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UPDATED: Skier killed in avalanche in Kananaskis Country

“Unfortunately, that first skier was buried very deeply and despite the second skier’s best efforts, that first skier did not survive the event.”

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – A 19-year-old Kelowna man was killed in an avalanche that fully buried two skiers east of Mount Engadine Lodge on Tower Peak Sunday afternoon (March 10).

One of the skiers, who was buried up to the top of his head, was able to immediately clear an airway and dig himself out. Using a transceiver, he located his friend under the snow a short distance away, however, the man was already dead.

“Unfortunately, that first skier was buried very deeply and despite the second skier’s best efforts, that first skier did not survive the event,” said Jeremy Mackenzie, a mountain rescue specialist with Kananaskis Mountain Rescue (KMR), adding the skiers were also equipped with other necessary safety equipment including a probe and shovel. 

“They were buried within about 40 metres of each other and we believe they were both swept down the mountain, probably between 150-250 metres. We don’t know that for certain, but that’s our best estimation.”

The rescue agency, along with Alpine Helicopters, responded to the incident after Canmore RCMP received a call from the survived, who reached cell service near his vehicle at about 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

According to KMR, the skiers triggered the size 3 avalanche on a lower shoulder of Tower Peak, on a line down the northern slope of the mountain.

“From what we believe, the first skier started down the slope some distance and then the second skier started into the same slope and triggered the avalanche when they started in,” said Mackenzie. 

The call for help didn’t come in until after dark due to the significant amount of time – about five hours – it took the surviving skier to get out of the backcountry without his skis, which were lost in the avalanche. 

“To be frank ... he made a heroic effort to save his friend and then had an incredible journey to get out without his skis and sinking deeply into the snow,” said Mackenzie. “He was quite creative in how he managed to get himself out with strapping tree branches to his feet and legs to give him better flotation. He really, really tried extremely hard.”

The decision was made to have rescuers return to the site and recover the dead man’s body Monday morning (March 11). 

“By the time we rendezvoused with the other skier last night, there wasn’t anything we could reasonably do in the evening because the subject already had passed. There was no reason to risk any avalanche exposure to rescuers.”

According to RCMP, the man’s body was recovered Monday at about 9:45 a.m. and taken to the Calgary Medical Examiner’s Office.

“RCMP send their condolences to the family and friends of the deceased,” said RCMP public information officer Cpl. Gina Slaney in a media release. 

Stuart Brideaux, a public education officer for Alberta Health Services Calgary Zone, said paramedics were called at about 8:20 p.m. Sunday, but were stood down shortly after.

A special avalanche warning, initially issued on Feb. 29, was extended through March 10. The initial warning included all of the Canadian Rockies, but the latest warning was for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks and Kananaskis Country.

The warning was extended as weak snowpack layers established in February became buried in between 40 and 100 centimetres of new snow throughout the region. With the weather forecast predicting warmer temperatures, there was greater risk of avalanches.

“We know backcountry users in this region will be eager to enjoy the new snow from the recent storms, especially under clear skies and sunshine,” said Avalanche Canada’s forecast program supervisor Ryan Buhler in a media release. “But the persistent weak layers that we’ve been tracking through February remain very active and easy to trigger. Any avalanche triggered on those weak layers will be large enough to injure and could even kill a person.”

Mackenzie said snowpack conditions will continue to change with weather, especially as spring nears. 

“We need to start thinking about the effects of the strong March sun on the slopes and that coming back, again, to this persistent weak layer established in early February. The deeper instabilities that gets fairly typical in the Rockies, they will remain active through into the spring, and because they are so difficult to predict and evaluate, it’s definitely advised at least in the short- to medium-term to be very conservative with your terrain choices.

“The number of incidents across western Canada over the last week-and-a-half should speak to how touchy these conditions are and how difficult they are to evaluate,” he added.

Two close calls were reported to Avalanche Canada’s Mountain Information Network (MIN) March 10 in the Kananaskis region, but Mackenzie said the rescue agency was not called to those or any other recent events.

In one report in the Evan Thomas Creek area, an ice climber reported that “several steep gullies slid on the way to Green Monster” – a popular ice climb – depositing significant avalanche debris near a well-travelled trail. 

“A little bit bigger of a slide and it would have easily covered the trail, with potential to bury an unsuspecting victim,” wrote the MIN user. 

“Lots (100+?) of people on the trail throughout the day hiking to see Green Monster so pretty good odds of an incident if it did slide bigger.”

The avalanche fatality on Tower Peak is the sixth recorded fatality in Canada this winter and the second in Kananaskis Country.

On Nov. 11, 2023, one person was killed when ice climbing with a friend on the Lone Ranger ice climb in Ranger Creek in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.

A size 2 wind slab avalanche struck them from above and they were swept into a gully, with one person partially buried and the other fully buried. The fully buried person did not survive.

It was the first avalanche fatality in Kananaskis Country since 2016.

“It so happens that in Kananaskis we’ve had a couple unfortunate incidents after a relatively long stretch of no fatal incidents,” said Mackenzie. “It was fairly typical, previous to 2016, where we would probably average an avalanche fatality every year or two, and I don’t know if it’s just random chance or maybe just a couple of good winters in a row where we didn’t have anything for quite a while.

“This year, the November incident is maybe not as attributable to the strange winter we’re having, but yesterday is probably more attributable to this February persistent weak layer that is, again, difficult to forecast and predict, and is deep enough that people maybe aren’t testing it well enough,” he added.

“You saw that across western Canada - all forecasting agencies were quite worried about what the new load was going to do on that layer, and sure enough, we’ve had a number of close calls across the western part of the country.”

The special avalanche warning has ended and as of March 11, Avalanche Canada was forecasting considerable avalanche risk at alpine and treeline and moderate risk below treeline in Kananaskis and in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks. 

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