Visitor safety specialists are shown in this undated handout image. An avalanche that killed three world-class climbers last spring should drive change for improved safety in the sport, say experts.THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada

Visitor safety specialists are shown in this undated handout image. An avalanche that killed three world-class climbers last spring should drive change for improved safety in the sport, say experts.THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada

Experts call for ice climbers to wear avalanche safety gear in the mountains

Parks Canada has been working for years to improve safety for ice climbers

Outdoor experts are hoping that an avalanche that killed three world-class climbers last spring will lead to improved safety in the sport.

American Jess Roskelley and Austrians David Lama and Hansjorg Auer disappeared in April as they tried to descend Howse Peak in the Rocky Mountains. Rescuers have said the search was challenging because the three weren’t wearing avalanche beacons.

The avalanche, which made international news, turned a spotlight on climbers and why many don’t carry safety gear.

Grant Statham, a mountain risk specialist for Parks Canada, said climbers want to be light, but anyone who’s in avalanche terrain should have a beacon, a probe and a shovel.

“You sometimes hear climbers say, ‘There’s no point in me wearing this equipment because, if I get hit by an avalanche, I’ll be killed,’ which in some cases is true,” he said in an interview.

“Except that there is a point in wearing the equipment because somebody is going to have to come in there and find you.”

READ MORE: Bodies of 3 mountain climbers recovered after Banff avalanche

Parks Canada has been working for years to improve safety for ice climbers with information bulletins and early-season avalanche warnings, he said.

A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2009 found that 58 per cent of climbers were asphyxiated and 42 per cent died from trauma in a 21-year period.

“You are buried and you can’t breathe, (but) there’s always a chance that you can dig people out in certain situations,” Statham said.

He and colleague Stephen Holeczi wrote a paper in 2016 looking at the death of a climber earlier that year at Polar Circus, a 700-metre climb on a frozen waterfall. They found that 15 rescuers spent nearly 80 hours doing avalanche control, searching and digging to find the man.

“If a person was wearing a transceiver and we had to dig them out, we could do it in 14 hours,” he said. “If they had both been wearing transceivers, his partner could have dug him out and left him on the surface.”

Statham said the man’s body was found — 200 metres below the surface — using a faint signal from a Recco strip, a type of rescue technology on his head lamp.

After the Howse Peak avalanche, rescuers threw transceivers out of a helicopter to mark the spot before bad weather came in and caused more snowslides.

“The pilot actually held the hover, while we stayed clipped to a line and searched,” he recalled. “It was pretty edgy in there doing that work.”

The three men were finally found by a search dog.

Statham said family and friends of anyone caught in an avalanche always want the body back.

“You cannot underestimate how important it is,” he said during a panel at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in November. “Wearing that equipment — it’s bigger than you.”

Will Gadd, an ice climber and paraglider based in Canmore, Alta., also appeared on the panel. He said he’s lost friends in the mountains, including some who weren’t found for years.

“They were gone … and it would have been nice to say goodbye to them.”

Paragliders have come to wear personal locator beacons, he said.

“If you show up … and you don’t have a (GPS tracking device), you are an idiot,” he said. “Why can’t we solve it in climbing?”

Gadd said it’s unacceptable some of his friends couldn’t be found and others on the rescue team had to put themselves in danger to locate them.

“We need to solve this,” said Gadd, who noted he’s trying to get gear manufacturers to add Recco strips to harnesses and other climbing equipment.

Parks Canada officials said they would like to see some changes after the headline-grabbing deaths last spring.

“The literature calls these focusing events,” said Statham. “All of a sudden a big thing happens and people change.”

There were policy changes for backcountry skiing, he said, after seven students from a private school near Calgary were killed in 2003 on an outdoor education trip in Rogers Pass, B.C.

Changes also took place in snowmobiling in 2010 when two people were killed and 31 others were injured after an avalanche swept through a crowd watching an event near Revelstoke, B.C.

“I would like to think that the Howse Peak incident, sad as it was …is an opportunity for us to make some change,” Statham said.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The CVRD will reconsider its policies on fireworks after receiving complaints. (File photo)
Cowichan Valley Regional District considers options for fireworks after receiving complaints

Distict only allows fireworks on Halloween and New Year’s Eve, with a permit

Ben Maartman, left, and Murray McNab are running for regional director for Area H North Oyster-Diamond in a Cowichan Valley Regional District byelection later this month. (Photos submitted)
Preliminary Area H byelection results show Maartman up by seven votes, McNab to ask for recount

Results of the by-election to by finalized by noon on Tuesday, December 1

Freighter anchored off Kin Beach in Chemainus. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Cowichan MP hosting virtual town hall on freighter anchorages issue

Residents can participate through MP’s website or Facebook page Dec. 3

Santa will be in Honeymoon Bay on Dec. 13. (File photo)
Santa to visit Honeymoon Bay on Dec. 13

Families must call ahead due to pandemic

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Kettle bells sit aligned in an indoor fitness studio. (PIxabay.com)
1 COVID-19 case at a B.C. fitness studio leads to 104 more infections, 6 school exposures

According to case data released by Fraser Health, one case of the novel coronavirus carries a big impact

Vehicles drive past a display thanking essential workers in Burnaby, B.C. on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
B.C. changing COVID-19 case reporting as virus spread continues

Manual counting takes more time, leads to errors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Christy Jordan-Fenton is the co-author of the book Fatty Legs, which has been mentioned amid the controversy of an Abbotsford school assignment on residential schools.
Co-author of residential schools book condemns controversial Abbotsford class assignment

Children’s book mentioned amid controversy at W. A. Fraser Middle School

Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka takes over as energy and mines critic for the B.C. Liberal opposition. Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick (right) moves from health critic to assistant deputy speaker. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals pick critics to take on Horgan’s NDP majority

Interim leader Shirley Bond takes seniors, long-term care

Left to right: A screenshot of NTC nurse navigator Lesley Cerney, FNHA regional mental health manager Georjeana Paterson and Island Health’s medical health officer Dr. Charmaine Enns addressing Ehattesaht community members from Ehatis reserve in a Facebook live update. (Ehattesaht First Nation/Facebook)
Medical team sent to Ehatis reserve near Zeballos to guide community through COVID outbreak

17 cases, eight recoveries and no hospitalizations as Island Health praises First Nation’s response

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question from a reporter on the phone during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Spending too little worse than spending too much, Freeland says as Canada’s deficit tops $381B

‘The risk of providing too little support now outweighs that of providing too much’

Still from a video surveillance camera of a man alleged to have stolen from several people at knife-point in Chilliwack (Rosedale) early on Nov. 28, 2020. (Facebook)
B.C. man defends his family against intruder, saves neighbour while wielding hockey stick

RCMP looking for footage that captures violent crime spree in Chilliwack

Most Read