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Avalanche on Ice Climb, Rocky Mountains, Mount Stephen

AVALANCHE ON ICE CLIMB

British Columbia, Rocky Mountains, Mount Stephen

On December 28, 1988, John Owen (30) and David Franklin (33) walked from Field along the railway tracks to a point below “Extra Light,” an ice climb on Mount Stephen. From there, they hiked up to the base of the waterfall and started climbing, unroped, the first pitch of nearly vertical ice. About 1400, John had just gained the snow and ice ramp that completes the first pitch, when he yelled to his partner, “Avalanche!” David, following, was part way up and could not see John. About five seconds later, David was hit by the avalanche and was thrown off the waterfall. He ended up partly buried in the middle of the avalanche deposit.

David freed himself from the snow and yelled for John, but there was no answer, and no sign of his companion. David’s ankle was broken, he was coughing blood from chest injuries, and he couldn’t move his shoulder. He dragged himself to the railway with his ice ax.

About 1800, the crew of a freight train spotted David beside the tracks and stopped the train. They found him still conscious, but very cold and shaking badly. They took him to Field, where the RCMP was contacted. Park Wardens from Yoho and Lake Louise arrived by snowmobile and probed for about two hours. Then the dogmaster arrived, and the dog found John’s body in two or three minutes, buried under a meter of snow. (Source: Terry Willis, Yoho National Park Warden Service, and the Ottawa Citizen, December 30)

Analysis

John was rated at above average in mountaineering skill. He and David had done a lot of climbing together. It is not clear why they were climbing unroped. The waterfall is in an avalanche path. Although the avalanche hazard for Yoho in general was moderate, there was a high avalanche hazard at higher elevations and on wind-loaded lee slopes and in gullies and basins on that day.

The chances of survival would have been much better if they had been equipped with avalanche transceivers and probes. Rescue would have started earlier if they had registered out with the Warden Service. (Source: Terry Willis, Yoho National Park Warden Service)