About a week after their 15-year-old son, Daniel Arato, died in an avalanche along with six of his classmates, Judith and Peter Arato climbed into a helicopter to see where the school group had been taken on a ski trip.
The Calgary couple flew over Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park where the Columbia Mountains of southeastern British Columbia receive up to 21 metres of snow annually – so much snow that the military stationed there use a howitzer to keep potential slides off the TransCanada Highway.
"We were horrified by what we saw," recalled Ms. Arato of that helicopter tour almost a decade ago. "…The kids were in the most avalanche-prone area of Canada."
The deaths of those children transformed the way Canada looked at avalanche safety: Now, this country's approach to managing risk is considered the "gold standard" and has been copied around the world. This year, with an unusually early start to winter, experts acknowledge our status abroad but warn against complacency at home.
While undeniably beautiful, the area is considered home to one of the deadliest concentrations of avalanches in the world. Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, Daniel Arato's elite private school in Okotoks, Alta., just south of Calgary, was revered for its outdoor-education programming, and its Grade 10 ski tour through the Connaught Creek trail in Rogers Pass was an annual highlight.
On Feb. 1, 2003, tragedy struck in a winter that would eventually see 29 people die in avalanches in the Canadian backcountry – the most during a single season since 1965 – a grim record that stands today. The El Nino phenomenon contributed to unusually warm conditions and an unstable, light snowpack that winter. The school group was hit when the snow gave way from a mountain face high above the popular Connaught Creek trail, which set off a second torrent of snow that engulfed 17 members.
"In their mind's eye," said Ms. Arato, referring to the school, "they'd been going to the Connaught Valley for 25 years and nothing had happened, so why not continue to go there. Really, in a way, they were playing Russian roulette with these kids' lives."
Largely because of the efforts of the Aratos, Parks Canada would later ban school groups, and others leading young people, from the Connaught Creek trail, now deemed too complex and dangerous. But that was only one part of the fallout from the avalanche that claimed the students, all aged 15. A series of reports would make a cascade of recommendations to improve backcountry safety. A flood of federal and provincial money followed. New terrain and avalanche danger-rating systems were created, as well as new warning signs erected. The Canadian Avalanche Centre would also be established.
"This is a famous story," said Grant Statham, mountain-risk specialist with Parks Canada. "This accident, that winter. It's when the tide changed. It was a watershed moment in avalanche safety."
Two metres of snow have already piled up in the mountains in the West, ski resorts opened early and one avalanche death was recorded in October in northwestern B.C., where a 50-year-old mine surveyor was swept over a cliff and buried. Weather watchers aren't predicting El Nino conditions this winter, and while nobody will project the overall avalanche danger, experts say that low snowfall and unstable snowpacks are the traditional hallmarks of a nasty avalanche season ahead. And avalanche warnings are currently rated as "considerable" or "high" down the spine of the country.
"It's time to start thinking about the possibilities that avalanches may start early this year," said B.C. Coroner Barb McLintock, who was asked to investigate the first avalanche death of this winter.
Canadian Avalanche Centre
For years there had been talk among backcountry enthusiasts about creating a hub for public avalanche information as well as avalanche alerts that the public could easily understand. In 2004, the Canadian Avalanche Centre was founded as a non-profit organization, which received much of its $1.3-million in funding last year from the B.C. government, as well as the federal and Alberta governments. The centre delivers safety programs, issues daily avalanche bulletins and special warnings, and maintains a catalogue of incidents.
Last winter, about 7,000 people took avalanche-training courses nationwide compared to about 2,750 a decade ago.
Karl Klassen, the centre's acting executive director, said during his 35 years in the backcountry industry he has noticed the number of recreationalists going up, but the number of deadly incidents not rising in tandem.
"That gives me hope that we've been able to help people understand the problem," he said.
Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale
Mountain guides have always recognized that landscape is as important as snow and weather conditions in assessing avalanche risk, but Parks Canada went a step further and created a formal system to rate terrain for the public using a three-tier scale.
The Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale, dubbed ATES and implemented in 2004, catalogues about 300 trails in the national parks as either Class 1 "simple," Class 2 "challenging" or Class 3 "complex."
Simple terrain includes trails at low angles, through forests and far from avalanche paths or glaciers. Challenging terrain features straightforward travel on glaciers, some crevasse hazards as well as exposure to well-defined avalanche paths, but with routes to avoid them. Complex terrain involves complicated glacier travel, exposure to multiple overlapping slide paths, steep terrain and few escape routes.
Where does the Connaught Creek trail rank?
"It's our poster child for complex terrain," said Mr. Statham of Parks Canada. "It's a very narrow valley with a lot of avalanche paths hanging over your head. It's difficult to predict anything because the area where the avalanche starts is 1,000 metres above your head."
A surge in snowmobile deaths in the winter of 2008-09 sparked renewed interest in avalanche safety. A total of 26 people would die that season; 19 were snowmobilers in B.C. The avalanche centre is now halfway through a four-year project to map all of B.C.'s 91 provincially managed snowmobile routes using ATES, and has already completed 59, or about 4,000 square kilometres.
ATES has been embraced by other alpine nations, including the United States, Italy, Norway, Japan and New Zealand.
In 2004, Parks Canada introduced risk-management rules related to minors travelling in the mountains without their parents or legal guardians, but with institutions such as schools, community groups, Scouts and Guides. The rules don't apply to groups of friends or families.
