Two climbers had a lucky escape as a large avalanche swept down the frozen waterfall they were climbing near Field, B.C., on Sunday afternoon (Jan. 6).
The avalanche hazard was rated considerable in the alpine at that time, and with an expected storm Tuesday night and Wednesday (Jan. 8-9), the danger is expected to jump to high.
The lead climber had crested the popular Pilsner Pillar ice climb and managed to bury his tools in the ice and hunker down as the class 2 avalanche came crashing down. A belayer with him sought cover in a cave below.
“It was a close call because it was a substantial avalanche, but luckily no one was injured,” said Brian Webster, a visitor safety specialist for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks.
“The leader was very lucky. At the very least you would expect to be thrown off the climb.”
The two men were on Pilsner Pillar, considered a classic Rockies ice climb a short walk from the Field townsite, when the avalanche swept down around 4:30 p.m.
The slide was witnessed by people on the Trans-Canada Highway who raised the alarm around 4:30 p.m. Five rescuers immediately headed to the scene, though darkness prevented the use of a helicopter.
Webster said witnesses only saw one climber after the avalanche ended, but two rescuers from Lake Louise who were first at the scene met the two climbers heading back down.
He said the leader had just crested the top of the climb when he heard the roaring avalanche.
“He was able to bury his ice tools in before it hit, and then hunkered down, and he was able to hang on while the avalanche went over him,” said Webster.
“The other climber was the belayer and he was tucked safely into a cave below so he wasn’t hurt.”
Webster said the avalanche rating in the alpine was considerable at the time, but Pilsner Pillar is below treeline.
He said there were only three or four centimetres of freshly fallen snow in the valley bottom that morning, however, there was considerably more snow 1,300 metres above the valley floor where the avalanche bowl lies.
“As an ice climber, you have to be thinking about what is happening 1,300 metres above you in terms of snow fall, and if an avalanche starts that high is it going to reach the valley floor?” said Webster.
On average, according to Parks Canada, eleven people die in snow avalanches every year in Canada. The majority of avalanche victims trigger the avalanche that injures or kills them.
Moderate alpine winds on Tuesday kept the alpine hazard elevated.
“Over Christmas and New Year we experienced low avalanche hazard and very good skiing, and there were lots of people getting out and doing lots of stuff,” said Webster.
“In the last week, we’re starting to see dribs and drabs of snow and more importantly, starting to see higher winds in the alpine, moving snow around,” he said. “In addition, we’re expecting a storm and that snow is going to be falling on a weak surface layer of snow, so we’re expecting to be bumped into the high range.”
Visitors to the mountain parks who plan to travel in avalanche terrain should check the public avalanche bulletins (avalanche.ca) on a regular basis in the weeks and days prior to their trip.
Webster said it’s also advised they take an avalanche skills training course and have the appropriate gear. Always let someone know where you’re going, he added.
“If you’re going into the mountains and exposing yourself to avalanche terrain, you need to be prepared and think of the possible consequences,” said Webster. “Do what’s appropriate given what the avalanche rating is.”