coming back alive
They Couldn't Get Out of the Way

By the time they wake Saturday morning, Parks Canada will have already posted its avalanche bulletin for backcountry skiers. In tree-line and alpine areas, the avalanche risk has been assessed as "considerable," the mid-range of the five possible ratings. Below the tree-line, the risk is assessed as "moderate," with natural avalanches unlikely.

the group of 14 high school students and three adults intend to stay below the tree line throughout their expedition.

But the bulletin also refers to weak snow layers left over from early winter snowfalls that have failed to stabilize.

The group makes its way to the Rogers Pass information building, a macaroni-shaped structure with a sod and timber roof, to pore over the latest information. Mr. Nicholson goes inside. He asks about conditions in several areas before heading back to the students and two other adults -- a fellow teacher and a chaperone.

The group decides it is safe to ski that day. They ski through forest, along a rocky creek, over a snow-covered bridge and into the Connaught Creek valley. Surrounded by mountains and deep powder snow, the scenery is breathtaking.

Reminders of past avalanches are everywhere. Foliage is sparse on the valley floor. The school group successfully crosses four avalanche-prone paths on the north side of the valley, and three on the south side.

It's a soft, grey morning. The ground is blanketed by eight centimetres of fresh snow. The temperature hovers around zero. The past 24 hours have been avalanche-free, and Abby Watkins and Rich Marshall are eager to get in a day of backcountry skiing amid the mountainous sweep near the summit of Rogers Pass in eastern British Columbia.

They are not alone. The mountain guides spot a school group getting ready to press ahead into the popular Balu Pass. Husband and wife pause to say hello. "It's a beautiful day out here, isn't it?" says Abby. "Yes," someone responds. They leave the 14 teenagers and three adults behind, climbing briskly until they stop for a break in a treed area.

At that very moment, just before noon, something gives way on the rugged north face of Cheops Mountain. Abby and Rich hear a thunderous roar. They watch in horror as a torrent of snow hurtles to the valley, picking up speed and debris. The school group is directly in its path.

Rich screams: "Avalanche! Avalanche! Avalanche!" The skiers look up. The guide's frantic warning comes too late. The avalanche hits them head on.

In a matter of seconds, all 17 skiers are swept away in a huge, terrifying tangle of snow, rocks and trees. The swiftness and power of the avalanche sounds like a freight train moving at high speeds,

Abby thinks. "A huge roar. The power of that much snow moving at the acceleration of gravity and propagating more and more snow on the way. . . . Nobody could have got out of the way. Nobody."

Students mourn the loss of their friends

The river-rush of snow engulfs the skiers, then separates them. A section of the slide breaks away and keeps going, carrying a number of victims hundreds of metres down the valley. Disoriented and tumbling head over foot with little chance to "swim" to the surface, this unlucky group ends up as much as 4.5 metres beneath the concrete-hard snow.

Up in the trees, Abby Watkins and Rich Marshall are dusted by a thick cloud of powder. A terrible silence falls over the valley. Though their hearts are thumping, they shut down their emotions. On goes the search-and-rescue switch, one they have trained for years to put into practice.

They race down to the first group of buried skiers. The only sign of life is an odd hand and a few legs poking through the snow. The others, in the toe of the slide at the bottom of the valley, are buried much deeper.

Alone at the scene, the husband-and-wife team is faced with heartbreaking decisions. Who to save first? Not everybody would make it, they reason. But those trapped near the top would have a better shot at survival.

Rich runs for the first hand he sees and begins digging. For the next 45 minutes, except for the victims, Rich and Abby are there by themselves, working to free as many as they can from their tombs of suffocating snow.

The guides' transceivers work perfectly, honing in with beeps and flashing lights on the buried skiers equipped with their own avalanche beacons, like shouts from the grave.

The couple follows the rules of avalanche rescue like clockwork. Only dig to a victim to make sure he or she is breathing. Clear snow from the victim's face. No CPR before moving on to the next victim. There are too many. Let survivors dig themselves out.

