Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2009-01-14
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: near Banff National Park
State: AB
Country: CANADA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 1 hiker caught, buried, and killed

***MEDIA REPORTS***

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Forecasters warn of potential for more slides after avalanche kills Alberta hiker

CALGARY — Avalanche forecasters in British Columbia and Alberta are warning that extremely unstable snow could prompt more deadly slides like the one that swept away a man near Banff National Park.

The latest death brings to 14 the number of people killed by avalanches in Western Canada this winter.

Outdoor enthusiasts without specific avalanche training should stay out of many areas of the backcountry in British Columbia altogether, Karl Klassen, public avalanche forecaster at the Canadian Avalanche Centre, said Thursday.

"Even people with a lot of experience, they're concerned about the fact that they were seeing unprecedented avalanche activity in the last couple of weeks," he said.

"We're seeing a snowpack that's unprecedented in many people's living memory in many areas. All the old, safe places that people have been going to for years and have felt comfortable for years, may not be safe right now because it's just such an usual circumstance."

The reason for the danger comes from the way the snow in the region has piled up, Klassen explained. A shallow snowpack early in the season melted and was crusted by rain. Then there was a record cold snap in December.

That created a very weak base layer through wide swatches of the province. Storms then piled layer upon layer of snow on top.

Klassen compared it to laying a foundation of sugar instead of concrete when trying to build a house.

"You've got a structure that's top-heavy. You've got weak, unconsolidated, sugary snow near the ground with much heavier, denser snow that's been laid on top of that.

"It's like having a big house on top of a weak foundation."

RCMP Sgt. Patrick Webb said the victim in the latest slide was discovered by a Parks Canada avalanche search dog under about half a metre of snow and debris in the popular recreational area near Canmore, Alta.

The identity of the 37-year-old was not released pending a positive identification by the medical examiner and notification of family members.

Webb said the man was not carrying avalanche equipment. He and a companion were hiking near the top of a mountain Wednesday afternoon when he was swept into a gully.

All but the latest fatality have been in British Columbia in conditions that have often been rated extremely dangerous. Eight snowmobilers died in late December in a series of avalanches near the southeastern B.C. community of Fernie.

Alberta has the same type of snowpack as British Columbia, but with less snow on top, so there is a lesser chance of massive avalanches, said George Field, public safety specialist with Kananaskis Country.

But the snowslides have still been large.

"We're actually getting, for the amount of snow we have, we're getting surprisingly big amounts of avalanches with debris at the bottom," Field said.

Both Field and Klassen said much of the dangerous snowpack has already been brought down, making some regions safer than others, but the risk still remains.

Field said there still haven't been any avalanches in some popular backcountry skiing areas, so there's a higher risk of a slide being set off.

"We still have a bunch of terrain out there that looks like it's skiable, but it's going to be very hair-trigger this weekend because it's going to be quite warm in this area."

Forecasted warmer temperatures could contribute to the danger because they sap any strength in the top layer that had been brought on by freezing.

The RCMP were also reminding everyone going to the mountains to be extremely careful.

"All of the mountains right now are in high danger of avalanche." Webb said. "Snow conditions and weather conditions put the danger up to extreme ... In this situation, the snowpack is so dangerous for avalanches that unless you are very, very experienced and constantly on the watch for avalanches it is very possible to be entrapped in one."

The best way to stay safe is to be conservative when estimating the danger, and to stay in dense, treed areas away from any steep slopes, said Klassen.

Only people with the experience and knowledge to tell by sight whether a snowpack has already been brought down by an avalanche will know if it's safe to travel, he said.

"If I was going to the mountains right now and I didn't have a lot of training and experience - and even if I did have a lot of training and experience - I'd be staying on very small terrain where the consequences of an avalanche ... are low.

"It's an extremely complex time to make good decisions."

***MEDIA REPORTS***

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Hiker killed by avalanche outside Banff National Park

The Canadian Press

January 15, 2009 at 2:36 PM EST

CANMORE, Alta. — A hiker who was missing after an avalanche swept him away near Banff National Park was found dead Thursday.

RCMP said the 37-year-old was discovered by a Parks Canada avalanche search dog under about half a metre of snow and debris.

Police said the victim was taken from the popular recreational area near Canmore, Alta. His identity was not released pending a positive identification by the medical examiner and notification of family members.

The man was found within the first hour of searching not far from where he was last seen, said RCMP Sgt. Patrick Webb.

“The hikers had been fairly close to the top of one of the mountains, and the avalanche had carried him into a gully partially down the mountainside.”

Webb said the man was with a companion when the avalanche struck about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.

An initial search had to be called off after darkness fell and because of the possibility another avalanche could come down on the searchers, he said.

The RCMP were reminding everyone going to the mountains that the snow pack is very unstable and the avalanche hazard extreme, although the danger in the Canmore area wasn't specified as particularly severe.

“But at the same time, all of the mountains right now are in high danger of avalanche. Snow conditions and weather conditions put the danger up to extreme, and in this case it did come down,” Sgt. Webb said.

Webb said that even experienced hikers are getting into trouble.

“In this situation, the snowpack is so dangerous for avalanches that unless you are very, very experienced and constantly on the watch for avalanches it is very possible to be entrapped in one.”

The region where the men were hiking wasn't easily accessible like some of the provincial park trails.

“In particular, it's not one of the more popular places but, certainly it is used for hiking,” said Sgt. Webb.

The death brings to 14 the number of people killed in Western Canada this winter. All but the latest fatality have been in British Columbia in conditions that have often been rated extremely dangerous. Eight snowmobilers died in late December in a series of avalanches near the southeastern B.C. community of Fernie.