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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 ...

Trailhead signs

Parks Canada moved quickly to place large signs at key trailheads, which show backcountry enthusiasts the terrain they are about to enter along with detailed warnings. The maps are also available online.

After the deadly winter for snowmobilers in B.C. in 2008-09, the province placed avalanche-awareness signs at 23 key highway locations and at all its provincially managed snowmobile zones, said Tasha Schollen, a spokesperson with B.C. Public Safety and the Solicitor-General.

Also incorporated to the B.C. signage is the “Avaluator” guide, which was developed six years ago with $600,000 from Ottawa, to give people a step-by-step decision-making tool about whether their travel should be with “normal caution,” “extra caution” or “not recommended.” Avaluator information has been posted near at least 27 “higher risk” snowmobile trails and will be set up at the rest of them by spring, 2013.

On the Trail

Ruedi Beglinger often thinks about that awful winter of a decade ago.

On Jan. 20, 2003, less than two weeks before the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir students died, the Swiss-born professional mountain guide was leading a group of 21 people up Durrand Glacier, near Revelstoke, B.C. A whumpf sound gave way to a settlement in the snow, which set off a series of slides. Thirteen people were swept away, and seven adults – four Americans, including legendary snowboarder Craig Kelly, and three Canadians – were killed.

That incident also spawned reports and investigations that helped contribute to the widescale institutional changes in avalanche safety. Mr. Beglinger’s popular ski-touring company, Selkirk Mountain Experience, also reacted.

At the time, he had no access to subscriber-only avalanche bulletins known as Infoex, only general avalanche reports, which are not as detailed as they are today. Selkirk consulted with heli-ski operators to find out how they deal with avalanche hazards and overhauled company policy. He holds more in-depth safety meetings with the guides and added 10 more snow-profile sites to its main study pit at the lodge to help assess a wider swath of snow conditions.

“I don’t think there’s a day I don’t think about this avalanche,” Mr. Beglinger said.

He described it as a movie with every step and every probe into the snow on the ascent replayed over and over in his mind.

“If I would take that film and roll it right back, and know everything I know up until an hour before [the avalanche], would I go? Yeah, I think I would,” he said. “I had absolutely no signs that told me to not go. But I look back and say, yeah, I wish I didn’t go up. Hindsight is the easiest sight.”

Outdoor educator worries about complacency

Bruce Hendricks was teaching outdoor education at a boys school in Sydney, Australia, when he heard about the avalanche that killed seven students from a private school in Alberta.

While there was no threat of a devastating snow slide on any of his students’ excursions, Mr. Hendricks moved quickly to adopt the recommendations from an independent report, which concluded that Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Okotoks, Alta., didn’t adequately warn parents about “catastrophic risk” on the 2003 ski trip, but at the same time, both the school and parents had become “complacent” about danger. It also said the school is more focused on “adventure” than education.

“It had had implications worldwide,” said Mr. Hendricks, who, coincidentally, became director of outdoor education at STS five years ago.

The school still fields about a dozen inquiries a year about risk management.

It overhauled its outdoor policy manual, dramatically scaled back terrain options, offered more training and now has students, parents and staff sit through an extensive pretrip briefing process before they sign a consent form. It includes a presentation that shows maps, charts, photos, videos, avalanche bulletins, different types of terrain and outlines the worst-case scenarios.

Outdoor-education expert Ross Cloutier, who wrote the external report on the tragic STS trip, said the event caused many private schools nationwide, as well as some public school systems, to review their own programs. Still, he worries about complacency.

“We are getting far enough away from the event that most public-school outdoor-education teachers, principals and trustees I meet these days only have vague recollections of the STS incident and don’t really understand the event or its implications,” he said.

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