The victims are scattered beneath the snow. Rich and Abby split up to cover as much ground as possible. The first five people they pull out survive. Those survivors go on to rescue others. Everyone else Abby and Rich uncover is dead. The grim lottery of who shall live and who shall die is over. Seven students make it. Seven do not.

One survivor, with a broken ankle, is tobogganed out and airlifted to hospital. The remaining survivors are transported by helicopter to the cafeteria of the park warden's station. The bodies go too.

They are laid out on mats in a makeshift morgue in the same building. Chuck Purse, Revelstoke's part-time coroner, is investigating his second seven-death avalanche within two weeks. He examines each body in turn. None show signs of major injury. They were simply swept away, buried and died from asphyxiation

Loose snow tumbles down the mountain<
A slab avalanche breaks off the mountain
A car is swept away by a tidal wave of snow
What Do I Do If.

I GET CAUGHT: In most avalanche situations, any defensive action is very difficult. Movement relative to the debris is often impossible. However, some of the following may be useful:

  • Try to delay departure by plunging an ice axe into the undersurface. This may help to keep you near the top of the slide

  • Shout. Others may see you.

  • Try to run to the side, or jump up-slope above the fracture

  • If hard slab, try to remain on top of a block.

  • Get rid of gear; sacks, skis etc.

  • Try to roll like a log, off the debris.

  • Swimming motions sometimes help.

  • As the avalanche slows down, you may be able to get some purchase on the debris. Make a desperate effort to get to the surface, or at least get a hand through.


  • Keep one hand in front of you face and try to clear/maintain an air space.

  • Try to maintain space for chest expansion by taking and holding a deep breath.

  • Try to avoid panic and conserve energy. Your companions are probably searching for you.

  • Try to dig yourself out if you are unhurt. The next number that works against you is the length of burial. A speedy location and recovery of the buried victim is essential as the survival rate drops to 50% after 20 minutes.

An avalanche occurs on Mt. Everest.
A mountain climber treads carefully.
snow slope
Skiiers are particularly vulnerable to triggering an avalanche, as the lateral motion releases unstable snow.
Avalanche Rescue Equipment

The best strategy for surviving an avalanche is to avoid being caught in one.

All backcountry skiers and boarders should be trained in avalanche awareness and should be knowledgeable about the conditions and terrain they're entering.

The following rescue equipment should be in everyone's backpack and the skills for using it should be readily accessible in everyone's head:


Avalanche transceivers (also known as beacons) are designed to help a rescuer locate a buried victim in the least amount of time possible.

Although most beacons in use today are fairly intuitive to operate, it is important to practice using them on a regular basis.


The only way to penetrate dense, compacted avalanche debris is to use a multi-sectioned aluminum pole known as an avalanche probe. They extend two to three metres long, and are held in tension with a cable.

When a searcher with a beacon has honed in on a buried person, other members of the party should probe the snowpack for the exact location of the victim. (You cannot pinpoint a person who is deeply buried using only a beacon.)

The probe is left in contact with the victim until they have been exposed by shovelling.

Probes also have other uses, such as checking snowpack depth, and testing crevasse bridges and cornices while traveling.

For this reason, they are currently carried by most travelers and are recommended over probe poles.


Finding the location of a victim is only the first part of the rescue – digging them out is the second critical step.

In the seconds after an avalanche, even fresh powder will solidify so densely that you cannot push your hand into it.

There are many different types of avalanche shovels. The more high-tech models have telescoping handles that extend to give better leverage when shoveling. Some store saws or probes in their handles.

Metal blades chop debris better than lexan or polycarbonate, and the bigger the blade, the more snow you can move with each scoop.

The important thing about shovels is that everybody in your group has one. It is also worth practicing excavation in a team of two or three to learn to shovel effectively as a group.



What is an Avalanche?

Snow is deposited in successive layers as the winter progresses.

