First incident claims biathlon champion
A frozen layer, high winds and a heavy snowfall are being blamed for the four heli-ski avalanche deaths that occurred over the past week, including one death in the Pemberton area.
The first incident occurred in Birkenhead Provincial Park on Thursday, Jan. 24 on a popular heli-ski run known as Baked Fresh Daily. Three skiers in the five-member group, not including two guides, were caught and trapped in the slide, which occurred at approximately noon.
One of the trapped skiers managed to free himself, and with the help of the guides dug out another skier who was partially buried. Both of these trapped skiers were uninjured.
Using avalanche transceivers, the skiers and guides located the third skier a few minutes later, who didnt display any vital signs.
"Emergency life support was attempted for this person by qualified persons at the scene," said Sergeant Norm McPhail of the Pemberton RCMP. "The person was later pronounced dead at the scene by an on-site physician."
The life support was performed by a doctor who was with the group. When they flew the victim back to Pemberton, the Emergency Health Services crew that met the helicopter found him dead on arrival.
The skier has been identified as 30-year-old Jay Poss of Sterling, Alaska. Poss, in addition to being an experienced backcountry skier, was the American national biathlon champion in 1997. The following summer he broke his back in a paragliding incident, missing his opportunity to ski for the U.S. at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.
Poss was part of a group that booked the heli-ski tour with Cayoosh Helisports, a Pemberton-based company that received tenure to operate heli-skiing and heli-hiking tours last summer.
According to Sgt. McPahil, the incident is under investigation, although foul play has been ruled out.
"It has been reported that the heli-skiing company involved was acting in accordance with regulations at the time of the incident. The company had properly briefed the skiers involved on safety protocols and procedures prior to the accident."
The cause or mechanism of death has not been determined yet, says Brian Pothier, the coroner for the Sea to Sky area.
"Because it happened in the backcountry, were waiting for the report from the avalanche investigation, and were awaiting the report from the pathologist," says Pothier. "The report should be ready within four to six weeks."
According to the Canadian Avalanche Association bulletin, the avalanche danger on Jan. 24 was "Considerable." Considerable is the third highest classification for avalanche danger on a five step scale that includes Low, Moderate, Considerable, High and Extreme.