Revelstoke Avalanche Deaths Raise Questions About Backcountry Safety

RICH MARSHALL, back from a therapeutic ski trek with his wife, Abby Watkins, sits at the kitchen table of their home in Golden, B.C., attempting to describe the godawful choices thrust upon them on Feb. 1 by chance, by training and, as they see it, by a duty to help. Marshall, 39, stares into the middle distance, looking perhaps at the mountains beyond his window, but envisioning an AVALANCHE on the north slope of Cheops Mountain, an hour to the east, high in Rogers Pass. They were skiing out of a sheltering copse of trees when they saw a mushrooming cloud of powder and a wall of snow, about a kilometre long and 800 m wide, thundering from high above the treeline. The couple - both experienced guides - looked behind and below and saw the snow bearing down on the long line of young skiers they had passed about a half-hour earlier. "I yelled 'avalanche' three times," Marshall says. "They actually heard us and looked up and saw the avalanche, just as it was upon them and hit them."

The couple learned later the group was made up of three adult supervisors and 14 Grade 10 students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, a private school in the Alberta foothills community of Okotoks. It was the second avalanche in two weeks near the B.C. city of Revelstoke; like the first, a Jan. 20 slide on the Durrand Glacier that hit a party of highly experienced backcountry skiers, it claimed seven lives. The toll shattered families in Alberta, B.C. and the U.S. It cast a pall on the communities throughout the Rocky Mountains, where the backcountry is a source of both inspiration and revenue. And it raised disturbing questions about government commitment to backcountry safety.

The B.C. coroner's office, among others, is investigating both accidents, but RCMP in Revelstoke have already reached one conclusion: the second slide would have been far more disastrous if not for Marshall and Watkins. "They were very heroic," says Sgt. Art Kleinsmith. "They would never admit it, probably, but that's the way we view it. Their actions were critical."

It took a minute for the couple to ski down to the devastation. All but two or three were buried. They saw a hand reaching from the snow and, elsewhere, a ski and leg. "Basically we shut down all emotions," says Marshall. "You become a machine that has a job to do."

Watkins, 33, went to the leg, quickly freeing a dazed student. Marshall went to the hand, digging down to reach an instructor. "He had a great look of relief on his face," says Marshall. The instructor, fortuitously, had a satellite phone. Marshall moved on, leaving him to call Parks Canada.

The snow set like concrete. Their boots barely made an imprint. They used their transceivers - standard equipment in slide-prone areas - to hone in on the distracting chorus of beeps from the avalanche beacons that each member of the well-equipped group was wearing. A third person, a boy, was found a metre under the snow, blue and unconscious. He gave a huge, reflexive gasp as Marshall cleared the snow from his face and chest. "He came to and was totally disoriented and had no idea how long he'd been down," says Marshall. "He had a lot of fear in his eyes. He relaxed after a few seconds and asked how many people were buried." Marshall freed the boy's shovel, and left him to dig out. No time.

By now, the instructor was helping. A shovel broke in the hard snow. Arms grew leaden. Freed students joined in. "For their age and experience, they did an amazing job," says Watkins. "When it comes down to it, they will feel far better that they helped than if they sat there and did nothing while their classmates were under snow."

Hard decisions were made. Some students, the transceivers indicated, were buried three metres deep. Move on. "The chances of them surviving are next to none," says Marshall, "whereas the shallow burial, if you can get to them in the first five, 10 or 15 minutes, there's a chance." They uncovered bodies of those who, only a few minutes before, were vibrant young people. "You question if they're dead," Watkins said. There was no time to attempt resuscitation. "It's triage," she says. "There's another five beacons to find. If they don't respond without CPR, then that's it. You have to move on because you might find somebody who will resuscitate on their own."

Within 45 minutes of the slide, the couple estimate, the first of seven helicopters arrived, carrying more than 30 park wardens, emergency personnel, and guides from nearby heli-skiing operations. By then, all that could be done was dig out three remaining bodies. Marshall looks back on the grim task, struck by one memory of those who did not survive. "They looked peaceful," he says. "Nobody had a disturbing look on their faces." It's as if, he adds, "they went to sleep in the snow and didn't wake up."

While the avalanche deaths gained international attention, it has been a brutal winter all around in Glacier National Park and the surrounding area. Eleven were killed in January alone in crashes on the winding, narrow stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway between Salmon Arm, B.C., and Banff, Alta. Park staff often respond to highway tragedies, too, says Pat Dunn, a communications officer for Parks Canada. "Our park wardens, our safety and first-aid staff, have seen way too much death this winter."

In communities like Revelstoke, says Mayor Mark McKee, residents are taking the deaths personally. "These people are guests of the community, the bread and butter of the community," he says. "It's like they're one of us. It lets the community know how vulnerable we really are." McKee, like many, is upset by the political response to the region's multiple tragedies. Liberal MP Hedy Fry, from urban Vancouver, urged that the backcountry be closed if there's considerable avalanche risk. To the mayor, a local businessman, the idea is a nonsensical example of political ignorance. Why not close the highway, too, he asks. Revelstoke is surrounded by wilderness. "You can't just put a barricade up on the backcountry and expect that people are going to stay out."

