Two backcountry skiers were flown by STARS air ambulance to Calgary with critical injuries from two separate avalanches, prompting back-to-back rescues in Banff and Kootenay national parks Sunday afternoon (Feb. 25).
A 29-year-old Calgary man was skiing a couloir with a friend when a small avalanche knocked him 300 metres down a steep gully north of Taylor Lake in Banff, leaving him with critical head and chest injuries.
In the other incident, a 44-year-old man was skiing in a group of six near Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park when a small avalanche pushed him into a tree, which in turn impaled his chest.
“In both cases, the injuries were not from avalanche burial, but from severe trauma,” said Grant Statham, Parks Canada’s visitor safety specialist for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks. “Both were very serious injuries.”
At 1:45 p.m., Parks Canada received a message via a SPOT satellite device in a steep area of burned forest near Floe Lake, a popular skiing spot about 43 kilometres southwest of Banff.
Suspecting it could be an avalanche because of the steep valley and location, rescuers geared up and Alpine Helicopters flew in from Canmore to take three rescuers there.
As the helicopter started to lift from the helipad at the Banff warden office, another call came in at 2:15 p.m. from Taylor Lake, about 60 kilometres west of Banff, both via an inReach satellite messenger and a cell phone.
Rescuers had to make a quick decision on which incident to go to first.
They chose Taylor Lake because they already knew the skier was badly injured and unresponsive, though breathing. Alpine sent a second helicopter and Kananaskis Public Safety rescuers helped with the Floe Lake rescue.
Statham said at Taylor Lake one of the skiers triggered a relatively small avalanche at the top of the gully.
“It ran down the gully and struck his partner, knocked him over and he took a large tumbling fall down the couloir, about 300 metres,” said Statham.
“His partner got to the top of the couloir, turned around and realized there’d been a small avalanche and he couldn’t see his partner,” he added.
“He started descending, saw his partner, pushed the inReach button and began searching.”
In difficult rescue conditions with poor light and light snow, the helicopter pilot slung rescuers into the bottom of the big slope.
“We got there and realized this is completely critical. He had serious head injuries and chest injuries,” said Statham. “It was an avalanche accident, but the injuries were a result of a big fall.”
Meanwhile, another rescue team headed to Floe Lake. Canmore EMS took the injured patient to Banff, where he was met by STARS and flown to Calgary.
“They triggered a small slough avalanche and one went for a bit of a slide and hit a tree,” said Statham. “The tree impaled his chest, so he had serious chest injuries.”
The avalanche danger was moderate in the alpine and low at tree line.
Statham said Parks Canada is thankful for the interagency support in the region.
“When multiple responses occur at the same time we can be maxed out and need to rely on each other for support,” he said.
“We are lucky to have such close cooperation on first responses around here.”