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7 Skiers Die in Canadian Avalanche

January 21, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Seven people, including three Americans, who were back-country skiing in a remote part of western Canada were killed Monday when they were swept away in an avalanche in an area known for its spectacular but often hazardous skiing conditions.

The victims included a Los Angeles resident, another Californian and a Coloradan, according to a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The four others were Canadians.

They were among 20 tourists and guides who were skiing near the desolate Durrand Glacier, about 250 miles northeast of Vancouver in avalanche-prone British Columbia, when the wall of snow crashed down the mountain.

Thirteen group members escaped, although at least two suffered injuries serious enough to require hospitalization, said Ian McKichan, the regional coroner.

"It's wintertime, it's the mountains. Snow slides down mountains. There's always some risk of avalanches," he said.

Authorities did not immediately release the names of those killed and injured. Police scheduled a news conference for this morning.

The risk of a snowslide in the area Monday was rated "considerable" -- the middle rating on a five-step scale -- because of the snow and weather conditions.

"We have five major mountain ranges and literally thousands of mountains, and so avalanches are a daily event," said Clair Israelson, director of the Canadian Avalanche Assn. in Revelstoke, 20 miles southwest of the area where the skiers were killed.

Of the 70 people who died in avalanches across Canada in the last five years, 50 died in British Columbia, Israelson said. Thousands of avalanches occur in the province every year.

Monday's victims were in a ski group that had booked the trip through Selkirk Mountain Experience, a well-regarded Revelstoke-based operation that offers adventure ski tours of pristine wilderness areas.

The area where the seven were killed is so remote that skiers are flown by helicopter to the Durrand Glacier Chalet, 6,300 feet above sea level and in the heart of the rugged Selkirk Mountains.

Before they are allowed to ski, all visitors must learn basic rescue procedures and the proper way to use high-range avalanche radio beacons.

The chalet, a base camp for the weeklong excursions, sits among two dozen peaks and striking ridgelines. Among these mountains lie 14 glaciers that create long, steep slopes. In January, the typical snowpack is 11 1/2 feet.

The company cautions that the skiing is only for the physically fit and that skiers must be able to climb at least 5,000 vertical feet per day. The weeklong tours typically begin on Saturdays.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien issued a statement on the "tragic loss of life."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims' families during this very painful time," he said. "We wish a speedy and complete recovery for the injured."

The avalanche risk levels in the area were higher a few weeks ago but were recently downgraded to "considerable."

"What 'considerable' means is that avalanches are unlikely but still possible," Israelson said. "Really, that's what we're seeing happen today. They were surprised by an event that they didn't expect."

He noted that the ratings are generalizations about mountain ranges and that there are differences in every peak and valley. Avalanches occur when natural bonds that hold snowpacks together are broken by stress such as rain, wind or weight from new snow.

"Even when avalanche dangers are moderate or considerable, there are still small pockets where the slopes may not be stable," Israelson said.

"We can't tell with a certainty on a slope-by-slope basis," he said. "That's the challenge we face."

He noted that the rating would not have stopped him from allowing his children to ski the area with the tour operator.

"I would have sent my children to that location with the people that I know there, and I would have been comfortable that they would have been well cared for," he said.

"This, in my belief, is one of those unusual events we simply can't predict. Yet that's inherent in life in the high mountains in wintertime," he said.

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