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Kananaskis avalanche death stark reminder of hazard at season start

“The wind slabs that ended up being the result of the avalanche that sadly killed the person who died, they developed very quickly after that crust had formed, and so likely the hazard built up very quickly on Nov. 11 – which was the date of the incident – in response to some strong winds and some new snow that was there as well.”

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – Experts say avalanche danger “increased quite rapidly” in Kananaskis Country over the weekend, resulting in a size 2 slide that killed an ice climber in the Ranger Creek area.

Avalanche Canada program director James Floyer attributed the heightened risk to a weak crest that formed the day before the 29-year-old Squamish, B.C. man was killed, paired with strong winds and fresh snowfall.

“The wind slabs that ended up being the result of the avalanche that sadly killed the person who died, they developed very quickly after that crust had formed, and so likely the hazard built up very quickly on Nov. 11 – which was the date of the incident – in response to some strong winds and some new snow that was there as well,” he said.

“Critically, those winds blew the snow onto the lee, or the downwind side of the ridge, which was the slope above the ice climb. That slope got loaded by this wind-transported snow, and that’ll happen in the space of just a few hours.”

Avalanche Canada and RCMP said the man, accompanied by a 26-year-old woman, whose identities have not been released, had finished climbing Lone Ranger, an ice climb in the Ranger Creek area of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, when the avalanche struck from above.

Kananaskis Mountain Rescue was alerted to the incident by a Garmin GPS device carried by the party. According to the rescue agency, operated by Alberta Parks, the woman was partly buried in snow but was able to dig her way out. The man, however, was fully buried and rescuers were unable to immediately locate him.

In a press release, RCMP noted officers were alerted to the avalanche at 3:15 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 11). The press release also stated that at 10:52 a.m. the next day, RCMP was notified rescuers had recovered the man’s body from beneath the snow.

It is unclear how long the search and recovery effort took as information from Alberta Parks is scant. The Outlook’s request for an interview with a rescue specialist was unsuccessful. Instead, Alberta Parks provided an emailed statement.

“Avalanches can happen anywhere where the terrain is steep enough. Once a slope is larger than 10m x 10m (about the size of a tennis court), there could be enough snow to create a dangerous avalanche. They are more likely to occur after a heavy snowfall, wind or warming temperatures,” said Christi-Retson-Spalding, assistant communications director with forestry and parks, adding Alberta’s government extends its condolences to family and loved ones of the victim.

“This terrible tragedy is a reminder to anyone going out into the backcountry to exercise caution, carry essential rescue gear (a probe, shovel and beacon) and always check for avalanche conditions before and during their trip as risk can change rapidly.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada noted 3.1 millimetres of new precipitation was recorded in the Banff townsite on Nov. 11. There was, however, no change in snow accumulation in the valley bottom until Tuesday (Nov. 14).

Meteorologist Justin Shelley said the highest wind gusts recorded in Banff that day were 40 km/h. Further east in the Bow Valley, gusts at the valley bottom reached up to 65 km/h. That day, Environment Canada issued a wind warning for Calgary and the surrounding area with gusts reaching up to 90 km/h.

According to Environment Canada’s Nakiska Ridgetop station, which does not record precipitation, but provides wind speeds at the summit of Mount Allan, it recorded wind speeds of up to 105 km/h the morning of Nov. 11, with wind easing into the afternoon.

Shelley expressed the difficulty in assessing the conditions at higher elevations in Kananaskis Country since Environment Canada lacks additional weather stations at those altitudes. He noted more snow – about 5-10 centimetres – is expected in the Bow Valley overnight Wednesday (Nov. 15).

Foyer said Avalanche Canada’s forecasters also don’t begin reporting until Nov. 24, including for B.C., which has had 14 avalanche fatalities in 2023. This week, Foyer said forecasters with the non-profit are in training for the winter season ahead.

In Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park, however, which have their own dedicated visitor safety teams through Alberta Parks and Parks Canada, with members that can forecast earlier in the season, there is some information available on current conditions. There are also some recent public entries through the site’s Mountain Information Network.

According to Avalanche Canada, the avalanche risk in Kananaskis Country was rated considerable at alpine Nov. 12, making natural avalanches possible and human-triggered avalanches likely. At treeline, the danger rating was moderate. As of Nov. 15, conditions were rated the same and forecasters were calling for ice climbers to “be aware of overhead avalanche hazard and choose conservative routes.”

In Banff and Jasper national parks, conditions were rated moderate at alpine and low at treeline on Nov. 15.

According to the non-profit’s official incident report of the Ranger Creek avalanche, which provides a brief synopsis of the event based on information from Kananaskis rescuers, the slide swept the man and woman into a gully feature below the climbing area.

Floyer noted the outcome of where the party ended up, in relation to where the avalanche struck them, was influenced by the terrain.

“We’re dealing with essentially a cliff band, which was the climb itself and they were at the bottom of the climb. Then you have a steep snow slope at the top, above the climb, which was the source of the avalanche, and also a steep slope below the climb, which they were just starting to descend,” he said.

“The avalanche essentially started on the slope above and would’ve come down the cliff and had enough force to sweep the two people down from where they were on the steep slope. But importantly, it was sort of constricted into a shallow gully feature.”

Floyer said this is referred to as a terrain trap.

“It would have increased the force initially but then as the avalanche slowed down it then increased the depth of burial, and that resulted in the male victim who died being fully buried, and the female who survived and was partially buried.”

According to RCMP, the woman involved sustained minor injuries.

The Avalanche Canada incident report states there were other dry loose and wind slab avalanches observed in the area.

Floyer said avalanche safety training is critical to any activity in avalanche country, and ice climbing, which comes with other hazards, is no exception.

The Avalanche Canada website hosts a new feature called the Ice Climbing Atlas, which is led by Parks Canada visitor safety specialist Grant Statham and professional ice climbing athlete and mountain guide Sarah Hueniken.

The atlas, which features prominent ice climbs in the Bow Valley area, includes information about climbs, ice conditions and hazards, and rates them by terrain exposure based on geographical features, historical avalanche activity and other factors. It is an ongoing project and more routes will be added.

“The hope is to give people a sense of when they go to those ice climbs, whether they’re just worried about the ice itself and the immediate hazards right there, or whether there are additional considerations that they have to think about,” Floyer said.

“Looking at photos of Ranger Creek, it should be evident that there’s quite a lot of mountain terrain and you can see the snow slopes above those climbs.”

According to the atlas, the Lone Ranger climb spans two pitches and is rated as a 3+, or complex, route on the Alpine Terrain Exposure Scale. The rating reflects the prolonged risk of frequent avalanches, exposure and the challenge of minimizing danger through factors like belay spots and alternate descents.

The avalanche fatality on Nov. 11 is the second in Alberta this year. On April 22, one person was killed in a size 3 skier-triggered avalanche that involved three people in the west bowl area of Lake Louise Ski Resort.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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