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SATURDAY SPECIAL: How a carefully planned adventure to the B.C. backcountry became a tragedy that swept seven teens to their deaths

It's a soft, grey morning. The ground is blanketed by eight centimetres of fresh snow. The temperature hovers around zero.

The past 24 hours have been avalanche-free, and Abby Watkins and Rich Marshall are eager to get in a day of backcountry skiing amid the mountainous sweep near the summit of Rogers Pass in eastern British Columbia.

They are not alone. The mountain guides spot a school group getting ready to press ahead into the popular Balu Pass. Husband and wife pause to say hello.

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"It's a beautiful day out here, isn't it?" says Abby. "Yes," someone responds.

They leave the 14 teenagers and three adults behind, climbing briskly until they stop for a break in a treed area.

Abby looks back at the people below and a gangly teen, all arms and legs, catches her eye. "Aren't kids funny? Look at that kid," she tells Rich.

At that very moment, just before noon on Saturday, something gives way on the rugged north face of Cheops Mountain. Abby and Rich hear a thunderous roar. They watch in horror as a torrent of snow hurtles to the valley, picking up speed and debris. The school group is directly in its path.

Rich screams: "Avalanche! Avalanche! Avalanche!"

The skiers look up.

Ben Albert is frantically trying to cram his day pack into a big black backpack already bulging with clothes, equipment and enough food for a breakfast and stir-fry dinner for himself and three other hungry 15-year-olds. He finally wedges it in and staggers out the door. It's early Friday morning.

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His mother, Carol Neale, watches uneasily as he and her husband Gerald pull out onto the road and head to the Canadian Tire parking lot on the western edge of Calgary. There, Ben will rendezvous with 13 other Grade 10 students from the elite Strathcona-Tweedsmuir private school for a long weekend of backcountry, telemark skiing, a difficult activity that combines cross-country and downhill.

The trip is the culmination of two months of intense training and the most arduous yet of the school's celebrated, year-long outdoor education program.

Despite the early hour, the excitement among the 11 boys and three girls is infectious. Michael Shaw is so keyed up he talked the night away with his younger sister Kathryn. She tried to get him to go to bed but he just kept talking.

They are close, these healthy, strong, accomplished 15-year-olds. Many have grown up together.

Michael and his best pal Taylor Carcasole are there, in one of two vans that will take everyone to Rogers Pass. The two are inseparable. Teachers know them as "mischief." Taylor is the "mis," and Michael the "chief."

Ben Albert sees Scott Broshko and Jeff Trickett. They are three parts of a group of four talented teens known as the "Fearsome Foursome."

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Scott has been talking about the expedition almost nonstop since training began. Outdoor trips are his passion. For his birthday, he asked for a sleeping bag.

The night before, Daniel Arato bombarded his older brother Thomas with excited questions about what to take.

His father had left a day earlier for his own ski trip. The two exchanged kisses and hugs. Mr. Arato told his son to keep his head in the game and do what he's told. As the two parted, Daniel told his dad: "I love you."

The leader of the expedition is teacher Andrew Nicholson, a skilled and experienced skier, well-trained in avalanche awareness. He is so demanding in checking snow conditions that previous groups have dubbed him "Nazi Nick."

Parents have signed waivers protecting the school in the event of deaths or injuries, but Carol Neale is worried. She can't stop thinking about an avalanche less than two weeks before that killed seven experienced backcountry skiers just 40 kilometres away from where Ben and his classmates are headed.

Scott Broshko's mother, Donna, knows about that avalanche, too. But she thinks: "What is the likelihood? Just what is the likelihood of that?"

She gives him a quick hug. He'll be back on Monday.

***

It's a four-hour journey to Glacier National Park. The winding, 350-kilometre drive along the Trans-Canada Highway west from Calgary offers some of the most stunning views in the country, replete with neck-craning mountain walls and stomach-churning sheer drops to valleys below.

Along the way are warning signs for fallen rocks and avalanche debris. Runaway lanes for truckers who lose their brakes on the steep inclines are common.

Even more ominous are five long avalanche tunnels protecting the highway from the walls of snow that regularly cut loose from the steep upper slopes surrounding Rogers Pass.

With an annual average snowfall of up to 21 metres, the area has one of the deadliest concentrations of avalanches in the world -- enough to keep an on-site military unit stationed there, equipped with explosives and howitzers to bring down threatening avalanches before they become dangerous.

The vans arrive at the park about noon, and the STS expedition wastes no time heading for its weekend headquarters, the A.O. Wheeler Hut, an easy two-kilometre trek from the highway. The A-frame log building, complete with two wood stoves and propane systems for cooking and light, is nestled in a cedar forest. The cabin sleeps 24 in three rooms.

The teenagers stow their large packs and, after exacting tests of snow conditions by Mr. Nicholson, they start to ski, exhilarated by liberation from school on a Friday afternoon and giddy with the fresh mountain air.

