The avalanche happened the second day of a week-long ski trip, on the first run after lunch, the sixth run of the day, under the watch of the world’s largest heli-skiing operation. It was 1:35 p.m.
The snow slide swallowed one skier and partially buried three others who were following their solo guide down the mountain in the Selkirks. Seven more adventurers watched from above and the guide from below. With lives in danger, Canadian Mountain Holidays Inc., kicked off a flurry of emergency radio calls and helicopter trips.
The unharmed skiers immediately flipped their beacons into search mode so they could search for their missing companion. At the same time, the distressed group sought help. CMH had three more packs of skiers nearby, and a helicopter quickly plucked their guides off the mountain and ferried them to the avalanche site.
“Those guides from the other groups responded immediately,” said Marty von Neudegg, a CMH director and the company’s general legal counsel. “We had [these]three mountain guides there within a couple of minutes.” CMH also rushed its snow safety guide and three more guides from a neighbouring ski area to the site. Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing, one of CMH’s competitors, also deposited two experts.
Ten guides and five helicopters were involved in the search for the missing skier.
“His [beacon]signal was located by a guide,” Mr. von Neudegg said. “It was probably – from the time of the avalanche to the time he was found – it would have been about 10 minutes.”
It was too late.
The avalanche, which swept down a run in the Holyk Creek drainage near Revelstoke, B.C. on Friday, killed Greg Sheardown. Two doctors were on the scene and attended to Mr. Sheardown, who was pronounced dead at Queen Victoria Hospital in Revelstoke, about 400 kilometres west of Calgary. He was 45, lived in Dubai, and was from Stouffville, Ont.
While the pros searched for Mr. Sheardown, the other guests focused on their three partially buried counterparts, who were standing stuck in the snow.
“The other guests dug those guys out quickly,” Mr. von Neudegg said. All of the guests were outfitted with backpacks containing shovels, probes, and radios. (Safety procedures, such as what equipment guests must carry, are not standard across the heli-skiing industry). The ski run, dubbed Selkirk, is below the tree line and “moderate” terrain, he said.
Snowstorms recently dumped up to 50 centimetres of snow in many mountains across B.C., increasing the snow pack and pushing the avalanche danger ratings to high. CMH’s guides considered Selkirk so safe, another one of its groups skied the same area earlier that day, Mr. von Neudegg said. The guide leading Mr. Sheardown’s group had racked up 15 years experience with CMH.
Revelstoke RCMP said the avalanche, measuring 75-metres wide and running 250 metres, was human-triggered. Skiers also triggered two more avalanches on Friday near Golden, B.C., with everyone making it out of the areas safely, according to RCMP.
The death is the second avalanche fatality in recent days and the third this season. On Thursday, 30-year-old Duncan MacKenzie, a long-time ski patroller, was killed in a snow slide east of Pemberton, B.C.
The Canadian Avalanche Centre said as of April 2011 no one heli-skiing or cat-skiing died in avalanches in 2010-11, while two people died this way in the previous ski season. Twenty-six “mechanized skiers,” which includes heli and cat-skiers, have been killed by avalanches since 1993-1994, with nine losing their lives in 1996-1997.
The chance of surviving an avalanche is about 86 per cent, depending on a number of factors, including an ability to remain near the surface, the terrain, the size of the avalanche, time until rescue, and “luck,” according to the Canadian Avalanche Centre website. It says about 90 per cent of avalanche fatalities involve recreationists such as skiers and snowmobilers.
“People trigger their own avalanches by and large,” said Ilya Storm, forecast co-ordinator for the Canadian Avalanche Centre. “The gap between perception and reality is the gap that we try to narrow. People want to go out and have fun, but they also want to come home.”
CMH, which is owned by Intrawest ULC, has operated around Revelstoke for 38 years, and this is its first fatal avalanche in the area. It has been in business for a total of 48 years, and has made 9 million group runs with only 11 avalanche fatalities, Mr. von Neudegg said.
CMH says all guides are certified by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and/or the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association, and regularly take courses in avalanche hazard evaluation and stabilization, weather analysis, and emergency medical training.
“We’re not out there skiing on the edge,” Mr. von Neudegg said. “People have this perception that heli-skiing is this extreme sport, and it is not. It is a wilderness experience sport. ... There are risks, for sure, but our guides ... want to come home at the end of the day and they are not pushing the edge. We try to stay well inside the boundary, but obviously in this case, something went wrong.”
The B.C. Coroner’s Service and Revelstoke RCMP are investigating, and CMH said it is co-operating.
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