Three backcountry skiers are dead and another four are injured as a result of an avalanche in southeast British Columbia on Wednesday, making them the latest victims of a particularly deadly season.
There have now been 12 avalanche fatalities in Canada in 2023 so far, all them in B.C., according to Avalanche Canada, an avalanche-safety non-profit.
Lisa Perazzoli, an Avalanche Canada spokesperson, said the danger in the area where the avalanche occurred, in southeast B.C. near Invermere, was rated as “considerable” on Wednesday. She added that the avalanche was rated a three out of five, meaning it was large enough to break trees, bury and destroy cars, and damage trucks and even buildings.
“It’s important to know that a dangerous snowpack structure exists in the B.C. Interior that can produce large human-triggered avalanches,” she said.
She explained that this year’s avalanche season has been plagued by a deeply buried weak layer of snow across much of Western Canada, making the snowpack very difficult to manage safely.
Avalanches can happen when weak snow layers, buried beneath the surface, are disturbed by a skier somewhere on a slope.
Avalanche Canada said in a post on its website that some experts are comparing this year’s snowpack to that of 2003, which the organization wrote was “one of the worst years on record for avalanche fatalities.”
Ms. Perazzoli said this week’s avalanche, which occurred on a southwest slope about 2,500 metres in elevation, was caused by a layer of snow that formed in November. She noted that about 80 per cent of this year’s avalanche fatalities have been related to snow from this same period.
RCMP Corporal James Grandy said in a statement that there were 10 people caught up in the avalanche. Some of the injured are in serious condition, but Cpl. Grandy said it is believed they will survive.
The 10 people were with RK Heliski, a company that offers helicopter skiing tours. One of the people seriously injured in the avalanche was a skiing guide, Cpl. Grandy said.
The skiers killed in the avalanche were foreign nationals, Cpl. Grandy added. But he said their nationalities won’t be released until next-of-kin notifications are completed.
“The guests and the guides who ski with us each season are part of our family. We are heartbroken about the accident that happened yesterday near Invermere, B.C.,” RK Heliski said in a statement on Thursday.
WorkSafeBC, the provincial agency that handles payments to sick and injured workers, said it is aware of the incident and has responded.
At a news conference Thursday, B.C. Premier David Eby asked backcountry skiers to be aware of the dangers they face.
“Certainly, this has been a horrific avalanche season for British Columbia. So for people who are thinking about going into the backcountry, please be extremely cautious,” Mr. Eby said.
Cpl. Grandy said the Columbia Valley RCMP detachment was notified at 12:40 p.m. on Wednesday that the avalanche had occurred around noon. RCMP officers were ready to begin search-and-rescue operations, he said, but didn’t do so because all the buried victims had already been found.
Kevin Dumba, a spokesperson for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, said the tragic loss of life impacts everyone who works in or enjoys the backcountry.
“This has been a challenging year for commercial backcountry ski operations and the professional guides that work for them,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Backcountry ski operations continually evaluate the avalanche risk, share those evaluations through the industry and make decisions regarding their operations on a daily basis.”
“Risk is inherent in every backcountry skiing activity and cannot be separated from the activity without fundamentally altering the nature or essence of the activity.”
Mr. Dumba suggested people thinking of going backcountry skiing first consider hiring a guide. “If they choose to travel unguided, they should do so commensurate with their level of experience and expertise and follow Avalanche Canada’s recommendations,” he wrote.