Avalanche deaths prompts awareness campaign
Eleven avalanche deaths in the B.C. backcountry over the past several weeks have served as a stark reminder of the risks of enjoying Western Canada's vast and stunning outdoors.
With the risk of more avalanches high, ski resorts are scrambling to keep people inside their boundaries and the province is pondering fines for those who jump the ropes and venture out of bounds.
At Whistler-Blackcomb, it's what most people are talking about. And few have more to say on the subject of avalanche danger than ski patroller Richard Wynes.
"The best thing to do is avoid it in the first place and often we can avoid it," he says.
As a regular patrol member on the mountain, he's seen more than his fair share of unstable snow in the last two weeks.
The avalanches that recently killed two guests in closed areas of the resort are two very important reasons why Wynes is stationed at the mountain base talking about safety to skiers and snowboarders.
It's also why similar information tents have sprung up in other recreation areas, including North Vancouver's Grouse Mountain, as part of Avalanche Awareness Days. The information sessions are geared to offer survival tips and demonstrations about what to do in case of a slide.
The sessions come at a time when the risk of avalanche throughout B.C.'s backcountry is high, as are the number of related deaths. And the issue of accessing unsafe snow is generating controversy.
"I have said that where people very deliberately cross boundaries that have been established as restricted areas then I'm asking whether they should receive some sort of a fine or consequence," says Public Safety Minister John van Dongen.
Van Dongen says 65 per cent of total avalanche deaths in Canada are in B.C.
The unusual snow pack and recent events has prompted Whistler-Blackcomb to seek the advice of an independent avalanche expert, and to send out an email to all pass holders warning them of the danger.
The email that describes the snow pack as "extremely unusual and dangerous" and explains it "could affect conditions all season."
The warning means some areas of the resort may be closed at all times.
Meanwhile, the avalanche risk in B.C. remains high.
An American snowboarder who was caught in an avalanche Thursday in northern B.C. died in hospital Saturday.
Last week, three skiers and a snowboarder were banned for life from Grouse Mountain after they knowingly ventured out of bounds and entered a dangerous, avalanche-prone spot.
Rescue crews were unable to go in after them, so the four men were guided to safety by a helicopter 45 minutes after they entered the area.
The group was billed for the full cost of the search, and their names have been circulated to all ski resorts in Western Canada.
On New Year's Day, 26-year-old Aaron Fauchon was snowboarding by himself on Whistler Mountain in an area marked out of bounds when he was killed in an avalanche.
The night before, on New Year's Eve, 37-year-old Steven Clark died after he ventured out of bounds on Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler and was also caught by an avalanche.
On Dec. 28, eight snowmobilers were killed near Fernie by a series of avalanches in the backcountry.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Avalanche Centre says many people who use the backcountry don't even know about the centre's forecasts, which are available for free online.
Mary Clayton says its diligent forecasting and education makes Canada the envy of other countries.
"More than 5,000 people took our recreational avalanche course. We meet with our contemporaries, our colleagues in Europe and frankly they're astounded by our numbers."
Most areas in B.C. remain at high risk of avalanches, except for the northwest region of the province.
Karl Klassen, a forecaster with the centre, says the high rating is a combination of a very rapid, heavy load of snow that arrived in a short period of time and sits atop older snow layers.
With a report from CTV British Columbia's Sarah Galashan and files from The Canadian Press