3 dead, 4 injured after avalanche hits BC Interior heli-ski team, police say

Three people were killed and four others were seriously injured after an avalanche hit the BC Interior around noon Wednesday, according to RCMP.

A statement Thursday said a total of 10 people were caught in the avalanche while heliskiing in the Panorama Mountain Resort area near Invermere, BC, about 160 kilometers southwest of Calgary.

The team consisted of nine skiers and one guide. The customers were all “foreign nationals,” police said, but their driver is Canadian.

The three remaining skiers were unharmed. The identities of none of the skiers have been released.

RCMP said the four injured skiers, one of whom was the driver, were taken to hospital in Invermere. They are expected to survive.

The slide went down in an area outside the boundaries of the Panorama resort. The group was on tour with RK Heliski, a local company founded decades ago.

News of the casualties came just after dawn in Invermere, a small community of 3,900 on the edge of the Rockies. The area is a popular summer and winter travel destination for its easy access to the countryside, including many Albertans who have second homes in the area.

The community of Invermere, B.C., is pictured Thursday, the day after an avalanche in nearby Panorama claimed three lives and left four others injured. (Corey Bullock/CBC)

“Everybody is going to be very upset about this this morning. It’s very sad to wake up and hear,” said RCMP Cpl. James Grundy.

“Unfortunately, this season has been really horrible for avalanches.”

About 44,000 heliskiers hit BC’s remote mountain slopes each year, according to HeliCat Canada. The season runs from mid-December to the end of April, employing around 3,000 people.

For heli-skiing, small groups of skiers are flown by helicopter to their trailhead on a mountaintop or transported in a snowmobile, a huge caterpillar-tracked vehicle designed to operate on snow and carry up to 12 guests.

A three-day package starts at about $1,000 per person, or up to $14,000 for a more luxurious private package.

Avalanche big enough to bury a car

BC Emergency Management and Climate Preparedness Minister Bowinn Ma offered her condolences to the families of those who died and those still hospitalized.

“Our country is beautiful. It attracts people, that’s why a lot of people live in British Columbia, that’s why a lot of people come to visit British Columbia. But as we’ve seen in the last couple of months, it can be deadly,” he said.

In a statement Thursday, Avalanche Canada communications coordinator Lisa Perazzoli said Wednesday’s fatal avalanche was a size three — large enough to bury and destroy a car, damage a truck, destroy a building and break trees.

He said the slide broke on a southwest face at an alpine elevation of about 2,500 meters and was a “deep persistent slab avalanche” triggered by this season’s weak base layer.

“This year’s avalanche season is plagued by a deeply buried weak layer across much of Western Canada, which makes for a very difficult snowpack to manage safely,” he said.

“This weak layer has caused many high-consequence avalanches since its formation.”

A particularly volatile time

So far there have been 12 avalanche deaths in BC. in 2023, including a search and rescue volunteer who was killed in the Chilcotin area, two off-duty police officers who were on a ski trip near Kaslo and two brothers from Pennsylvania who were also on a guided helicopter trip in the interior of B.C. .

Avalanche Canada compared this season’s snowpack to conditions last seen in the winter of 2002-2003, when 25 people died in BC’s home country, making it one of the province’s worst years on record for fatalities from avalanches.

The number of deaths recorded so far this season is also the highest since 2015-2016 and the fourth highest in the past two decades.

However, Avalanche Canada and backcountry experts caution against making direct comparisons between historical data and more recent years, as the number of people going to the mountains has increased significantly and, with it, safety education – leads to fewer deaths per capita.

Avalanche Canada urged recreational users to make conservative, low-consequence choices if they decide to travel in avalanche terrain, saying even trained professionals should exercise extra caution when choosing their routes.

People heading into the backcountry are urged to check the avalanche forecast and make conservative decisions about the terrain they choose to explore. An avalanche transceiver, snow detector and snow shovel are essential, along with practice using them, according to officials.

Backcountry is not closed

Asked if access to the backcountry should be closed for safety reasons, Ma said the federal avalanche service has the authority.

“Right now, we’re in contact with Avalanche Canada and we’re ready to act as directed,” he said, speaking to reporters outside the BC legislature.

“People going backcountry right now have to recognize that a lot of the fatalities that we’ve seen here in British Columbia have been people who were very experienced or were with drivers who had a lot of experience in the backcountry,” he added.

“We need people to seriously consider and assess the terrain they are going to and possibly consider delaying their journey until conditions are safer.”

WATCHES | Experts offer avalanche safety tips:

Experts offer safety training as forecasters predict a heavy avalanche season in B.C

Avalanche Canada is warning that BC’s snow this year is unusually light and will be more vulnerable to avalanches. A Prince George Search and Rescue team hopes those heading into the backcountry will take the time to train in the event of an avalanche disaster.

Schedule of avalanche events this season

December 31: A skier has life-threatening injuries on a slide near Emerald Lake in southeastern B.C., near the Alberta border, Avalanche Canada said in a report.

January 5: Avalanche Canada is warning of a delicate snowpack, with several weak layers created by long periods of dry and cold weather. “Riders have caused large, scary avalanches with high consequences,” the advisory says.

January 9: Two off-duty police officers become trapped in an avalanche near Castle, BC, while skiing. Nelson Police Service Const. Wade Tittemore, 43, dies and Const. Mathieu Nolet, 28, has serious internal injuries.

January 21: Nolet dies from his injuries in hospital.

January 21: Two snowmobilers riding at the base of a slope near Valemount, BC accidentally trigger an avalanche from above, sending a slab of snow at one rider while the other escapes. The buried rider becomes unresponsive and dies.

January 23: Heliskiers and their driver get caught in an avalanche near Revelstoke, BC. The driver was taken to hospital in stable condition.

January 23: A slide fell on a person near Cherryville, BC Emergency health services say the person was taken to hospital with unspecified injuries.

February 11: Two skiers are trapped in an avalanche on Potato Peak, 175 kilometers southeast of Prince George. Both victims were buried alive and found dead by search and rescue crews. One of the dead is identified as a member of the local off-duty search and rescue team.

February 16: Three people were buried in an avalanche triggered outside the boundary of a ski area near Golden, B.C. One is partially buried and exhumed, while two are fully buried and not saved.

March 1st: Ten people have been trapped in an avalanche near Panorama Mountain Resort, near the BC-Alberta border. Police say three have died, while four others who were taken to hospital are expected to survive.

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