report that provides a framework for responding to critical incidents.

A new policy, based on that framework, came into effect this past November. It includes things like a post-incident debrief and mental health supports — things that were never available to Churchill. She calls it a “massive step forward” for the organization.

“Backcountry Safe was tough for me to do, but now that it’s behind me I’m glad that I persevered, because I really think that we were that catalyst that helped push them to make these changes,” she says. “The object of collecting these reports is not to lay blame, it’s simply to collect the facts and from the facts find out what happened and use that for improving safety.”

The policy has yet to be tested. But that’s about to change, Churchill says.

As news emerged earlier this week that American brothers Jon and Tim Kinsley died in an avalanche Monday while heli-skiing near Revelstoke, Churchill was thinking of their families. It’s the first guided avalanche fatality since the ACMG’s new policy took hold, she points out.

All the key elements the ACMG put into the policy will be tested in response to this tragedy, she says.

The ACMG’s new Critical Incident Management Policy is the latest manifestation of a culture shift that began in the wake of the 2003 tragedies, says technical director Mike Adolph. He completed his apprentice alpine exam that year and says he’s observed the transition from more autocratic decision-making to a focus on open communication about risk and group decision-making.

“Reflections on the learnings of the La Traviata began the cultural shift toward embracing ‘uncertainty,’” he says, which included a humbler approach to the mountains. “Normalizing post-trip reflection, acknowledging what could have been done better and sharing the learning outcomes openly is a huge leap forward from pre-2003 times.” 

In 2021, the organization created a mental health services position and the Simon Parboosingh Assistance Fund, which provides support to members, staff and clients in the event of a personal crisis. It also offers peer support to members and the public following critical incidents, Adolph says.

The potential for litigation always exists, he adds. But one of the focuses of the post-incident support process is reconciliation between guides, survivors and families. He adds that “apology legislation” can help resolve conflict without legal repercussions.

Like backcountry recreation generally, the number of people taking guided backcountry trips has ballooned in recent years. Yet the number of fatalities has remained low — about two each season out of approximately 41,000 guests taking helicopter and snowcat ski trips in B.C. every winter.

A portrait of a man with greying hair and beard wearing a black ski jacket standing in the forest with the ocean beyond.
Ken Wylie has spent the past 20 years trying to make sense of the tragedy that occurred at La Traviata. Last year, he gave up guiding and turned his attention to teaching courses in human-factor risk management through his consulting business, Archtypal. Photo submitted.

Wylie has spent the past two decades pushing back against what he sees as a culture of silence. He eventually sold his home in Revelstoke in order to spend three years writing his memoir, Buried. A book tour took him to Truckee, California, the hometown of one of the women who had died while under his care.

Standing before the audience in Truckee was daunting, he says. But he was humbled by the outpouring of gratitude from her family, who had waited more than a decade for answers.

“That community taught me about grace,” he says. “They waited 12 years to hear how Kathy died.”

Today, Wylie teaches what he’s learned in the hopes of preventing similar incidents. Through his consulting business, Archtypal, he offers courses in human-factor risk management to people in high-consequence industries, like health care and search and rescue.

The names of those who died at La Traviata are never far from his mind and easily roll off his tongue: Naomi, Craig, Dave, Jean Luc, Kathy, Vern and Dennis. His painful journey has led him to accountability for the role he played in the deaths of the last three — clients directly under his care. Had he listened to the overwhelming sense of dread he experienced that day, had he turned the group back, they might still be alive.

“My life is defined by what I learned from it,” he says. “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me and it’s been my greatest teacher.”  [Tyee]

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