American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Helicopter/Ski Operations

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1975

AVALANCHE, HELICOPTER/SKI OPERATIONS—British Columbia, Cariboo Mountains. On 17 February 1974, three groups of ten skiers each on a helicopter ski week with Canadian Mountain Holidays were skiing a 3000-foot slope eight miles from the town of Valemount, B.C. The skiers were well equipped, including Skadi avalanche electronic locators with one group, and Swiss made locators with the other two groups. Each group was accompanied by a guide licensed by the Internationale Guides des Montagues. At 11:30 a.m., the first two groups skied down safely, using the ridge above the face as their descent path. The third group began skiing down the same ridge behind the guide, and evidently some skied onto the face below the ridge. The slope avalanched without warning, burying two people and carrying five others down the full length of the slope and into the forest. One buried person was found immediately and dug out. Mr. J. Taylor [est. 30-35, ed.], was found by use of the Swiss made radio. He was under three feet of solidly compacted snow, having been carried down in it for over 2000 feet by the avalanche. It was the impact and compaction that apparently killed him. Artificial respiration and cardiac massage were applied to no avail. All remaining skiers were evacuated from the area via helicopter, and injured skiers were hospitalized as warranted. (Sources: Lloyd William Gallagher, Hans Gmoser; edited by J. Williamson)

Analysis: Temperature ranges during the month of February and much of the winter had been extreme—as much as -44 degrees F. to 40 degrees F. There was also an unusual amount of snow. On 13 February, there was a snowfall of one and a half to two feet. Within the next few days, there was partial clearing, but the temperatures remained cold (0 degrees F. to 10 degrees F.). On 15 February, Canadian Mountain Holidays groups were able to ski, and did so on the route skied on the day of the avalanche. On 16 February, there were winds up to 25 mph out of the southwest (from Vancouver), and very thick clouds filled with ice crystals. Hindsight, following a review of cumulative weather and snow conditions, indicated that slopes were heavily loaded and conditions were right for the development of depth hoar. On 17 February, the weather broke and cleared, with the temperature at 28 degrees F.

The party descending above the slope which avalanced was led by their guide, who had chosen to ski on the ridge. However, some of the people with whom I spoke said that they had skied out onto the face. There is some evidence that this was the case, because at least three persons were caught in the slide at the starting zone.

It took a good deal of time to accomplish all of the resuce operations, which included calling in Mike Wiegele and his three guides (which included me), and two helicopters. Four (possibly five) of the injured needed helicopter transportation. The avalanche and the events which followed draw attention to the saliant issues confronting the helicopter ski business. First, the area in which I work—Alta and Snowbird (Utah)—have an intensive local instrumented forecasting program which is not available at Valemount. Second, there is a new breed of ski client who can be characterized as young (25-35), experienced at skiing very steep slopes which have been made ready (such as Alta and Jackson Hole), and who are not hesitant to let their wishes be known and even demand to ski certain slopes, especially when there are no tracks on it. (Source: Peter Lev.)

Editors Note: This accident does not include in its analysis a cause or a “holding responsible” of an individual. Having read various reports and talked with individuals who were there, I can only at this time raise questions for the future. One, what are the limits of reasonable precaution? Two, to what extent is a guide accountable in exercising control over a client or clients? (The latter becomes trickier when unroped.) Three, while in this particular instance it might have made no difference, would it not be appropriate for individuals carrying electronic locating instruments to be on the same frequency with all others who are within a reasonable radius? Hopefully, these matters will be resolved by guides rather than legislation.

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