These layers may have dissimilar physical properties and an avalanche occurs when one layer slides on another (Surface Avalanche), or the whole snow cover slides on the ground (Full-Depth).

An avalanche may be Dry or Wet, according to whether free water is present in the snow.

It may be of Loose Snow, when the avalanche starts at a single point, or a Slab Avalanche, which occurs when an area of more cohesive snow separates from the surrounding snow and slides out.

Beautiful Roger's Pass, B.C. is the site of a tragic accident that claimed the lives of 7 students.
Avalanches claimed the lives of 28 Canadians in 2002-2003. That number declined in 2003-2004 to 10 fatalities
Sliding Into Oblivion

Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's youngest son, Michel, was killed in an avalanche in 1998

No one knows how quickly Michel Trudeau realized he was going to die Nov. 14, 1998, when a wall of wet snow sent him tumbling down a southern B.C. mountainside into ice cold Kokanee Lake.

A springtime view of Kokanee Lake, where Michel still rests
The youngest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau spent several minutes in the water, fighting to remove his heavy backpack and touring skis, all the while "shouting for help and groaning," eyewitness Eric Lemieux told reporters later.

'We could see him," said Lemieux, one of several skiers following Trudeau when the avalanche struck. "We knew it was going to be a slow and painful death. But we couldn't reach him. He was in the middle of the lake."

Trudeau, 23, eventually sank out of sight - leaving behind one of Canada's most famous families to grieve without a casket. Scuba divers have failed to find Trudeau's body in the glacier-fed lake in Kootenay Glacier Provincial Park, about 300 kilometres southwest of Calgary.

The Trudeaus did not push search and rescue teams to locate Michel's body. Says Justin Trudeau, Michel's older brother, of his final resting place in Kokanee Lake; "It's glorious. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. That's where he was destined to be."

Trudeau had lived in the area for a year, working as a ski lift attendant at Red Mountain, near Rossland. He was a fun-loving young man, who enjoyed the outdoors, and had traveled out West after graduating from university.

Since Michel's death, the Trudeau family has been working closely with the Canadian Avalanche Association to promote avalanche safety.

Young Michel with his famous father.
Michel with his best buddy Makwa, the summer before his death.
In The Wrong Place at The Wrong Time

A New Hampshire man was killed on November 10, 1998 after he triggered an avalanche on the upper mountain of a closed ski area in Utah. Jeff Clement, 21, was snowboarding with four friends in Little Cottonwood Canyon, between the Alta and Snowbird ski areas, when the incident occurred.

"It was reported that he was the last to start down and he's the one who broke it loose," Captain Gil Howard, of the Salt Lake Country Sheriff's Office, said. "It was a way unstable area.

"The problem was they were in a ski area, but they were faced with backcountry conditions..."
— Sgt. Gil Howard, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office

"All five were buried to one extent or another," Howard said, "and he was the only one completely buried." The other four were able to extract themselves, but Clement was buried with his board uphill. Carrying no beacons or shovels, the friends reportedly did everything they could to locate Clement but were unsuccessful.

Clement's body was found by an Alta rescue dog, but a heavy storm predicted for the area Saturday night forced rescuers to abandon the recovery effort.

Returning the next day during snows, rescuers "shocked the mountain" to release unstable snow and safely removed the body. Clement was originally buried under three feet of snow. Though not officially determined, Howard said it appeared Clement may have died from severe head trauma.

"The problem was they were in a ski area, but they were faced with backcountry conditions. They are lulled into a false sense, but there's no control work done and this is the tragic outcome," Howard said. Howard said he has heard there were upwards of 50 people in the area that day. Clement and his friends "were just in the wrong area on the wrong day and at the wrong time," he said.

road closed sing

Howard said the five friends had hiked the ridgeline from Alta ski area onto Mt. Baldy. Not yet open for the season, the upper mountain, Howard said, is a popular pre-season destination for adventurous skiers and snowboarders.

But, without any controls yet done on the mountain, avalanche danger was extremely high and the fact that the area was closed is well posted.

