Sometimes it is through risk we learn important lessons in life.
That is one way education can challenge us and mountain guides in western Canada know all about it. Association of Canadian Mountain Guide (ACMG) members are highly trained, technically skilled experts in their field.
When those heading into the alpine choose to hire a mountain guide, individually or through a guiding company, they are hiring a professional tasked with protecting their safety. They guide their clients into terrain and situations where there can be serious consequences, which can range from frostbite to a mass-casualty event.
In the aftermath of such critical incidents, there are some who have questioned what happened, but found little satisfaction from the processes available to them within the industry. Buried in the Aftermath has explored three specific circumstances where people have been killed as a result of an avalanche during a guided trip – these situations are fraught with conflict and everyone involved has suffered as a result.
When Mitch Putnam and Sheila Churchill had questions after the death of her husband Doug Churchill in 2016, they found themselves angry and frustrated with the lack of transparency and accountability they encountered. It resulted in a lawsuit against the ACMG and the guides involved, which was eventually discontinued after a resolution was found that was agreeable to all parties.
The avalanche survivors launched the Backcountry Safe initiative and as a result, their search for answers has led to the industry recognizing that changes are needed.
“We have a huge amount of respect for the guides in Canada,” Putnam said. “We did not want to confront the whole guiding community with our incident here, but most of them might recognize their association needed to up its game and make improvements to policies and procedures.”
A review of the ACMG's post-critical incident response process, with recommendations for changes, is currently underway and a report is expected to be publicly released later this year.
ACMG executive director Peter Tucker said changes to his organization and for guiding overall have been a long time coming. He said working with Churchill and her group has been educational for both sides, even though the initial interactions were not easy for anybody and the issue led the clients to file a lawsuit.
"Over time the relationship changed and the ACMG set up a restorative justice solution," Tucker said. "It went a long way to helping them understand that the ACMG really were not their enemy and we are trying our best to give them what they wanted.
"Ultimately, when they approached me saying they wanted to go public [with Backcountry Safe], I was really keen to help them because their message is really important ... since that time, the relationship between myself, the ACMG and the four proponents of Backcountry Safe has been really positive."
That restorative justice approach helped change the relationship between Churchill and her group with the ACMG, but has led to change being considered as to how the association handles these kinds of situations. Improving the protocols for ACMG members when a critical incident occurs on a guided trip is a huge step forward in terms of changing the culture of this industry.
Churchill and her group, along with the guides involved in the Massey's Waterfall avalanche in 2019, have been consulted by Alpine Specialists, the group hired to undertake this work. Tucker said the work has also consulted widely with other professional associations and guiding organizations to try to build the best possible practice in the industry for dealing with critical incidents.
"They spurred us on to make these really important changes," he said. "We might have got there eventually; we should have got there eventually and we probably should have got there a long time ago."
Number of Canadian avalanche fatalities per activity from 2000 to 2021
A post-critical incident process, added Tucker, has three major areas of focus. First is the investigation and review of the incident. In the past, the ACMG has never done its own investigations. It has been the insurance company and lawyers that hire an investigator and that information becomes privileged.
Tucker said the recommendations may point towards the ACMG conducting its own investigation as well, which could be a parallel process to the insurance investigation, "but we need to be able to learn from the incident."
"What we are looking at is trying to determine who does the investigation and what does it look at," he said. "There should be some consistency in what gets looked at in these investigations and how does this investigation or review process feed our learning process.
"How do we get better as guides and an association from these incidents."
It is complicated and unlike New Zealand, which has a no-fault insurance system, in Canada the guiding industry cannot function without liability insurance and that reality comes with a set of requirements.
Another aspect of the response to these types of incidents is to support the guides involved. A fatality or critical incident is a guide's worst nightmare. Tucker said one possible solution would be to create a group trained personal navigators that would help a guide work through all the different things needed in the aftermath, from preparing reports, dealing with media questions, lawyers and coping with the mental health effects of what they just went through. It may also include discussions around when a guide is ready to return to work.
The ACMG currently provides critical incident debrief supports and individual counselling supports.
Tucker said the third area being looked at is communication. That includes what is being communicated to its membership, the public and with the victim's family.
"We figure that if we are going to do it, we better do it right," he said. "The last thing we want is for anybody else to have to go through the kind of secondary trauma the Churchill group had to go through.
"We want to make this work for them and for anybody who gets involved in this kind of situation."
Tucker said the ACMG recognizes it has a problem when it comes to the post-critical incident process, but it is working to fix it to help its members and the public learn the lessons that emerge from these types of situations.
"If we can work well with victims' families and reduce any additional trauma, we are all for it," he said. "We will be able to use these protocols regardless of the nature of the incident."
Tucker also said the association is reviewing its incident reporting system, which is currently voluntary. So when there is a near-miss or a fatality, it could be a requirement that it is reported. In terms of data, the ACMG does not track this kind of information historically.
Canadian avalanche fatalities from 2000 to 2021
The Outlook has examined the data collected by Avalanche Canada, as well as the Canadian Avalanche Association and the National Research Council of Canada and identified 25 incidents with 34 fatalities between 2000-21 that occurred on guided trips in western Canada.
The types of activities involved include backcountry skiing, ice climbing, mechanized skiing like catskiing and heli-skiing, work and snowmobiling. Within that timeframe, there has been 268 avalanche fatalities in western Canada – with guided trips making up 12.6 per cent of the total.
Given no individual agency or organization tracks this kind of data, it may be incomplete.
