"A Wall Of Snow And Then Blackness..." In an instant a wilderness ski trip became a nightmare as British Columbia's second fatal avalanche in 12 days claimed seven young lives

Feb. 17, 2003
Feb. 17, 2003

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Feb. 17, 2003

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"A Wall Of Snow And Then Blackness..." In an instant a wilderness ski trip became a nightmare as British Columbia's second fatal avalanche in 12 days claimed seven young lives

They were marching up the valley in pairs, their eyes
alternating between the two feet of fresh powder under their
skis and their destination: the top of the Balu Pass Trail, a
ribbon of snow 550 yards wide in British Columbia's Glacier
National Park. The valley is named after the creek that parts
it, the Connaught, but residents call the primary ski route
through this remote part of western Canada simply Balu. One of
North America's most popular backcountry recreation areas, the
Connaught Valley is moderately difficult to ski and was well
known to the 14 high school students moving up its north side
on Feb. 1. They were children of privilege, 10th-graders at the
prestigious Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School (STS) outside Calgary,
Alberta. A four-day trip to the Rogers Pass area of Glacier
National Park, which includes Balu, had been a tradition at STS
for more than 20 years. And for this year's group--14 students,
two teacher-guides and another adult--Day Two held great
promise. The temperature was approaching 30° when they left the
Rogers Pass information center shortly after 9:30 a.m., and
although clouds hid the ridge tops, windows of blue sky gave
the air a welcoming crispness.

This is an article from the Feb. 17, 2003 issue

Watching the group ski up the valley were Rich Marshall and his
wife, Abby Watkins, professional guides from Golden, B.C. They
had stopped for tea in some timber at 5,500 feet, and as they
stood sipping from thermoses, they could see the students about
300 feet below, a twisting line of earth tones in their Gore-Tex
jackets and snug hats slowly ascending the same broken trail that
Marshall and Watkins had skied.

At 11:45, as Marshall was closing his thermos, he heard a sharp
crack from across the valley, from the menacing north-facing
slope of Mount Cheops, a peak considered too steep to ski.
Marshall saw the snowpack at approximately 7,900 feet give way
and begin a screaming descent toward the students and their
guides. "Avalanche! Avalanche! Avalanche!" he yelled.

The students had only seconds before the monstrous slide,
estimated at more than 850 yards wide and moving with enough
force to flatten 10 acres of forest, hit. First came a "wall of
snow," one student later told wardens, and then "blackness."
Marshall and Watkins were dusted by the avalanche and waited for
it to settle before speeding toward the group. Investigators
would later conclude that the couple saved at least five lives.
But there would be little solace in that fact. While seven
youngsters and three adults survived the avalanche, another seven
motivated and promising teenagers--six boys and one girl--died.

As funerals were held last week, much of what Calgary learned
about the lost students came from thumbnail sketches in the
newspapers. Ben Albert was a hockey and volleyball player; Daniel
Arato, an eccentric who rode a unicycle; Scott Broshko, a trumpet
player and four-sport athlete; Alex Patillo, a lover of the
theater; Michael Shaw, a computer whiz who favored sailing; Jeff
Trickett, a witty saxophone player; and Marissa Staddon, a figure
skater who loved climbing with her father.

The loss of young life leveled the community and sparked a debate
over the value of outdoor programs at schools like
Strathcona-Tweedsmuir--a debate that was played out, wrenchingly,
even at the victims' funerals. "What kind of character are we
trying to build by this type of adventure--Rambos?" said Arato's
grandfather, John Konig, during the service for his grandson. The
next day 17-year-old Amanda Shaw, Michael's older sister, stepped
to the podium at Christ Church and gave STS a much-needed vote of
confidence. "Nobody could have predicted it; nobody could have
prevented it," said Amanda, who went on an earlier Rogers Pass
trip. "It's a great character-building program."

Parks Canada has come under fire as well. On Jan. 20 an avalanche
on the Durrand Glacier, 20 miles from Rogers Pass, had buried 13
skiers and snowboarders, killing seven. Among the dead were four
Americans--Kathleen Kessler of Truckee, Calif.; Dennis Yates of
Los Angeles; Ralph Lunsford of Littleton, Colo.; and
world-champion snowboarder Craig Kelly of Mount Vernon, Wash. The
death toll for these two avalanches is equal to the average
number of avalanche deaths in Canada for the past five winters.
Says Peter Arato, Daniel's father, "When a tragedy is called an
accident, it implies it was unavoidable. But what happens in life
is never that black and white."