"When we first started, there was lots of fear, particularly in the outdoor-education sector," Mr. Statham said.
He said the Arato family was instrumental in advocating for rules for custodial groups.
"It was a recognition that the whole process was broken," Mr. Arato said. "What may be suitable or appropriate for adults that have made their own choices and understand their own risk – that does not apply to custodial group."
Tied to ATES, unguided custodial groups are kept to low-risk Class 1 places, but should avoid them when avalanche advisories are "poor"; in Class 2 terrain they must hire licensed mountain guides, keep the group size to 10 and have snow stability on that slope rated "good" or "very good"; they are banned in Class 3 high-risk areas altogether.
The system also serves as a good guide for families or novice outdoor enthusiasts looking for the least risky trails to tackle. Other countries have adopted the system, too.
"I thought that was wonderful because it makes you feel that you've been able to make a difference," Ms. Arato said.
North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale
Experts began working on easy-to-understand avalanche bulletins for the public and released a first set of simple icons in 2004. The system was quickly adopted in Switzerland and, with further tinkering, became the European standard. Revisions continued and, in 2010, Parks Canada, the avalanche centre and other collaborators unveiled the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale, which uses colourful images and ranks the danger level – low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme. The scale rates the likelihood of a slide – unlikely to certain. It also rates the size and distribution – small in isolated areas of extreme terrain to very large avalanches in many places. The scale also provides advice in plain language such as travel is considered "generally safe" to "very dangerous avalanche conditions" to "avoid all avalanche terrain."
Last year, Parks Canada and the avalanche centre, with the help of the Alberta government, released AvalX, a new standardized format for public avalanche bulletins based on the revised North American danger scale, which uses more graphics, less text and is smartphone friendly. Further improvements were made in time for this winter.
Parks Canada moved quickly to place large signs at key trailheads, which show backcountry enthusiasts the terrain they are about to enter along with detailed warnings. The maps are also available online.
After the deadly winter for snowmobilers in B.C. in 2008-09, the province placed avalanche-awareness signs at 23 key highway locations and at all its provincially managed snowmobile zones, said Tasha Schollen, a spokesperson with B.C. Public Safety and the Solicitor-General.
Also incorporated to the B.C. signage is the "Avaluator" guide, which was developed six years ago with $600,000 from Ottawa, to give people a step-by-step decision-making tool about whether their travel should be with "normal caution," "extra caution" or "not recommended." Avaluator information has been posted near at least 27 "higher risk" snowmobile trails and will be set up at the rest of them by spring, 2013.
On the Trail
Ruedi Beglinger often thinks about that awful winter of a decade ago.
On Jan. 20, 2003, less than two weeks before the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir students died, the Swiss-born professional mountain guide was leading a group of 21 people up Durrand Glacier, near Revelstoke, B.C. A whumpf sound gave way to a settlement in the snow, which set off a series of slides. Thirteen people were swept away, and seven adults – four Americans, including legendary snowboarder Craig Kelly, and three Canadians – were killed.
That incident also spawned reports and investigations that helped contribute to the widescale institutional changes in avalanche safety. Mr. Beglinger's popular ski-touring company, Selkirk Mountain Experience, also reacted.
At the time, he had no access to subscriber-only avalanche bulletins known as Infoex, only general avalanche reports, which are not as detailed as they are today. Selkirk consulted with heli-ski operators to find out how they deal with avalanche hazards and overhauled company policy. He holds more in-depth safety meetings with the guides and added 10 more snow-profile sites to its main study pit at the lodge to help assess a wider swath of snow conditions.
"I don't think there's a day I don't think about this avalanche," Mr. Beglinger said.
He described it as a movie with every step and every probe into the snow on the ascent replayed over and over in his mind.
"If I would take that film and roll it right back, and know everything I know up until an hour before [the avalanche], would I go? Yeah, I think I would," he said. "I had absolutely no signs that told me to not go. But I look back and say, yeah, I wish I didn't go up. Hindsight is the easiest sight."
Outdoor educator worries about complacency
Bruce Hendricks was teaching outdoor education at a boys school in Sydney, Australia, when he heard about the avalanche that killed seven students from a private school in Alberta.
While there was no threat of a devastating snow slide on any of his students' excursions, Mr. Hendricks moved quickly to adopt the recommendations from an independent report, which concluded that Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Okotoks, Alta., didn't adequately warn parents about "catastrophic risk" on the 2003 ski trip, but at the same time, both the school and parents had become "complacent" about danger. It also said the school is more focused on "adventure" than education.
"It had had implications worldwide," said Mr. Hendricks, who, coincidentally, became director of outdoor education at STS five years ago.
The school still fields about a dozen inquiries a year about risk management.
It overhauled its outdoor policy manual, dramatically scaled back terrain options, offered more training and now has students, parents and staff sit through an extensive pretrip briefing process before they sign a consent form. It includes a presentation that shows maps, charts, photos, videos, avalanche bulletins, different types of terrain and outlines the worst-case scenarios.
Outdoor-education expert Ross Cloutier, who wrote the external report on the tragic STS trip, said the event caused many private schools nationwide, as well as some public school systems, to review their own programs. Still, he worries about complacency.
"We are getting far enough away from the event that most public-school outdoor-education teachers, principals and trustees I meet these days only have vague recollections of the STS incident and don't really understand the event or its implications," he said.