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Tragedy offers opportunity to reflect on backcountry safety

After four highly experienced mountaineers were killed by avalanches last week, it may be time to ask the question – how many more people have to be killed by an avalanche before something changes? Each one of those four lives meant something to some
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After four highly experienced mountaineers were killed by avalanches last week, it may be time to ask the question – how many more people have to be killed by an avalanche before something changes?

Each one of those four lives meant something to someone, somewhere, yet with each passing death the reaction that this is just part of the risk we take as mountain dwellers seems like an excuse to allow the situation to continue unabated.

This past weekend was a prime example.

Barely 24 hours after news broke that three of the world’s best mountaineers died in an avalanche on Howse Peak another party of three got caught in an avalanche in Yoho National Park.

Parks Canada visitor safety specialists were able to rescue the group, however one man suffered critical injuries and died in hospital the following day.

A special bulletin was issued by Parks Canada on April 20 following the fatal avalanches to warn others of the heightened avalanche risk, however it didn’t seem to stop a lot of people from heading out the door the very next day.

Since the beginning of January, there have been six avalanche fatalities in four separate incidents in Banff and Yoho National Parks, according to Parks Canada.

To put that in perspective, over the past 10 years avalanches have killed an average of 13.2 people across Canada every year, according to Avalanche Canada.

There could be any number of reasons for the sudden spike in avalanche fatalities we’ve seen this year, from an increase in the number of people venturing into the backcountry to plain old bad luck, but whatever the reason is we shouldn’t just write it off as an anomaly. We shouldn’t chalk it up as part of the lifestyle out here and ignore it.

Just imagine for a second if six people drowned in the Bow River over the course of the summer – the outcry would be enormous and for good reason.

In a society where we try to limit risk, it’s shocking that six deaths in four months seems to be brushed aside as if it is just part of doing business in the backcountry.

That type of attitude not only discounts those who lost their lives this year, it also sets a dangerous precedent that dying in the backcountry is an acceptable risk – which it is not.

Instead of accepting what has happened as par for the course, we should seize this moment to try and learn from our mistakes and find solutions that work for everyone – solutions that improve safety and save lives.

Whether that’s through more rigorous data collection about the number of people in the backcountry, better funding for Avalanche Canada, or dare we say it, some sort of backcountry permit system – something needs to change.

This weekend Avalanche Canada will issue its final forecast and bulletin for the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains, yet the risk and possibility of a slide will continue to exist in this region for several more weeks.

Many backcountry enthusiasts, of course, will resist a more rigorous system, and argue they are well aware of the risks they take and do so with eyes wide open.

While that might be true, when it comes to public safety, it isn’t about any one person’s awareness or skill set. Three of the best alpinists in the world died last week in our backyard. They were well aware of the risk and skilled enough to reach the top of a difficult route, but chose not to wear avalanche transcievers – a decision that wouldn’t have changed the outcome of what happened, but would have helped visitor saftey specialists recover their bodies faster and reduce thier risk in the process.

If it’s true that more and more people believe putting their life at risk is an acceptable way to recreate, then it’s clear we’re entering a new phase in our mountain culture, one that is only likely to lead to more tragedy.

Instead of accepting this sitting down, we should see the tragic events of the past week as wake up call to reevaluate what we value in life and look at how we manage risk in the backcountry because there’s a lot more to life than exploring the mountains.





Rocky Mountain Outlook

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