There is no gray when it comes to how Canadians feel about their
right to explore their national parks. While there is no way to
track the number of Canadians who venture into the wild, "it is
clear that number is growing rapidly," said Ross Cloutier, a
mountain guide who chairs the adventure programs department at
University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, B.C. "It is what
this generation wants to do." The most recent avalanche has
spurred Parks Canada to review how it keeps adventurers safe, but
parks officials and outdoor enthusiasts scoff at taking
more-radical steps such as closing areas deemed hazardous. "You
can't regulate the backcountry," says Cloutier. "You can't lock
it up."

The controversy swirling around the school programs won't pass
easily. Whether the 14 STS students should have been on the
mountain has been debated not only during eulogies but also in
classrooms and at dinner tables, in the Irish pubs on Calgary's
bustling 8th Avenue and in mountain towns such as Revelstoke,
B.C., home to the coroner who has investigated all 14 deaths in
this year's two avalanches. Outdoor excursions at STS and at
other schools across Canada have been canceled or postponed as
officials and families ponder whether learning the lessons that
nature teaches is worth putting children in harm's way. "How this
debate goes will determine if mountain adventure programs are
viable," said Dan Murphy, principal at Banff (Alberta) Mountain
Academy, which canceled some trips after Feb. 1.

"We can only hope," says Alf Skrastins, director of outdoor
programs at the University of Calgary, "that the people doing the
criticizing understand the role nature can play in children's

That role is defined early at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir. Initiation
for first-grade students includes a weekend during which they
sleep in tents on campus, which covers 170 acres in the eastern
foothills of the Rockies. They learn environmental tenets such as
"leave it as you found it" and are introduced to places on campus
where they can hike, ski, canoe, rock climb or otherwise explore.
High school and junior high students participate in trips of
several days, such as the excursion to Rogers Pass, which was
part of a for-credit course for 10th-graders. "The outdoor
education program has made such a difference," says Christine
Kolanos, a former member of the school's volunteer board who sent
all four of her children to STS. "It teaches students the drive,
desire and dedication needed to succeed in life."

All those attributes were possessed by the 14 students who left
Calgary on the last day of January. The teenagers also appear to
have been well versed on the potential dangers in Glacier
National Park. On Friday, as the group's vans rode the four hours
to Rogers Pass, they passed avalanche warning signs and went
through five long tunnels built because constant slides had
buried the highway. Once in Rogers Pass, the students skied for
20 minutes from the highway to A.O. Wheeler Hut, a three-bedroom
log cabin maintained by the Alpine Club of Canada. That afternoon
they skied near the cabin, and--supervised by Andrew Nicholson
and Dale Roth, avalanche-certified teachers--they dug avalanche
pits, did snowpack testing and performed compression tests on
every slope. They set out storm boards to collect the overnight
snowfall and in the morning compared the samples with the snow
already on the ground. They then skied to the visitors' center,
where Nicholson talked with officials about snow conditions and
was given a daily bulletin that included weather conditions,
satellite imagery and avalanche danger ratings.

The report for Feb. 1 stated that below the tree line, where the
group planned to stay, avalanche danger was "Moderate--Natural
avalanches are unlikely. Human triggers are possible." However,
their route offered no protection if an avalanche occurred in the
alpine areas above them, which included the 8,550-foot peak of
Mount Cheops. In the alpine areas the threat was deemed
"Considerable--Natural avalanches are possible. Human triggers
are probable." The guides conferred with the students, who,
according to school officials, wanted to ski for Balu. Nicholson
and Roth made the final decision to proceed.

