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Avalanche, Exceeding Abilities, Weather, Alberta, Rocky Mountains, Cascade Mountain, "Urs Hole" Falls

AVALANCHE, EXCEEDING ABILITIES, WEATHER

Alberta, Rocky Mountains, Cascade Mountain, “Urs Hole” Falls

Sometime on February 24, two ice climbers (both 20) were hit by an avalanche while climbing the waterfall route “Urs Hole”, near Banff. Both died. One body was located the next day; the other was not recovered until the following summer.

The Urs Hole is a deep gully containing several ice steps leading up to a 25-meter, grade-three pitch. This gully is below a huge bowl that drains much of the South Face of Cascade Mountain. Unseasonably mild and stormy conditions were predicted for the day of the climb, and in fact a drizzle set in around noon and continued until the next morning. The climbers had started out around mid-morning, so they likely reached the key pitch, well up the gully, after the rainfall had begun.

Friends and wardens approached the foot of the gully on the evening the two were reported overdue, but the route was too dangerous for a search. The body of G. L. was spotted from the air early the next morning, but recovering it was difficult because the avalanche danger was still extreme. G. L. was hanging by his seat harness from an anchor below a block. His tools, pack, hat, and a mitt were all gone, but he seemed to be relatively uninjured. His death was likely caused at least partly by hypothermia. The doubled rope was hanging near him from a rock bolt about 25 meters higher up, at the top of the main pitch, but there was no sign of S. M.

The avalanche deposit in the narrow canyon immediately below was estimated to be more than 15 meters deep. A brief search was conducted that day, using the Parks Canada dog team, and the gully was searched three days later during a cold snap, by which time the snow had frozen solid, making digging impossible.

A few personal articles were later found in search attempts through the spring, and the helicopter was used to check the gully during the summer. Eventually, S. M. s body was found, about 50 meters below the main pitch, when the snow melted away from it in a moat along a rock face. He had been at least ten meters below the surface. S. M. had apparently been swept off the falls by a large fresh slide. It is possible he had been rappelling at the time and was carried off the end of the ropes.

Analysis

The guidebook description of this route begins, “Don’t even look at this route after the first significant snowfalls of the year.” The day these climbers selected was likely the worst one of the season, with the snowpack affected by warm weather and rain.

S. M. had started ice climbing the previous winter when he had first come to Banff, and had climbed other routes on Cascade a number of times previously, but this was G. L. s first ice climb, and equipment had been borrowed for him to go along.

Both climbers were local staff. Safety information given by the Parks Service is prepared with a view to reducing incidents like this. (Source: Tim Auger, Banff National Park Warden Service)