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Climbers, If You Are Going into Avalanche Terrain, Please Read This

Avalanche safety---from knowledge to carrying equipment---is the norm in the backcountry skiing community. It's time the ice-climbing community followed suit.

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The Canadian Rockies are home to the largest concentration of waterfall ice in the world—65 percent of the ice is in avalanche terrain. Each autumn, the topic of avy gear and climbing comes up in my household as my partner, Paddy Jerome, an ACMG Mountain Guide, preps for his courses that he teaches through the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) to up-and-coming avalanche-patch professionals, including ski patrollers, mountain guides and highway avalanche technicians who work in avalanche mitigation.

One of CAA’s Avalanche Search and Rescue courses he teaches is about the 2016 recovery that he participated in, involving a climber who perished in an avalanche on Polar Circus. The 1,500-foot WI 5 waterfall-ice route on Mount Cirrus is on the border of Banff National Park and rated as having complex avalanche terrain. Large avalanche bowls reside above this famous route, often making solid assessment of conditions challenging at best.

In 2015, a storm came in, and Mark Salesse, a strong and competent climber, was swept away by an avalanche after he finished the first set of rappels. His partner couldn’t find him. Six days later after the storm had subsided and avalanche control was done, the body was recovered. It took over 40+ bags of ammonium nitrate—explosives—to blast away the dangerous snowpack, and finding Salesse took 77.5 hours of human, heli and dog power. He was not wearing an avalanche transceiver.

The recovery was far more complex than that, should you read the report that Banff Visitor Safety published in 2016. Theoretically, and based on calculations in a report that the Mountain Guides Stephen Holeczi and Grant Statham made after the Polar Circus accident, if Salesse was wearing a transceiver, the search would have been 14 hours.

Jess Roskelley approaching the Stanley Headwall, January 2018. Photo: Ben Herndon.

Jump to spring 2019, to Howse Peak (10,810 feet), an imposing alpine face roughly 70 miles northwest of Calgary, Canada. In the 2019 incident, three elite alpinists—Jess Roskelley, David Lama and Hansjörg Auer—were swept off their descent after making a difficult and dangerous first ascent on the 5,000-foot East Face; all three were buried. They were not wearing avalanche transceivers or RECCO technology; the latter are tabs about the size of a strip of chewing gum that reflect radar emitted by a detector often carried by a helicopter or professional rescue teams.

Transceivers can speed up rescue or body recovery time, limiting rescue-team exposure to dangerous terrain. RECCO assists rescuers by making you more searchable. (It must be noted, however, that RECCO reflectors are passive and do not replace avalanche transceivers.) The Howse Peak tragedy was déja vu for the Banff Visitor Safety team. Although it was different from the Polar Circus recovery, Howse was just as bad in terms of terrain complexity, weather and hazards for recovery. The risks were such that the workers and even the rescue dog who recovered the bodies were tethered to a 110-foot long line to a helicopter the whole time, in the event of another avalanche being released.

Again, based on calculations in the report by Holeczi and Statham, had the deceased climbers on Howse been wearing avalanche transceivers, the exposure time for the Banff Visitor Safety team during location and recovery efforts would have been profoundly reduced.

Increasing Climbing-Avalanche Fatalities

The idea that alpinists and ice climbers should wear transceivers or the more recently developed RECCO isn’t new. Transceivers have been in use since the early 1970s. If you are going to be in avalanche terrain, wear a transceiver, and carry a shovel and probe. Know how to use the tools and climb with a partner/partners who can do the same. Whenever you are in avalanche terrain, recognize there is potential that you could be buried. In addition, having a RECCO reflector on you might assist SAR teams in locating you in the event your transceiver stops working. RECCO is a backup not a replacement for a transceiver. Saying, “Well, I don’t want my body recovered,” is a flawed statement for a lot of reasons, especially in the Canadian Rockies, yet, I heard it second hand, from a strong, smart young climber.

Polar Circus powder cloud.Photo: Courtesy of Parks Canada.

“I think backcountry users should take the time to consider the risk that SAR individuals and teams assume in hazardous rescues. There is a small community of folks here in the Bow Valley who willingly accept these risks daily so outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy their passion, whatever sport that might be,” says Alpine Helicopters Canmore Base Manager/Rescue Pilot Todd Cooper. “If there are tools such as RECCO and avalanche beacons available to reduce the risk and exposure time of that risk to the folks who are trying to rescue you or bring closure to your family, why wouldn’t you carry them?” For many decades, Alpine Helicopters has been the main helicopter support and partner for SAR in Bow Valley.

In Canadian Rockies National Parks, fatalities are the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. RCMP policy states that “The medical examiner requires a body to determine the cause of death and confirmation of the deceased.”

In other words, if you are buried under snow, a team will be sent to find you whether you would have wanted them to or not.

Additionally, for many families and friends, the finality of a loss and transition to the next stage of grief only becomes a reality with the recovery of a body. Though secondary to rescuer safety in importance, a body helps the grieving process, and in avalanches, the location of a body helps explain how the accident unfolded.

