Squamish's Dennis Leski was the first casualty of the uncertain snowpack, but the 44-year-old — killed by a slide at Grizzly Lake on Powder Mountain on March 6 — was not the last.
On Friday, March 9 a 33-year-old man was killed while snowmobiling in Corbin, near Sparwood. And on Sunday another 33-year-old from Calgary was killed while skiing near Revelstoke.
The avalanche danger was rated as Considerable when Leski was killed, and over a metre of snow has fallen since then. The snow and high winds prompted the Canadian Avalanche Centre to issue a blanket warning through last weekend.
"We have a variety of issues within the snowpack right now that cause us two main concerns," Ilya Storm, the CAC's public avalanche warning services coordinator, wrote in a news release. "The first is that the size of avalanches is likely to be much bigger than might be expected, and could be triggered remotely, which means triggered at a distance or from the bottom of the slope. Our other main concern is that slopes generally considered safer — lower angle, below treeline — are primed for human triggering.
"Knowing the slope history is key to good decisions right now," wrote Storm. "And make sure you park in safe spots — well to the side of any avalanche path or far away from the runout zone. Given the size of recent avalanches, the bottom of runout zones this weekend might be farther than you think."
Storm added that local knowledge and a high level of training and experience were needed to travel safely in avalanche terrain last weekend.
Two days after Leski was killed, Whistler Search and Rescue visited the area to get a profile of the fracture. The slide was classified as a Size 3 on a scale from 1 to 5 — large enough to "bury a car, destroy a small building or break trees" — with a fracture line that stretched 500 metres across the slope. The fracture also occurred deeper in the snowpack than the most recent storms, pointing to an instability that could make backcountry travel dangerous through the remainder of the season.
At press time the avalanche hazard rating for Whistler was High from alpine to tree line, and Considerable below the tree line.
According to the CAC, everyone in a backcountry party needs to be equipped with a shovel, probe and transceiver and the CAC strongly recommends all backcountry users take an avalanche awareness course. More detailed information is available on the CAC forecaster's blog found at www.avalanche.ca/cac.
A note on the Whistler Blackcomb website warns that access to Garibaldi Park from the Symphony Chair road is no longer available during times when avalanche closures are in place at the bottom of Harmony Chair. The Singing Pass Trail is the alternate access for those who want to access the backcountry.
"Backcountry access tickets will only be sold if the avalanche signs are open or if there is a strong likelihood that they will be opened after avalanche control is conducted," a warning on the WB website notes. "There may be times when the avalanche closures remain in place all day. Whistler Blackcomb has unfortunately been forced to adopt this policy due to the increasing numbers of guests who are using the park access route to enter into closed avalanche terrain that is within the ski area boundary."
Meanwhile, a memorial service has been announced to remember Leski. A service is planned for this Saturday, March 17 at Totem Hall in Squamish. The service will start at 4 p.m. and a reception will follow at Totem Hall.