Revelstoke, which bills itself "the Powder Capital of Canada," depends on public hunger for extreme winter experiences: heli-skiing, wilderness skiing or snowmobiling. People drawn to those activities, McKee says, are aware of the risks, and have the necessary equipment and education to mitigate them. "We don't want to invite people here to risk their lives. Anything we can do to make the backcountry safer, we have to do." In his view, that includes more money for avalanche research, as well as turning one of the deadliest sections of the Trans-Canada into a divided four-lane highway, a mountain engineering feat that he estimates would cost more than $2 billion.

The provincial government, in the wake of the avalanche deaths, has signalled it may restore funding to the Revelstoke-based Canadian Avalanche Centre. It cut $40,000 from the centre's budget last year, imperilling its ability to publish its highly regarded bulletins assessing avalanche risk. Corporate sponsors have enabled the centre to produce three bulletins weekly, but many backcountry users say volatile mountain conditions require daily risk assessments.

The risk was rated "considerable" in the area where both avalanches started. That's the midpoint on a five-gradient scale from low to extreme. "There was nothing that day to tell us we shouldn't go to that particular area," says Marshall. The students were actually skiing lower on the slopes where the risk was rated moderate. They were doomed by the sheer scope and reach of the slide, triggered above in the more unstable areas. "That was a one in 50- or 60-year occurrence," says Watkins. "Those are the ones you can't predict." Investigation of the cause continues, but Marshall, who later viewed the snow fracture line from a helicopter, says it's "obvious" the slide was triggered by wind, not human activity.

The conversation shifts from the kitchen to their battered Honda. A previous commitment in Calgary allows them an opportunity to meet the families of the students. They're still mulling over the tragedy themselves, hoping, on the long, winding drive east on the Trans-Canada, to find the words to help all of the parties. They want some good to come from this disaster, they say. A greater focus on backcountry education, on research, and on the value of good equipment and expertise. Marshall, who grew up in these mountains, has seen a steady erosion of federal and provincial money for avalanche research at the same time governments glibly promote wilderness tourism. "It's ridiculous," he says.

The conversation veers back to the rescue. Their actions that awful day weren't acts of heroism, but of responsibility, they say, firmly pressing the point. It's fortunate they were close and had the skills to make a difference, says Marshall, but in the backcountry, "everybody has a responsibility to respond." People, and governments, too.

KEN MACQUEEN

'The Worst Single Day'

There are of reminders of mortality all around Musgrave Harbour. The fishing village in remote northeastern Newfoundland has two cenotaphs, Deadman's Bay is just down the road, and a park a few minutes away is named after Sir Frederick Banting, the co-developer of insulin who died in a plane crash nearby during the Second World War. Still, familiarity has not stripped death of its sting. Not even for someone like 89-year-old Roland Abbott, a former school principal and local historian who has seen the town's flags lowered to half-mast for someone lost at sea more times than he cares to think about. And flags were lowered again last week for five Musgrave Harbour men who drowned after their boat capsized in the icy waters south of Offer Wadham Island, a traditional destination for eider duck hunting. "It's the worst single day's disaster in the town's history," said Abbott.

The deaths plunged the close-knit community of 1,350 into collective mourning. "Everybody knows everybody and if you're not a relative, you're a friend," said Mona Hann, whose brother-in-law, fisherman Roger Hann, 36, was among the dead. Margaret Faulkner lost three family members. Her son, Dion, 38, managed to swim to the island where he was rescued by passing fishermen. But her husband of 38 years, Irving, 59, and two other sons, Danny, and Darren, 31, perished. The men were experienced hunters, except for the fifth victim, Draper Fahey, 24, for whom it was a first trip out on the Atlantic in search of eider ducks. "The last time I saw him he served me at the lumber supply store," says Abbott. "I never heard anyone say a bad thing about him. And now I've just seen his corpse at the funeral parlour." Local fishermen had helped search-and-rescue crews recover all the bodies except Danny Faulkner's, which by week's end had still not been found.

JOHN DEMONT

A Season of Grief

CALGARY BURIED ITS DEAD last week. Seven funerals over four days. Seven 15-year-olds, six boys and one girl, all victims of a massive avalanche that struck shortly before noon on Feb. 1 in B.C.'s Glacier National Park, where the teenagers had been on a school-sponsored skiing expedition. Seven heartbreaking tributes to lives lived and lives lost - an outpouring of grief, tinged by anger and bitterness, the likes of which the city has rarely, if ever, seen.