“I make the decision whether or not to carry avy gear on a case-by-case basis,” says Raphael Slawinski, one of the greatest ice climbers alive. “Most of the time I don’t, but I take it when it seems warranted [see Slawinski’s recent photo of an unclimbed face where he brought avy gear with him, below]. More often though, if it seems like there’s substantial avy hazard, I simply make other plans. Just this month I pulled the plug the night before on at least a couple of occasions because there was just too much uncertainty about snow conditions. However, I admit that when I do take it, I don’t think so much in terms of body recovery, but rather how much good it’d do for me in an avalanche and probably mostly about weight.”

However, he recognizes the possibilities. “The story doesn’t end with me,” says Slawinski. “I think I’ve become a lot more aware of the potential impact that my climbing—specifically anything bad that might happen to me through my climbing—might have on others, especially my wife.”

Juan Henriquez approaching an unclimbed face in the Canadian Rockies in 2020. Photo: Raphael Slawinski.

Statistics given in 2019 for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay Parks show that over the past 22 years there have been more climbing-avalanche fatalities than skiing-avalanche fatalities: 43 percent were climbers compared to 32 percent skiers. A 2009 study of all ice-climbing fatalities in Canada showed that 56 percent of the fatalities were from asphyxiation, meaning if the buried climbers had been found in time—courtesy of transceiver—they might have survived.

Parks does not keep stats on what activities the users that visit the park are doing, but, anecdotally, there are more skiers than climbers. There are twice as many sport shops in the Bow Valley that carry touring gear than climbing. Of the three shops in the Bow Valley that carry ice axes (for climbing, not just ski mountaineering), two of them, Monods in Banff and Vertical Addiction in Canmore have confirmed with me that they have much higher ski sales than ice-climbing gear sales. Both shops are seeing an uptick in interest for avy gear from climbers.

Some brands are stepping up to the plate to make body recovery easier. Arc’teryx is putting RECCO reflectors into their alpine apparel collections, and in 2021 Black Diamond will have a harness with RECCO. Others are starting to offer more climbing friendly (aka lightweight) avy-gear kits. Yet, it is important to remember that gear doesn’t change your exposure.

“Though I’m not an outdoor professional, so take whatever I say with that in mind, I believe that carrying avy gear is just one piece in a larger decision-making calculus. Or, to be blunt, you can carry avy gear and still be an idiot. Of course, the converse could also be true: you could be an idiot for not carrying avy gear!” says Slawinski, who ironically sums up the other side of avy gear: risk homeostasis. For those who might be unfamiliar with the theory, avalanche rescue gear can be “psychological pro,” except instead of that tiny nut you place in order to help you get through to the next good placement, you are dealing with mother nature taking you out. Still, it is similar. Just as Expert Halo or the Dunning Kruger effect can be a pitfall of newly acquired knowledge.

However, I do think brands who are raising awareness are stepping in the right direction. Four years ago I was essentially laughed at by a brand for suggesting/asking if they were going to market a small new piece of avalanche equipment to the climbing community.

I thought about avalanche danger a lot, even before I moved to the Rockies. I started climbing in high school through the Ritt Kellogg Mountain Program, established after Ritt Kellogg perished in an avalanche while climbing Alaska’s Mt. Foraker in 1992. The sole survivor, Colby Coombs, self rescued (just barely), and the bodies of Kellogg and their other partner, Tom Walter, were never found. Kellogg’s family was never able to see him again.

The tragic Howse Peak incident is hopefully a sea-change event that will get climbers to adjust their mindsets and take greater responsibility, including considering the risk that rescue teams might face trying to recover their bodies in areas where avalanches pose a risk.

John Effa backing off of Polar Circus on a warm day in 2015. Photo: John Price.

Bottom line: Avalanche knowledge is going to be the most logical tool for risk mitigation in avalanche terrain. And it is becoming more common in climbing. There is a clear parallel to the snowmobiling (sledding) community of 10 years ago and climbing community of now. The number of sledders who fully embraced avalanche education rose after the Howell Creek avalanche in 2008, which took eight lives and the Boulder/Turbo Hill Slide that involved over 200 people. These two accidents were not the only catalysts, they hastened a change in the culture that was already happening, as is now happening in the climbing community.

It has taken the climbing community a little bit longer, but Avalanche Canada together with Parks Canada are working on new outreach material that is directed to the needs of climbers; it will help. Avalanche Canada has also brought on pro climber and guide Sarah Hueniken to their ambassador team to help reach out to ice climbers. As someone who has been directly affected through losing a friend to an avalanche while ice climbing, Hueniken brings both heart and her experience.

“Avalanche Canada recognizes the need to help foster a greater culture of avalanche safety in the ice climbing community,” said Gilles Valade, executive director of Avalanche Canada. “We are thrilled to partner with an athlete of Sarah’s calibre and stature to reach out to this community.”

I am hopeful for the future. We will need more education especially since our climate is changing. But that’s another subject.

Avalanche Safety Resources

Mountain Conditions Network

Avalanche Canada 

Webinar with Grant Statham and Sarah Hueniken on avalanche safety for ice climbers

AST (avalanche skills training) 1 for Ice Climbers with Can Rock Guides 

Kate Erwin is a writer who lives and plays in the Canadian Rockies. She has a benevolent passion for ice climbers and mountain rescuers alike.