The multi-day snowfall that had silenced even the chattiest of whisky-jacks was still in full dumping mode when Mike Flude and 13 others began carving their way through the pristine backcountry powder of British Columbia’s southern Selkirk mountain range.
It was the third day of the group’s four-day guided snowcat skiing trip with Nelson-based Baldface Lodge, and the conditions were stellar. Phrases such as “champagne powder” and “face shots” were making the rounds in conversation. As they did every time they took a group out, Joaquin Klein and Andy Affleck had been checking each slope prior to descent, and throughout the day the two certified and highly trained guides had backed the skiers away from runs that didn’t look as safe as they would have liked. The Canadian Avalanche Centre’s bulletin for that day, Feb. 22, 2012, assessed the danger level in the region as high — one level below the most serious rating of extreme.
Around 1 p.m., Flude was lining up his descent, looking down at the cedar- and hemlock-dotted slope between his skis. The 36-year-old waiter from Toronto who’d been skiing since he was five was in familiar territory. He’d skied at resorts and in the backcountry of this region, known as British Columbia’s Powder Triangle, four or five times.
As he watched a few of his companions descend, Flude thought, “I’m having the time of my life.” Pushing off, he couldn’t have known that the next nine minutes and 46 seconds would turn his wildest powder dreams into his worst nightmare.
AVALANCHE. The word summons images of a rumbling white wall of devastation crushing everything in its path, snapping trees like twigs, sweeping vehicles from mountain passes, blocking road and rail routes, and burying skiers, hikers and snowmobilers. In Canada, these cataclysms of snow and ice, which can have a mass of 100,000 tonnes and reach speeds of more than 280 kilometres per hour, have killed hundreds of people (see “Canada’s worst avalanches,” page 38) and cost the economy tens of millions of dollars through road and rail closures.
Those kinds of numbers grab headlines. But there’s another story, too — one that many Canadians aren’t familiar with. Although avalanches occur across the country, this story takes place in the British Columbia backcountry (where powderhounds seek hits of snowy adrenaline), at Western Canada’s world-famous ski resorts and along the highways that wend through the region’s mountains. It’s here that you’ll find hundreds of highly skilled, dedicated and brave people often putting themselves in harm’s way to control a hazard that is by its very nature uncontrollable.
Some 90 kilometres southeast of Baldface Lodge is Kootenay Pass, the section of Highway 3 that cuts through the Selkirk range. At 1,775 metres, it’s the highest paved road in Canada open year-round. Mike Flude didn’t travel this way en route to British Columbia, but many others do. The pass is busy. It’s also got one heck of a design flaw.
When construction on the road began in the 1950s, engineers thought putting the highway on the sunny south side of the pass would help melt snow on the road faster. And it does, especially in spring. But the melt also adds weight to the snow on the steep slope above. Eventually, the heavier top layer collapses onto a weaker layer below; gravity does the rest. In winter, the sheer amount of snowfall presents a similar threat, and in seconds, thousands of tonnes of snow can block a vital transport corridor.
Robb Andersen knows the pass very well. As the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s district avalanche technician for Kootenay Pass, it’s his job to ensure this section of the highway remains open and safe — and that disruptions like the one about to happen remain minimal.
Andersen’s team uses the Gazex avalanche control system to bring the snow down before it builds to a more destructive level. There are 23 of these tube-like guns located along the pass at start zones (areas where slides are likely to release), and each resembles a giant water faucet embedded into the mountainside. With a few keystrokes, technicians can remotely discharge a mixture of propane and oxygen gases into the Gazex chamber, and ignite it with a 13,000-volt spark. The resulting explosion produces a pressure wave that hits the slope and usually triggers an avalanche.
From the front seat of Andersen’s yellow pickup truck, there’s nothing to see ahead but an empty stretch of snowcovered road. A few kilometres behind, a long line of idling semis and disgruntled drivers wait behind a stop sign.
Andersen stops, gets out and walks back down the road, his black Sorel boots crunching on the snow. Underneath his layers of clothes, the transmit light on his avalanche beacon is blinking. He leaves the truck’s door open. There’s a faint whizz from the gases, and seconds later a flash on the skyline before the sound of the explosion reaches the truck. Andersen is already behind the wheel, snapping his radio off its holder. “Detonation. Detonation,” he says, before tapping the truck’s gas pedal and moving forward. A low rumble begins overhead. As the truck moves into a safe zone farther up the highway, he keeps an eye peeled over his shoulder as snow, rocks and other debris pour down the rockface, sieving through the forest.
Setting off explosions in the mountains might sound like a childhood dream come true for some, but there’s nothing childish about this line of work. It must proceed quickly and efficiently, and safety is paramount. Blasts will occur every two to three minutes. Thousands more tonnes of snow will come barrelling down. Front-end loaders will swoop in to clear debris. Then the process will start all over again, until it’s safe for normal highway service to resume. It’s a difficult, demanding and serious job. And yet Andersen’s eyes are twinkling.
On Mike Flude’s first day of skiing at Baldface Lodge, he and the other guests were led through a mandatory avalanche training exercise, some form of which all backcountry operators use. An avalanche beacon is buried in the snow to mimic a body. Guests then turn their own beacons to “receive,” and try to locate the body as quickly as possible. Once it’s found, a probe is used to pinpoint its exact location and left in place to mark the area. Then the shovel comes out, and the digging begins.
The simulation is not taken lightly. Guides will yell at any guest who appears to be lollygagging, to drive home the point that time is of the essence when it comes to avalanche rescue: about 75 per cent of those killed in avalanches in Canada die from suffocation; the rest suffer severe trauma.
