By Andrew Mitchell
Winter has just started in Canada’s western provinces and there has already been one avalanche fatality.
On Tuesday, Nov. 7 an ice climber in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country was killed when a slab avalanche detached above an ice face. The climber, who was leading the route up a narrow gully, was spared as the avalanche debris swept over his head, but his partner on belay was buried under a mound of snow.
The leader climbed down to his partner and dug for 45 minutes with his helmet before going for help. Later that afternoon the Kanaskis Country Rangers discovered the man’s body under more than three metres of snow.
Neither climber carried an avalanche receiver or rescue tools, and the avalanche — believed to be a minor class two — was likely due to natural causes.
It will never be known whether the Canadian Avalanche Association’s new Avaluator program could have prevented the death, but at the very least it could have ensured that the climbers were better prepared.
The Avaluator program was created by the Canadian Avalanche Association to simplify trip planning and decision making for people heading into avalanche terrain.
“There are hundreds of factors you have to take into consideration, if you’ve ever taken a course on avalanches,” said John Kelly, operations director for the Canadian Avalanche Centre, “but what people were lacking was a simple way to sort things out into the most pertinent details when planning a trip.
“We looked at the entire history of avalanche accidents (in North America), more than 1,400 accidents, when making the Avaluator tool, and we found the same common, simple features were common in every accident. By identifying the simple things, we’ve given people a good tool they can use to help make safer choices in the backcountry.”
The idea for the Avaluator stems from the 2002-03 winter, where a record 29 people died in avalanches in Canada, predominantly in B.C. Two accidents claimed seven people each, including an avalanche that killed snowboard legend Craig Kelly, and one that claimed seven teenagers from an Alberta private school. Prior to that winter funding was being cut for avalanche monitoring and education at both the provincial and federal level.
In the aftermath, it was recognized that the Canadian Avalanche Centre needed to expand its operations, while updating hazard assessment protocols to make them more accessible to backcountry users. The Avaluator was developed over the next three years with the leading avalanche experts from across Canada and the U.S. contributing to the project, with sponsorship from the National Search and Rescue Secretariat and Parks Canada.