That evening, exhausted from their wonderful afternoon, the students are divided into groups. Each prepares its own dinner. Marissa Staddon and her group pig out on chocolate fondue. Scott Broshko's dines on quesadillas, much to the envy of another group grumpily making do with Hamburger Helper.

Through the night, snoring from Scott and his pal Jeff Trickett keeps some of the 11 boys in the same room from sleeping.

By the time they wake Saturday morning, Parks Canada has already posted its avalanche bulletin for backcountry skiers. In tree-line and alpine areas, the avalanche risk has been assessed as "considerable," the mid-range of the five possible ratings.

Below the tree line, the risk is assessed as "moderate," with natural avalanches unlikely. And the STS group intends to stay below the tree line throughout its telemark expedition to Balu Pass.

But the bulletin also refers to weak snow layers left over from early winter snowfalls that have failed to stabilize. There were similar references for the same mountain range in avalanche bulletins last month, just before the deadly slide that claimed seven lives near Revelstoke, B.C.

The group makes its way to the Rogers Pass information building, a macaroni-shaped structure with a sod and timber roof, to pore over the latest information. Mr. Nicholson goes inside. He asks about conditions in several areas before heading back to the students and two other adults -- a fellow teacher and a chaperone.

The group decides it is safe to ski that day. By 10:15 a.m., they are on the trailhead to the pass, five kilometres away, described by backcountry enthusiasts as an easy, but beautiful trail. They ski through forest, along a rocky creek, over a snow-covered bridge and into the Connaught Creek valley. Surrounded by mountains and deep powder snow, the scenery is breathtaking.

Reminders of past avalanches are everywhere. Relentless slides tearing down either side of the valley over the years have littered the area with rocks and stumps. Foliage is sparse on the valley floor.

The school group successfully crosses four avalanche-prone paths on the north side of the valley, and three on the south side. They note that the debris from one avalanche path across the valley is no more than a week old.

They are halfway to their destination.

***

The guide's frantic warning comes too late. The avalanche hits them head on.

In a matter of seconds, all 17 skiers are swept away in a huge, terrifying tangle of snow, rocks and trees.

The swiftness and power of the avalanche sounds like a freight train moving at high speeds, Abby thinks. "A huge roar. The power of that much snow moving at the acceleration of gravity and propagating more and more snow on the way. . . . Nobody could have got out of the way. Nobody."

The river-rush of snow engulfs the skiers, then separates them. A section of the slide breaks away and keeps going, carrying a number of victims hundreds of metres down the valley. Disoriented and tumbling head over foot with little chance to "swim" to the surface, this unlucky group ends up as much as 4.5 metres beneath the concrete-hard snow.

Up in the trees, Abby and Rich are dusted by a thick cloud of powder. A terrible silence falls over the valley. Though their hearts are thumping, they shut down their emotions. On goes the search-and-rescue switch, one they have trained for years to put into practice.

They race down to the first group of buried skiers. The only sign of life is an odd hand and a few legs poking through the snow. The others, in the toe of the slide at the bottom of the valley, are buried much deeper.

Alone at the scene, the husband-and-wife team is faced with heartbreaking decisions. Who to save first?

Not everybody would make it, they reason. But those trapped near the top would have a better shot at survival.

Rich runs for the first hand he sees and begins digging. It's Andrew Nicholson. He finds Mr. Nicholson's shovel so the group leader can dig himself out, and moves on. Mr. Nicholson has a satellite phone and calls for help.

But for the next 45 minutes, except for the victims, Rich and Abby are there by themselves, working to free as many as they can from their tombs of suffocating snow. The guides' transceivers work perfectly, honing in with beeps and flashing lights on the buried skiers equipped with their own avalanche beacons, like shouts from the grave.

The couple follows the rules of avalanche rescue like clockwork. Only dig to a victim to make sure he or she is breathing. Clear snow from the victim's face. No CPR before moving on to the next victim. There are too many. Let survivors dig themselves out.

Once free, the numb and distraught living do their best to help. Taylor Carcasole is frantic. His best friend Michael Shaw is missing. "Where's Michael? Where's Michael?"

The victims are scattered beneath the snow. Rich and Abby split up to cover as much ground as possible. The first five people they pull out survive. Those survivors go on to rescue others. Everyone else Abby and Rich uncover is dead.

The grim lottery of who shall live and who shall die is over. Seven students make it. Seven do not.

An hour after the avalanche, seven helicopters, three dogs and more than 30 individuals are on site. By 1:30 p.m., the final victim has been dug out. One survivor, with a broken ankle, is tobogganed out and airlifted to hospital. The remaining survivors are transported by helicopter to the cafeteria of the park warden's station. The bodies go, too. They are laid out on mats in a makeshift morgue in the same building.

Chuck Purse, Revelstoke's part-time coroner, is investigating his second seven-death avalanche within two weeks. He examines each body in turn. None show signs of major injury. They were simply swept away and buried, dying from asphyxiation.