Although Flude had skied in the backcountry before, he was surprised by the serious nature of the exercise. He asked guide Andy Affleck what the likelihood was of being caught in an avalanche. Flude says Affleck told him that in 10 years, the only two burials that the lodge had had were partial ones, which greatly increase the chance of a successful rescue. The possibility of a full burial wasn’t likely, Affleck added, and was made even less so with trained guests and knowledgeable guides. But it could happen.
Most avalanche fatalities in Canada — about 80 per cent — occur in British Columbia, home of the Canadian Avalanche Association and its sister organization, the Canadian Avalanche Centre. From their headquarters in Revelstoke, these two institutions act as the country’s backbone of avalanche safety and awareness.
Formed in 1981, the Canadian Avalanche Association serves and supports professional avalanche operations. It’s recognized as a world leader in avalanche training programs, and every year its Industry Training Program instructors in Canada train more than 800 people, including students from Chile, Germany and Norway. Ski and snowmobile guides, ski resort safety teams, provincial and federal parks staff, and mining, forestry and highway personnel are among those who learn about subjects such as standardized weather observations, decision making in avalanche terrain and operational risk management.
The Canadian Avalanche Centre was created in 2004, after the winter of 2002-2003, during which 29 people were killed in avalanches. Twenty-six of those deaths occurred in British Columbia, and 14 of those within a two-week period. In the aftermath of those incidents, a government report recommended the formation of a dedicated public safety organization, and thus the centre was born.
Today the centre offers trip planning, gear advice and other resources. But it’s probably best known for its avalanche forecasts — the colour-coded danger ratings that show the avalanche hazard for the day. A green rating is the lowest level on the scale, and means that natural and humantriggered avalanches are unlikely. The ratings move up to yellow (moderate), orange (considerable) and red (high) before reaching the black (extreme) level, which means natural and human-triggered avalanches are certain.
Data for the bulletins is aggregated and analyzed by the centre’s avalanche forecasters, and provides a good picture of snowpack conditions. Then, using information from the Meteorological Service of Canada, the centre’s forecasters can predict how the snow and avalanche conditions are going to change — and whether the snowpack is strengthening or weakening.
Some of the data avalanche forecasters use comes from people such as Ruedi Beglinger, a professional mountain guide and the owner of Selkirk Mountain Experience, a ski touring and alpine hiking and climbing outfit near Revelstoke.
Every 12 hours during the winter, Beglinger walks out to the 37-square-metre snow-study plot upslope from his chalet to make weather observations. In his waterproof notebook, he records the time of day, precipitation levels, wind direction, height of new snow, snow density and maximum and minimum temperature readings. He’ll also climb into a snow pit and use a magnifying glass to examine the shapes of snow crystals. People who work in avalanche safety operations dig snow pits to expose the delicate layers of crystal formations, which get buried deeper with each new snowfall. Once enough weight accumulates on these layers, weaker crystals can collapse and release a slide. Beglinger’s notes help him determine slope stability, which in turn helps him decide where to take his customers on any given day.
Back in his office, Beglinger enters his notes into InfoEx, a real-time database developed by the Canadian Avalanche Association that allows those “actively managing avalanche hazards” to contribute their findings in the field and share them in a subscriber-only online database. Subscribers include the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, Parks Canada avalanche control teams, backcountry operators such as Beglinger and heli- and cat-skiing operators throughout British Columbia, including Baldface Lodge.
There is a remarkable YouTube video of what happened to Mike Flude in the southern Selkirks. It is remarkable partly because it offers a first-person view of his brief descent, recorded by the GoPro camera strapped to his head, but mostly because it includes harrowing audio.
Flude plunges down the slope and makes seven blissful turns before appearing to stop and sink into deep snow. A second later his surprised grunt is clearly audible as a wall of snow — triggered by the skier who followed Flude — hits him, raking him downslope into the trees. His camera goes dark but continues to record sound. In terror, he gulps for air but can’t draw breath — his mouth is full of snow. He cries out in pain and shouts for help. As the minutes tick by, he moans and claws at the snow that’s buried him. His breathing becomes laboured. The moans become whimpers.
Avalanches are divided into sizes from one to five — one being the least serious. The avalanche that hit Flude was a size two, which typically has a mass of 100 tonnes and a run of 100 metres and can bury, injure or kill a person. Its force jackknifed his body forward at the waist, corkscrewed his torso and pushed him onto his right side. He was covered in a matter of seconds. Hoping he could break through the snow with his shoulders, he lifted as hard as he could. Nothing. He was locked into place, buried under about two metres of rock-hard snow that seconds earlier had been light as a feather.
About halfway through the nearly 10 minutes that Flude was buried, he started to let go. He saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and his life flashed before his eyes. “I remember thinking I had no regrets,” he says. “It was very peaceful.”
At the edge of death and fading out of consciousness, he heard something. It was the sound of shovelling. Rousing himself, he screamed for his companions to hurry, that he wasn’t going to make it. Moments later Flude saw the face of Joaquin Klein, the guide who had located him using an avalanche beacon.
Flude had not suffered any serious injuries, and although his airway had to be cleared of snow, he’d had enough oxygen to keep him conscious while buried. But what really saved his life that afternoon was the quick reaction of Klein, whose framed picture now hangs on Flude’s living-room wall.
On the day Flude left Nelson, a snowstorm closed nearby Castlegar airport. A rental-car driver Flude met in the airport offered him a ride to Cranbrook, where he could catch another flight home. Cranbrook is a good three-hour drive from Nelson, longer in poor weather. There is a lot of time to talk. As the two men drove through the storm along Highway 3 toward Kootenay Pass and its Gazex guns, Flude turned to the driver and said “I have one hell of a story for you.”