Photo: A helicopter flies over Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003. Seven students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Alberta were killed on Saturday Feb. 1 when they were struck by an avalanche. (Photo: Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)
Seven students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Okotoks, Alta., were killed in an avalanche near British Columbia’s Rogers Pass in 2003, a disaster that shook the country and improved winter backcountry safety and public information about avalanche risks. Here, writer and mountaineer Heidi R. Wyle discusses the tragedy and its outcomes based on research from her in-progress book about the avalanche, Live Big!
How did you get so engaged with this tragedy?
I love the land, and it has always called me. That connection is particularly strong around Canmore, Alta., where I own a home. I went up there to backpack the Skyline Trail one year, and although I literally threw my hiking boots in the trash can when we got off it, that was it, I was addicted. I went back and did Yamnuska’s Intro to Mountaineering, and although I felt like I was going to die, I got really into it. I became deeply connected to Canmore’s mountaineering community through years of trips with guides. And this tragedy permeated the guiding community. When it happened, there were a lot of guides in the area on their day off, skiing or ice climbing or whatever, and others were working heli-ski guiding or ski patrolling. Hearing the helicopters, many of them made a beeline for the Rogers Pass Parks compound. I knew a lot of them. The whole community was wounded. When guides were together, they would talk about this accident. I climbed Assiniboine one summer, and the three guides spent most of the evening in typical guide talk about the accident, dissecting every detail over and over. That went on for years. And for everybody who goes into the backcountry, especially those with children, it was such a sucker-punch kick in the gut. I had been stewing in that soup of activity with guides for a couple of years, and one day as I was coming down Ha Ling — and honestly, I know this sounds a little nuts — the idea of writing that history hit me like a lightening bolt.
Having spent years working on this project, did you develop close relationships with sources?
Yes. First of all, most of the East Coast sees this story from the perspective of the urban school and the parents. I do too; I am one of those. But I saw it from the guiding-community perspective as well. I had been steeped in it. The first person I called was Dave Stark [director of operations at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures]. Dave is a dear friend. And he’s extremely well respected. Our mutual friend, Grant Statham, was the guide who was hired as a result of this accident by Parks Canada. Grant was the guy who actually did all the work to create the changes with Alan Latourelle [then CEO of Parks Canada]. I called Grant, and the rest of it just unfolded because Grant knew and trusted me. I had the trust of the mountaineers, and so people actually talked to me.
You must have unearthed some difficult memories?
I saw many grizzled men cry about this story. These guys have seen every horrible thing. People’s limbs pulled off, and these guys do the rescue. Bad falls, these guys show up. You can imagine what they see. And they cried over this because it was children. So I made a lot of relationships that are very deep, and I was not prepared professionally to know what to do with what ended up coming at me. It was pretty painful. It took me a while to try to figure out how to manage my own self when people were unloading to me the trauma that broke them. I’ve had psychiatrists tell me that I just jumped in where angels fear to tread, and that angels fear to tread there for a reason.
Do you have an example of a particularly difficult moment?
I can’t tell you the worst ones. What I can tell you, is one of the leading rescuers, who was at the time widely considered the world expert in avalanches, and is as tough a man as they get, at one point broke down and cried. For him the issue was that he was responsible. He spent his entire career, his life, trying to keep that area safe for the people who came into it, and trying to get them out of trouble when they fell into it. And under this guy’s watch — not really, but, he felt it — seven children died. And he dug them out.
Did you encounter any surprises during your research?
Everything was a surprise. There were terrible surprises. It’s likely one kid was dug up alive. The guy who dug him up, and this is in the book, believes that he felt the kid’s hand squeeze his hand. They worked on him and worked on him and worked on him, but he died. And that’s a terrible thing, because then they feel guilty they couldn’t save him when they actually dug him up alive. And the parents had the idea that their son had been killed instantly instead of being under the snow for an hour. I actually told the parents because I felt I had to. I have two children.
How do you feel about the changes made related to backcountry safety as a result of this tragedy?
Courage out of tragedy creating enormous good for the world — to me this is the point. Certainly there’s always more you can do, but Parks did an amazing job creating “never again.” They invented world-leading avalanche risk technology and got regulation built in 18 months. And it’s lasted; avalanche deaths plummeted as a result of their work. I’ve thought long about the courage of the families, in particular Donna Broshko [her son Scott died] and Judith and Peter Arato [their son Daniel died], and what it took for them to stand up to the world and demand change. It is virtually impossible to do what they did. Those parents got the world to listen to them. And I think they made really great change. That’s why I wrote the book.