They were headed up a valley in Glacier National Park, one of the
most unstable areas in Western Canada. The Canadian army
routinely fires howitzers in Rogers Pass in an attempt to trigger
controlled avalanches and keep the highway and railways clear.
Layers of snow packed in the last few months had done little to
lessen the threat of avalanches. A Jan. 20 layer "easily
released" during tests, according to the daily report given to
Nicholson. A Dec. 6 layer suffered "compression test failures."
Worst of all was the deep November layer. Two laminated crusts of
ice sandwiched a layer of unstable crystals to form a sort of
snow plywood that had worried avalanche watchers all winter.
"Every year the snowpack is questionable up there," says John
Seibert, an experienced backcountry ski-mountaineer from Alaska
who survived the Jan. 20 avalanche on the Durrand Glacier, "but
that's the risk. And to learn about yourself, you have to take

Before the trip students had completed fitness tests and lessons
in avalanche awareness and rescue. During the ascent, they
followed the standard practice for traveling in avalanche zones
of maintaining spacing between skiers, in this case keeping 30 to
50 feet between pairs. And about15 minutes into the trip the
guides stopped the column and quizzed each student on avalanche
safety protocol. "They were as prepared as they could have been,"
says Ingrid Healy, assistant head of school at STS. "As anyone
could have been."

The wind was blowing less than 16 mph at the tree line, but it
was stronger at the top of Mount Cheops, where it had been
blowing between 20 mph and 45 mph all week. At 11:45 a.m.
something, perhaps the weight of snow blown over the shoulder of
the mountain, became too much for the January layer, and it
cracked and slid down the mountain. By itself it would have
merely dusted the valley beneath it--something the STS group
could tell friends about upon their return. But the weight was
too much for the Dec. 6 layer to hold, and the two layers'
combined heft easily cracked the fragile November crust, sending
approximately 1,000 tons of snow into the valley. "We see an
avalanche of that magnitude [3.5 out of 5] at least once a year,
but usually not in that pass," says Eric Dafoe, a public safety
coordinator for Parks Canada, "and usually during a big storm
period, when no one is around."

The snow hit Nicholson first, pushing him toward where Marshall
and Watkins stood. Marshall located Nicholson quickly because one
of his arms was exposed. After freeing him enough to allow him to
begin digging himself out, Marshall skied down to help Watkins.
"When we arrived down at the debris, we saw just about everybody
was buried," Watkins told Global TV affiliate CHAN in Vancouver.
"We just started moving toward signs of life--a ski glove--and
digging, finding a face, making sure they're breathing and then
moving on."

Each student carried a shovel and a probe and wore an avalanche
beacon, which emits a beeping signal that can be received by
another beacon. The closer Watkins got to a buried student, the
louder and more frequent the beeps. She and Marshall moved
quickly, but some of the group had tumbled more than 200 yards
down the valley. Once free, some of the rescued began trying to
dig out their friends. Nicholson, who was carrying a satellite
phone, called the Rogers Pass warden, and within 40 minutes 10
rescuers were on the scene. The number grew quickly to
40--including park staff, mountain guides, military personnel and
heli-ski guides. Among the last group were staff members from the
Selkirk Mountain Experience, whose owner, Ruedi Beglinger, led
the tragic Jan. 20 expedition on the Durrand Glacier. But seven
of the students had been buried too deep. It would be an hour and
20 minutes from the time the avalanche hit before the last body
was lifted from its grasp. "They were just in the wrong place at
the wrong time," says Dafoe.

In the days following the disaster, grieving parents questioned
the decision to go for Balu. If the chances of an avalanche were
"considerable" just above where the students were to ski, why
take the risk? STS head Tony Macoun insists that the risks were
weighed by all. "This was not a case of the leaders dictating
what would happen," he says. But are teenagers mature enough and
informed enough to weigh the risks inherent in such a decision?

The criticism from Arato's family made the front pages of
newspapers across Canada, as did Amanda Shaw's defense of the STS
program and of Nicholson. ("He didn't want to take a risk for
anything," she said.) In the following days other family members
showed support for the school's program and the decision to go
for Balu. "I am at peace with the decision to proceed with the
trip that day," said Karl Staddon, Marissa's father.

At the same time, at least one of the victims' families has
reportedly talked to an attorney about filing a lawsuit. Parks
Canada and STS are the likely defendants, but such a suit might
do little more than extend the grief. A change in Canadian law in
November eliminated potential earnings as a reward in civil
filings, meaning that the pain of reliving the event would net
each family only about U.S. $50,000.

