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Avalanche, Alberta, Rocky Mountains, Howard Douglas Creek


Alberta, Rocky Mountains, Howard Douglas Creek

Twenty clients of Canadian Mountain Holidays and three other persons left Sunshine Village ski area on skis with a guide at 1000 hours on 27 March 1977, bound for Citadel Pass. They were to be carried by helicopter from the pass to Assiniboine Lodge. Two guides were to be with the party, but only one accompanied it to Citadel Pass. The skiing ability of the party ranged from expert to low. No one had an avalanche beacon or a cord. The guide had the only shovel and the only probe. There had been heavy snowfalls which had not yet compacted, and the snow had been unstable for some time, as had been publicized by the news media. The Warden’s hut at Sunshine Village contained posted warnings of extreme avalanche danger. It was snowing and windy, with low clouds and limited visibility.

Nevertheless, the guide, who had to register the tour at the Warden’s hut, decided to proceed. The party sank deeply into the uncompacted snow and was traveling slowly. After lunch, the guide left the normal route along the plateau without telling the party. He went into the Howard Douglas Creek valley on the lee (east) side of the plateau because he was concerned, as he said later, that there might be a white-out on the plateau and avalanches from Quartz Ridge. About 1300-1330 hours the leading skiers were crossing a steep open area when the second skier started a small avalanche which carried him down about 100 feet. Fortunately, he stayed on top of the snow. The party assembled in trees below the avalanche site and, in spite of the avalanche which many of the party did not know about, the guide continued.

At 1415 hours the party was traversing through scrub trees on the 1000-foot lee slope above Howard Douglas Creek about half its height. The front skiers stopped in fair-sized trees at the edge of an open area with no visible forest ahead. The guide instructed the leading skiers to travel one at a time, 50 feet apart, and proceeded. When he was well out, the lead skier had not started, so he beckoned them on, saying it was safe. When the guide and three skiers were spaced out on the slope, it avalanched as a soft slab. It fractured well above the skiers in the open, and then in a rapid, linked series of collapses, fractured upward to a very steep area hundreds of feet above the trees where the rest of the party was.

The guide and the first two skiers were saved by an outcropping of rock above them. The third skier, Roger Oliver, was carried down the slope, but managed to remove his skis and swim. When the avalanche stopped, he was exposed enough to dig himself out. The leading eight skiers in the timber were caught in the avalanche. When it stopped, Shirley Oliver (31) was buried in six to eight feet of compacted snow, Ann Vogel (45), Barbara Fossey (43) and Dan Fossey (45) were buried to a depth of four feet. Ann McMichael (28) was completely buried, but could clear the snow away from her face. Basil Baker (46), Kelly Pearce (16) and Brenda Mandie (29) were partially buried.

The guide sent two strong skiers to Sunshine Village for help, and organized a random search in the trees just below where the victims were hit. Few had ski poles with detachable baskets and so used the poles upside down. Within thirty minutes three of the buried were found and dug out safely. The guide assembled his avalanche probe and quickly found Shirley Oliver under six feet of snow. She was given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage for two hours without effect.

Those people who were completely buried would have surely died if the guide had not organized their rescue and revival so quickly and effectively.

The party moved to a safer place down the slope, built a fire, and attended to the victims who were incapacitated by severe shock, cold and injuries. One had a broken rib and a punctured lung, one had broken ribs, and one had torn muscles in one leg.

As they were to be carried by helicopter from Citadel Pass, most of the party had day packs. There were few provisions, no axe or saw so that firewood was difficult to collect, no tent or tarp to shelter the injured from the heavy snowfall. Fortunately there were three sleeping bags and one propane stove.

A rescue party of Sunshine Village staff, including a medical doctor, arrived at 1845 hours and stayed with the injured until they were helicoptered to the Banff hospital the following morning. (Sources: B.C. Pearce, S.R. Pearce, R. Bray- brook, G. Braybrook, A. McMichael, R. Oliver, K. Mandie, B. Mandie, D. Fossey, B. Fossey, P. Townshend, U. Korb)


There are several lessons to be learned from this tragic accident. An inquest was held and the judge recommended that: 1) parties of this size should have two guides; 2) each member of a commercially guided cross-country tour should have electronic homing devices; 3) all guides should check the available avalanche hazard information. There is no doubt that parties without guides should also have homing devices and should check the avalanche hazard warnings.