The bodies are wrapped in blankets, put in body bags and taken to the local Brandon Bowers Funeral Chapel. Co-owner Gary Sulz sends ordinary vans to collect the bodies because he thinks the sight of a fleet of hearses will upset the survivors.

Back in Calgary, news of the tragedy begins rippling through the close-knit community of parents by late afternoon.

Donna and Dave Broshko are just leaving for evening mass when Strathcona-Tweedsmuir head Tony Macoun calls to tell them there's been an accident. He says there are fatalities. He doesn't say who has died.

Mrs. Broshko immediately phones Ben Albert's mother, Carol Neale. Ben and Scott have been classmates since elementary school. "Carol, have you heard? There's been an accident."

"What are you talking about? No!" she screams. "I told him I didn't want him to go . . . I didn't want him to go."

At the Arato home, Peter, skiing that weekend at Big White in Kelowna, B.C., is talking to his wife when her cellphone rings. A friend has heard news reports of a tragedy where their son Daniel was skiing. Mr. Arato soon learns from the radio that seven are dead from a school near Okotoks, where his boy's school is. He thinks the odds will not be in his favour.

The parents are told to go to the school. Judith Arato makes the 30-kilometre drive alone. She calls Peter in hysterics. Daniel is dead. Mr. Arato's friends charter a plane and send him home.

Carol Neale's worst fears are confirmed the moment she arrives at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir. As she steps inside the foyer, another mother stops her. "I've heard from my son," she tells Ms. Neale, relief written all over her face.

"I haven't heard from my son," replies Ms. Neale. Minutes later, Tony Macoun tells her why. Ben is dead.

Mrs. Broshko, meanwhile, is panic-stricken, a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She can't stand not knowing. She phones the RCMP in Revelstoke. No luck. She phones Glacier Park Lodge, begging a clerk to go across the highway where the survivors are to see if her Scotty is alive.

"Oh, please, please, please, go across the road for me. I will be forever in your debt. Tell me that my son is there."

The woman agrees. She phones back. No one will tell her anything.

Finally, the anguished couple head for the school. They are ushered in to see Mr. Macoun. "It's such a tragedy," he begins.

"I don't want to hear about the tragedy. Just tell me about Scott," Mrs. Broshko says.

Mr. Macoun says: "I'm very sorry. Scott's gone."

That night, Donna Broshko sleeps with a picture of Scott and her taken just before he went to the school's formal Christmas dance. He is wearing his dad's suit and tie. His father wore the same suit and tie at Scott's funeral on Thursday.

Skiers are soon back on the same Connaught Creek trail where last week's avalanche claimed its bright young victims. They ask offhandedly about "the morgue," worried that the jagged debris may be tricky to cross.

Not far from the trailhead lies a wreath, with two ski poles stuck upright in the snow. Names of the dead 15-year-olds -- Jeff Trickett, Scott Broshko, Daniel Arato, Ben Albert, Marissa Staddon, Michael Shaw and Alex Pattillo -- are listed on the wreath, with the epigraph "Your Youth Will Be Eternal."

Farther along the path one glimpses a more sombre memorial: the deadly toe of the avalanche. At the bottom of the valley are three pits. They are several metres deep, a metre across, and not far apart. Three burial holes left behind, and no one has filled them in.

Timetable of tragedy On Saturday, Feb. 1, 14 Grade 10 students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School south of Calgary, set out on a backcountry ski trip up the Balu Pass in Glacier National Park, B.C. At around 11:45 a.m., they were caught in an avalanche that killed seven of them. Here is the sequence of events on that day.

1. Before departing, the leaders checked with the National Park staff for current avalanche conditions. They were advised that the threat of avalanches was moderate below the tree line and considerable above it. Students were equipped with personal avalanche beacons, probes and shovels. At 8:40 a.m., students left A.O. Wheeler Hut by van and headed to Rogers Pass Information Centre, where they conducted at least one test for avalanche risk.

2. 10:15 a.m.: Commencement of trip up the Balu Pass trail. Following standard procedure, the one teacher led and the other adult leaders followed at the rear of the skiers, who were 15 metres from each other.

3. 11:45 a.m.: About halfway up the valley, an avalanche slid off the ridge of Cheops Mountain burying the group. Two skiers about 200 metres ahead helped rescue the teacher in the lead who contacted wardens by satellite phone. 12:30 p.m.: Six students were reported alive.

12:45 p.m.: Wardens arrive.

4. 1:30 p.m.: All students were accounted for, including the seven who lost their lives.

1.45 p.m.: One of the students was tobogganed back to the motel with a broken ankle. Meanwhile, helicopters joined the rescue and airlifted students to the motel parking lot, from where they were transported to a private home in Revelstoke.

How the avalanche happened A small slide began high up on the ridge of Cheops Mountain, above the south side of Connaught Creek Valley. This set off a huge second slide that crashed into the valley bottom with such force that it rode high up the opposite wall as it was redirected eastward down the valley, burying the group of skiers.

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Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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