"Everyone looks for someone to blame, whether it's for the
avalanches or the space shuttle," says Seibert, the survivor of
the Jan. 20 slide. "We have this belief that safety is
guaranteed, and that is ludicrous. I hope that if something had
happened to me, my wife would have been happy knowing I didn't
die watching CNN."

That same mind-set is what administrators at
Strathcona-Tweedsmuir remain determined to cultivate in the
school's students. "We will be investigating and likely adding
procedures for risk assessment, but this program is at the heart
of who we are and how we educate and develop young people," Healy
says. "It won't end."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY REVELSTOKE RCMP/CPL. H. CARRUTHERS/KLIXPIX [INSIDE COVER] A DEADLY AVALANCHE In British Columbia, 1,000 tons of snow struck down seven high school skiers, renewing the controversy over how much risk is too much in the backcountry GRIM TASK Rescuers, on the scene minutes after the avalanche hit, were able to save seven of the skiers but soon found themselves with only bodies to recover.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY REVELSTOKE RCMP/CPL. H. CARRUTHERS/KLIXPIX DIGGING OUT Rescue workers using helicopters, dogs, electronic beacons and shovels combed the slope for bodies.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY KIP WILEYCOLOR PHOTO: BOTTOM: PATRICK PRICE/REUTERS HOLDING ON Even as the school mourned, Strathcona-Tweedsmuir insisted it would continue its wilderness programs.COLOR PHOTO: TOP, LEFT: REUTERS NEWMEDIA INC./CORBIS BLIND FATE Beglinger (left) survived the slide on Durrand Glacier. Renowned boarder Kelly was one of seven who didn't.COLOR PHOTO: TORONTO STAR [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: EVAN BATKE/TORONTO STAR DARKNESS FALLS A helicopter hangar north of Revelstoke was used as a makeshift morgue after the Rogers Pass avalanche.

When an avalanche tore through Rogers Pass, there was nowhere
to hide

AVALANCHE RISK was "moderate" below the tree line, but the 14
students and three adults hiking for Balu on Feb. 1 were exposed
to snow from above, where the risk was "considerable." Here's how
the tragedy played out.

8,550 feet
Mt. Cheops

Snow blows over shoulder, possibly adding weight to pack on other

7,900 feet
From below, Marshall sees snow giving way

5,200 feet
Group's location when avalanche hits

5,500 feet
Marshall and Watkins watch from trees

In a fatal avalanche, the most wrenching question is unanswerable

Chuck Purse heard the question again and again as he met with the
parents of the seven 10th-graders killed in an avalanche on Feb.
1 in Canada's Glacier National Park. "No one knows what those
final moments were like," says Purse, one of two part-time
coroners in Revelstoke, B.C. "I wish I had an answer, but there
isn't one."

Backcountry ski-mountaineer John Seibert, who survived a Jan. 20
avalanche on neighboring Durrand Glacier, described being pushed
down the mountainside as "swimming in whitewater." Says Seibert,
"I could see blocks of snow rise up and then almost fracture into
a liquid. I did everything I could not to let myself tumble and
to keep my head above the snow." When the mass stopped, Seibert's
head and left hand were exposed, the rest of his body packed in
snow "as hard as concrete."

Had Seibert's head been buried, his chances for survival would
have been slim. Backcountry explorers are taught to put a hand in
front of their face to create an air pocket. Snow's density is
such that air can pass through it. "If you have room to move your
lungs, you can breathe," says Evan Manners, operations manager
for the Canadian Avalanche Association. Still, the heat generated
by exhaling often melts the snow around the face, which can
refreeze into an ice mask that blocks fresh air. A buried skier
might also exhale carbon dioxide so rapidly that it fills any
pockets and poisons him.

When Purse examined the dead students, he found only one broken
bone, with almost no other evidence of collisions with debris
such as trees and rocks. (Of the survivors, the most serious
injury was a broken ankle.) He ruled that the seven had died of
asphyxiation. "If it had been one of my children, I would like to
think that there was not a lot of suffering, that they were
knocked unconscious and died quickly," Purse says. "But no one
knows." --G.D.

The monstrous slide, estimated at more than 850 yards wide, hit
with enough force to FLATTEN 10 ACRES OF FOREST.