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A group of students on an avalanche-training course with the Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau ski out of an unpatrolled area on Tuesday. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A group of students on an avalanche-training course with the Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau ski out of an unpatrolled area on Tuesday. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

MOUNTAIN SAFETY

Students’ deaths transformed Canada’s attitude towards avalanches Add to ...

About a week after their 15-year-old son, Daniel Arato, died in an avalanche along with six of his classmates, Judith and Peter Arato climbed into a helicopter to see where the school group had been taken on a ski trip.

The Calgary couple flew over Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park where the Columbia Mountains of southeastern British Columbia receive up to 21 metres of snow annually – so much snow that the military stationed there use a howitzer to keep potential slides off the TransCanada Highway.

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“We were horrified by what we saw,” recalled Ms. Arato of that helicopter tour almost a decade ago. “…The kids were in the most avalanche-prone area of Canada.”

The deaths of those children transformed the way Canada looked at avalanche safety: Now, this country’s approach to managing risk is considered the “gold standard” and has been copied around the world. This year, with an unusually early start to winter, experts acknowledge our status abroad but warn against complacency at home.

While undeniably beautiful, the area is considered home to one of the deadliest concentrations of avalanches in the world. Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, Daniel Arato’s elite private school in Okotoks, Alta., just south of Calgary, was revered for its outdoor-education programming, and its Grade 10 ski tour through the Connaught Creek trail in Rogers Pass was an annual highlight.

On Feb. 1, 2003, tragedy struck in a winter that would eventually see 29 people die in avalanches in the Canadian backcountry – the most during a single season since 1965 – a grim record that stands today. The El Nino phenomenon contributed to unusually warm conditions and an unstable, light snowpack that winter. The school group was hit when the snow gave way from a mountain face high above the popular Connaught Creek trail, which set off a second torrent of snow that engulfed 17 members.

“In their mind’s eye,” said Ms. Arato, referring to the school, “they’d been going to the Connaught Valley for 25 years and nothing had happened, so why not continue to go there. Really, in a way, they were playing Russian roulette with these kids’ lives.”

Largely because of the efforts of the Aratos, Parks Canada would later ban school groups, and others leading young people, from the Connaught Creek trail, now deemed too complex and dangerous. But that was only one part of the fallout from the avalanche that claimed the students, all aged 15. A series of reports would make a cascade of recommendations to improve backcountry safety. A flood of federal and provincial money followed. New terrain and avalanche danger-rating systems were created, as well as new warning signs erected. The Canadian Avalanche Centre would also be established.

“This is a famous story,” said Grant Statham, mountain-risk specialist with Parks Canada. “This accident, that winter. It’s when the tide changed. It was a watershed moment in avalanche safety.”

Two metres of snow have already piled up in the mountains in the West, ski resorts opened early and one avalanche death was recorded in October in northwestern B.C., where a 50-year-old mine surveyor was swept over a cliff and buried. Weather watchers aren’t predicting El Nino conditions this winter, and while nobody will project the overall avalanche danger, experts say that low snowfall and unstable snowpacks are the traditional hallmarks of a nasty avalanche season ahead. And avalanche warnings are currently rated as “considerable” or “high” down the spine of the country.

“It’s time to start thinking about the possibilities that avalanches may start early this year,” said B.C. Coroner Barb McLintock, who was asked to investigate the first avalanche death of this winter.

Canadian Avalanche Centre

For years there had been talk among backcountry enthusiasts about creating a hub for public avalanche information as well as avalanche alerts that the public could easily understand. In 2004, the Canadian Avalanche Centre was founded as a non-profit organization, which received much of its $1.3-million in funding last year from the B.C. government, as well as the federal and Alberta governments. The centre delivers safety programs, issues daily avalanche bulletins and special warnings, and maintains a catalogue of incidents.

Last winter, about 7,000 people took avalanche-training courses nationwide compared to about 2,750 a decade ago.

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