The victims - Ben Albert, Daniel Arato, Scott Broshko, Alex Pattillo, Michael Shaw, Marissa Staddon and Jeffrey Trickett - were all Grade 10 students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, a private institution set on 60 ha of rolling countryside, about 30 km south of Calgary. It's a school that draws its students heavily, though not exclusively, from the children of the city's corporate and professional elite. But the ripples of grief and anger spread far beyond the privileged STS campus. Conversations at dinner tables and in office corridors returned, again and again, to the details of the tragedy, often among people who had little, or no, connection to the school or its students. It was as if, in a city of nearly one million people, the theory of six degrees of separation - that everyone is separated from everyone else by no more than six friends of friends - suddenly made sense.

I found myself, at times, caught in this vortex. At the first funeral, that of Daniel Arato at the Beth Tzedec synagogue, I ended up - in the midst of more than 1,000 mourners - sitting beside an acquaintance of mine, a political scientist. He was there with his son, who was a friend (though not a classmate) of Daniel. Earlier in the day, his son had told him, "A 15-year-old should not have to attend his friend's funeral."

And therein lies the other factor that drew so many to this particular tragedy. The victims were so impossibly young. Fifteen should be about beginnings. First loves. First heartbreaks. First intimations of the freedoms, and burdens, of being an adult. Fifteen should not be about being swallowed and suffocated by a roaring wall of snow. As a journalist, I'm supposed to be detached about these kinds of stories. But I'm also a father of two boys, ages nine and 10. For me, as for so many others, this one hit home.

Take Joanne Wrigley, a legal assistant with the Calgary-based Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, and the mother of three daughters, ages 12 to 19. She first heard about the avalanche the morning after it happened, while attending church. Wrigley realized she had a friend whose daughter was in Grade 10 at STS. As soon as she could, Wrigley made a call, and was relieved to learn her friend's daughter had not been on the trek. But then the ruminations began. "You look at their pictures and you think, 'wow, that could have been my kid,' " says Wrigley. "I don't know how those parents are dealing with it. I would go berserk."

Compounding the sense of collective tragedy were the circumstances leading up to the fatalities. The seven young victims - along with the seven classmates, two teachers and one parental chaperone who survived - had set out on the ski trail even though park authorities listed the avalanche risk that day as "considerable." They were also a mere 65 km east of where another avalanche struck just 12 days earlier, killing seven other backcountry skiers. Those facts alone raised some obvious, and troubling, questions. Why did the trip leaders decide to go out that day? And what were they, and the kids, doing there in the first place?

It is hoped those questions, and many others, will be answered by the separate investigations being undertaken by the school, the RCMP and Parks Canada authorities. As well, the B.C. coroner's office will order an inquiry or full public inquest in the coming weeks. The questions may also figure prominently in lawsuits that could well follow down the road. Last week, amid the tears and eloquent eulogies, the families of the victims were already grappling with these issues - and coming to very different conclusions. Speaking to more than 1,500 mourners assembled at Anglican Christ Church for the funeral of her younger brother Michael, Amanda Shaw praised the outdoor education program at STS and the professionalism of the staff who run it. Amanda, 17, had gone through the same course and participated in a similar backcountry trip. "I know many people are asking why seven beautiful kids were taken from all of us so suddenly," she said. "This is just a freak coincidence that nobody could have prepared for, nobody could have predicted and nobody could have stopped."

Yet just a day earlier, Daniel Arato's grandfather, John Konig, stood at the front of the synagogue and delivered a soft-spoken, but blunt, assessment of how the school had failed its students. "What saddens me," began Konig, "is that this tragedy didn't have to happen." There was a collective intake of breath as he went on to say that he understood the ski expeditions were designed to be character-building. "I respect the intention," Konig said. "But to build character, you need a live body. What kind of character are we trying to build by this kind of adventure? Rambos? Conquerors? I think what the world needs is tolerance, compassion, wisdom, and I don't think for that you have to go hiking up a mountain."

Slumped with grief, Konig almost seemed taken aback by his own words. "Forgive me, as a bereaved grandfather, for expressing these thoughts," he concluded. "But I think these things have to be rethought."

Despite such heartfelt statements, the debate over the wisdom - or folly - of taking those kids onto the mountain that particular day rightly took a back seat last week to a celebration of the students' lives. And what a remarkably gifted and accomplished group of teenagers they appear to have been. There was Ben, the scrappy hockey player who, according to a family friend, "always played a half-foot above his five-foot-six frame." Daniel, a gung-ho snowboarder, rock climber and, of all things, unicyclist. Scott, the all round athlete and trumpet player. Alex, an aspiring actor. Michael, an avid sailor. Marissa, a nationally ranked figure skater. Jeffrey, a budding jazz musician and basketball player. All of them, by all accounts, high academic achievers.

Of the many moving things said last week, the one that will stay with me the longest is an observation by Daniel's father, Peter Arato. He talked about the myriad ways parents try to protect their children, from clutching their hands as they take their first baby steps to holding on tightly as they attempt that first bicycle ride. "But then we wake up one day," he said, "and find all our worst fears have been manifested." For the victims' families, that's the essential tragedy. For the rest of us, it's a reminder, perhaps, of how much we take for granted.

BRIAN BERGMAN

Maclean's February 17, 2003