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Avalanche, Inexperience, Alberta, Jasper National Park, Columbia Icefields, Mount Athabasca

AVALANCHE, INEXPERIENCE

Alberta, Jasper National Park, Columbia Icefields, Mount Athabasca

On June 9, B.M. and N.Z. climbed Mount Athabasca via a variation of the standard North Glacier Route. They opted to descend the standard “ramp” route. The party triggered a class 2.5 avalanche. It swept them over some steep terrain features. They were not buried and came to a stop in the upper part of the debris. One sustained minor injuries while the other (21) had a broken ankle and compression fractures in his back. They called out for help. The avalanche that came down about 1:30 p.m. was about 300 meters wide and up to 80 centimeters thick in some places. The slide took them over some big seracs underneath them, and then they got carried down a few hundred meters onto the lower glacier.

A party walking on the glacier rushed to the aid of the young climbers, while a mountain guide raised the alarm, bringing in wardens from Banff and Jasper as well as an avalanche rescue dog. A party of three climbers helped them move down through the debris and away from the run-out zone. A heli-sling operation evacuated the climbers, equipment, and the wardens from the scene.

Analysis

A wet spring with large snowfalls and heavy rains in June and early July created poor travel conditions and extended an alpine avalanche hazard into the normal climbing season. A rain-soaked snowpack combined with various thin crusts and wind-loading created a winter type of slab condition on some slopes. Warm overnight temperatures allowed for only a mild freeze.

While the two climbers had some sport climbing experience, this was their first season of alpine climbing. They did not recognize the avalanche hazard, and the warmer temperatures in the afternoon contributed to the avalanche release. The climbers were also unaware of the alternative descent route through the AA Col, which is much safer. (Source: Garth Lemke, Public Safety Warden Jasper National Park of Canada, Cathy Ellis)