"They had to hike quite a bit to get up there," Howard said, "but it's not atypical. It's a hard way to learn, but if we can prevent it from happening again, then there's a small amount of good that comes from it."

Howard said it is imperative people learn about snow conditions and snow safety, as well as carry emergency equipment.

Contributing Factors

This is the most important factor in determining whether avalanches are likely and the evolution of the snowpack is entirely dependent on this.

Many weather variables affect avalanche release and information can often be gained before setting out. A sudden temperature rise may indicate a hazard, as the nearer the snow gets to zero degrees celsius, the more dangerous it is.

Remember: 90% of all avalanches occur during a snowstorm.


When visibility is adequate, snowpack observation can begin from the roadside.

Evidence of recent avalanche activity, main snow accumulation zones, fresh loading by new snow and drifting, can often be noted from below.

Observations can continue on the approach, noting such details as depth of foot penetration, cornice build-up, ease of release of small slabs and the effect which localized wind patterns may have had on slab formation.

Any suspect slopes which must be negotiated (bearing in mind that the safest course is to avoid them) may be tested by digging a snowpit. Pits should not initially be dug on the main suspect slope, but on small, safe slopes of similar orientation.

The following features should be looked for:

  • Adjacent layers of different hardness (difference of more than 2 on scale of 5)

  • Very soft layers (fist penetrates easily)

  • Water drops squeezed out of a snowball made from any layer

  • Layers of ice

  • Layers of graupel (rounded, heavily rimed pellets) - these act like a layer of ball-bearings in the snowpack

  • Feathery or faceted crystals

  • Layers of loose, uncohesive grains

  • Air space

Any of the above may be the source of a dangerous weakness in the snowpack.

Travel in Hazard Areas

If it is essential to proceed, the following should be borne in mind:

  • Solo travelers in avalanche terrain run particularly grave hazards

  • Skiers are in greater danger than walkers - the lateral cutting action of skis readily releases unstable snow. All off-piste skiers should use avalanche transceivers and have them SWITCHED ON before leaving base. They should carry collapsible probes and shovels. Climbers and walkers should consider the use of these items.

  • Direct descent or ascent is safer than traversing.

  • Go one at a time - the others should closely observe the progress of the person on the suspect slope.

  • Close up clothing, wrap scarf or other item round mouth and nose

Safe Travel Practices

Follow terrain features that are least likely to avalanche. Use ridges and areas where the snow has been blown off to ascend or descend.

· Avoid traversing under avalanche slopes. If natural avalanches are likely (high or extreme hazard) or any time there are "whomping'" sounds in the snowpack.

· Traverse slopes as high as possible. Whenever crossing a potential avalanche slope, cross as high as possible so as to have as little snow to bury you as possible. Watch out for a falling hazard.

· When traversing slopes travel one at a time. Two reasons for this, one is to avoid having more than one person caught in an avalanche the other is to minimize the load on the slope.

· Avoid climbing under another person. Avalanches can be triggered by the other party often with little consequence to them and burying you.

· Travel one at a time from safe zone to safe zone when ascending or descending gullies. Look for alcoves or walls that will protect you should your partner kick off a small avalanche.

· Use belaying techniques when climbing gullies that have avalanche hazard. We are often told not to rope up in avalanche terrain, but when rock or ice protection is available that will not slide with the slope, the rope can keep you from being carried away by the avalanche. This can protect you from small localized avalanches.

· Watch for terrain traps. Make sure that should you be involved in an avalanche, the debris will not be trapped and cause a small slide to have a deep debris pile.

· Watch for the falling hazard even when crossing the most benign looking slopes. Even the smallest of avalanches can be deadly when mixed with a cliff band. This can be important between ice bulges or on ridges.

· Always wear an avalanche transceiver and carry a shovel and probe.

diggin out
A search dog locates a buried victim. Once a victim is completely buried there is only a 1 in 3 chance of survival.