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Valley man escapes avalanche disaster

A Bow Valley man is lucky to be alive after being swept away and buried deep beneath an avalanche for 15 to 20 minutes as friends frantically tried to rescue him.

A Bow Valley man is lucky to be alive after being swept away and buried deep beneath an avalanche for 15 to 20 minutes as friends frantically tried to rescue him.

The man was part of a group of four experienced skiers who dropped into a slope on the Simpson slide paths about two kilometres south of Vermilion Crossing on Sunday afternoon (Jan. 28), with one of them triggering a size 3 avalanche.

The 57-year-old man was buried essentially in an upright position, with his head about 1.5 metres below the surface. He had managed to deploy his airbag. The other three skiers were not caught in the slide.

People buried deep often don't make it due to the snow depth and amount of snow that has to be removed to get them out and, because this takes time, the person often asphyxiates.

"He's very, very lucky," said Aaron Beardmore, a visitor safety specialist for the mountain parks, noting the man escaped with a minor injury to his elbow after hitting a tree.

The avalanche was 200 metres wide, 250 metres long and averaged about 1.2 metres in thickness, though it was estimated to be about five to six metres deep in the location the skier was buried. On a five level scale, a size 3 slide is big enough to bury a car, destroy a small building, or break trees.

Friends reported not being able to get a probe strike based on how deep he was buried, and started digging in the direction of a signal coming from a personal location beacon.

"They think it took somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes from the initial search to uncovering his face," said Beardmore, noting they could tell this because they were tracking with GPS watches as soon as they initiated the rescue.

"As they were digging toward him, they could hear him, and as they uncovered his face they thought he had just lost consciousness. He had snow in his mouth, they cleared the snow from his mouth and he regained consciousness."

Parks Canada's rescue team initially received notification at about 2:50 p.m. from a personal location beacon, leading rescuers to suspect it was an avalanche-related emergency.

With about three hours of time left for a helicopter to be able to fly before dark, they mounted a full-scale rescue response, but the three skiers in the party had already rescued their friend.

"We erred on the side of caution and flew in and picked the group up," said Beardmore, noting the man was flown to Mineral Springs Hospital in Banff as a precaution to get him checked.

At press time, the avalanche hazard was high, meaning natural avalanches are likely and human-triggered slides are very likely. The hazard was expected to be downgraded to considerable by week's end.

There are persistent weak layers in the upper snowpack, while recent winds and new snow have formed slabs in leeward areas of alpine and treeline terrain, causing natural avalanches and small cornice failures.

"Our advice to people is to be prepared for a long period of uncertainty with the snowpack that could last weeks, even months," said Beardmore, adding people should always check the avalanche bulletin.

"They should try to get as much information as possible in conditions like this, and if people are in doubt, err on the side of caution."

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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