Known Canadian avalanche fatalities involving guided tours from 2000 to 2021
Another factor at play is private guiding companies, like Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, which generally speaking do not report fatalities, critical incidents, or near misses to the ACMG.
Yamnuska operations manager Dave Stark said his company has a post-critical incident response process that has been developed over its 30 to 40-year history. He said the company is at arms-length from the association and it holds its own permits and insurance.
"A lot of those processes are shaped by our insurance company and by our lawyers, so we are bound by some things," Stark said, adding the main focus is on how to prevent something from happening to begin with.
Stark said there is also a daily risk assessment, or daily avalanche hazard evaluation. There is also a position for a rotating duty manager who is available 24/7 to deal with the logistics of an incident and to make sure the processes are being followed, he said.
While the goal is to prepare and prevent these types of scenarios, when they do happen, he said there are in-house emergency procedures that set out priorities and actions to follow. Stark added Yamnuska has a structure in place to classify the seriousness of different types of incidents and there are approaches set out for each in the procedures.
"Sometimes those lessons learned allow us to change our protocols or policies, or change how we are doing business," he said. "We do this internally and where we would put it out to the broader community is if it is an incident that has greater learning from it ... but as a matter of course we do not report our incidents to the ACMG."
Stark said a more serious incident with potential for litigation would require the company to maintain that information as private, but said if there was an immediate threat to the broader mountain community, "we would release that information right away."
"If we do have an incident, we follow the process, but we also have the freedom to deal directly with the person involved and make sure their needs are taken care of," he said, adding that includes offering counselling supports to guides and guests.
Stark added the culture in guiding around talking about incidents is changing. He said there is a realization in the broader industry, especially with bigger guiding companies in the United States, that they can prevent litigation by talking to guests about what happened and coming to a solution.
"Fundamentally people want to be heard and want their concerns heard – they do not want the door shut on them," he said.
"With the association and guides, everybody is trying to do their best in these situations and we all go to the mountains to enjoy what they bring us – I think there are very few negligent people out there," he added.
"But accidents do happen and that is really unfortunate. So what we do afterwards defines how people come out of it and how well they do."
Canadian avalanche fatalities per province from 2000 to 2021
Training is critical to preventing incidents, although Stark said mountain environments are very dynamic and these kinds of situations can happen to the best people. Guides have a history of a high level of training in technical skills, and companies like Yamnuska are also focusing on the heuristics side of things – in other words, looking at the human factors at play when solving problems or making decisions.
The ACMG is also constantly in the process of reviewing and updating its technical manuals and training materials. That is work Marc Piché has been focused on in his former role of technical director for the ACMG.
He said change is happening behind the scenes and it is important for the wider community to understand the association and the industry are focused and committed to improving. He has been looking at technical manuals, training materials, programming and policies, scope of practice and terrain and supervision guidelines. Piché has attended the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations' meetings twice a year and worked with guiding associations from other countries within the context of his work.
"I would say we are constantly refining these things," he said. "Guiding associations, and I would say this is around the world, we have been largely focused on the technical stuff. It is the easiest stuff to deal with, the easiest stuff to teach and the easiest stuff to debrief.
"It is way more black and white and this is what guides have been doing for a long time," he added.
"But I would say guiding has not focused on the soft skills nearly as much as the hard skills in the past, and I can say with confidence, more or less world wide."
For example, Piché said the risk management chapter in older manuals used to be six pages and now it is nearly 40 pages in length with focus on these kinds of issues raised by those critical of the ACMG. Decision-making is another area that has been focused on, along with changing the culture of how guiding courses are run to better reflect the spirit of guiding.
Piché said a gap analysis was conducted to look at where the training for guides falls short and led to a lot of focused changes in the past several years. The membership was consulted and working groups did focus on work to try to determine where the ACMG could do better and where it needed to fill holes in terms of content for the training program, according to Piché
"Another part of that was looking at accidents that had occurred and near misses that had occurred and knowing where guides struggle in the field, and to come up with a bunch of different solutions to help solve those problems and fill those gaps," he said.
There is also a huge movement towards diversity and inclusion. The ACMG is ready to launch a new reporting system that provides people with the ability to report harassment or discrimination on protected grounds with the ability to do so anonymously.
"We talk about cultural shifts, or cultural change, as if it is something novel," Piché said. "But almost every industry is in constant cultural change. Sometimes you stall out and have to catchup, sometimes you are ahead."
For Tucker, this kind of change does not happen quickly. Time, care and attention must be paid to how the ACMG guides its own members and industry overall into the future.
"Slowly we are getting there," he said. "If you try to change culture too quickly, it doesn't stick."
Mental Health Supports
- Mountain Muskox: www.mountainmuskox.com
- Mental Health Helpline: 1-877-303-2642
- Addiction Helpline: 1-866-332-2322
- HealthLink: 811
- Urgent mental health walk-in services are available at the Canmore General Hospital and Banff Mineral Springs Hospital seven days a week 2-9 p.m.
- 211 Alberta
- Bow Valley Addiction and Mental Health: 403-678-4696
CORRECTION: In part three of Buried in the Aftermath it was incorrectly reported that Will Gadd did a risk assessment the night before the avalanche at Massey's Waterfall. He contributed to the avalanche forecast, but did not do the risk assessment. It was also incorrectly reported a conversation between Sarah Hueniken and Margo Talbot four days prior was specifically about the Massey's route.
The Outlook apologizes and regrets these errors.