Visitor safety specialists are shown in this undated handout image. An avalanche that killed three world-class climbers last spring should drive change for improved safety in the sport, say experts.THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada

Visitor safety specialists are shown in this undated handout image. An avalanche that killed three world-class climbers last spring should drive change for improved safety in the sport, say experts.THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada

Experts call for ice climbers to wear avalanche safety gear in the mountains

Parks Canada has been working for years to improve safety for ice climbers

Outdoor experts are hoping that an avalanche that killed three world-class climbers last spring will lead to improved safety in the sport.

American Jess Roskelley and Austrians David Lama and Hansjorg Auer disappeared in April as they tried to descend Howse Peak in the Rocky Mountains. Rescuers have said the search was challenging because the three weren’t wearing avalanche beacons.

The avalanche, which made international news, turned a spotlight on climbers and why many don’t carry safety gear.

Grant Statham, a mountain risk specialist for Parks Canada, said climbers want to be light, but anyone who’s in avalanche terrain should have a beacon, a probe and a shovel.

“You sometimes hear climbers say, ‘There’s no point in me wearing this equipment because, if I get hit by an avalanche, I’ll be killed,’ which in some cases is true,” he said in an interview.

“Except that there is a point in wearing the equipment because somebody is going to have to come in there and find you.”

READ MORE: Bodies of 3 mountain climbers recovered after Banff avalanche

Parks Canada has been working for years to improve safety for ice climbers with information bulletins and early-season avalanche warnings, he said.

A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2009 found that 58 per cent of climbers were asphyxiated and 42 per cent died from trauma in a 21-year period.

“You are buried and you can’t breathe, (but) there’s always a chance that you can dig people out in certain situations,” Statham said.

He and colleague Stephen Holeczi wrote a paper in 2016 looking at the death of a climber earlier that year at Polar Circus, a 700-metre climb on a frozen waterfall. They found that 15 rescuers spent nearly 80 hours doing avalanche control, searching and digging to find the man.

“If a person was wearing a transceiver and we had to dig them out, we could do it in 14 hours,” he said. “If they had both been wearing transceivers, his partner could have dug him out and left him on the surface.”

Statham said the man’s body was found — 200 metres below the surface — using a faint signal from a Recco strip, a type of rescue technology on his head lamp.

After the Howse Peak avalanche, rescuers threw transceivers out of a helicopter to mark the spot before bad weather came in and caused more snowslides.

“The pilot actually held the hover, while we stayed clipped to a line and searched,” he recalled. “It was pretty edgy in there doing that work.”

The three men were finally found by a search dog.

Statham said family and friends of anyone caught in an avalanche always want the body back.

“You cannot underestimate how important it is,” he said during a panel at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in November. “Wearing that equipment — it’s bigger than you.”

Will Gadd, an ice climber and paraglider based in Canmore, Alta., also appeared on the panel. He said he’s lost friends in the mountains, including some who weren’t found for years.

“They were gone … and it would have been nice to say goodbye to them.”

Paragliders have come to wear personal locator beacons, he said.

“If you show up … and you don’t have a (GPS tracking device), you are an idiot,” he said. “Why can’t we solve it in climbing?”

Gadd said it’s unacceptable some of his friends couldn’t be found and others on the rescue team had to put themselves in danger to locate them.

“We need to solve this,” said Gadd, who noted he’s trying to get gear manufacturers to add Recco strips to harnesses and other climbing equipment.

Parks Canada officials said they would like to see some changes after the headline-grabbing deaths last spring.

“The literature calls these focusing events,” said Statham. “All of a sudden a big thing happens and people change.”

There were policy changes for backcountry skiing, he said, after seven students from a private school near Calgary were killed in 2003 on an outdoor education trip in Rogers Pass, B.C.

Changes also took place in snowmobiling in 2010 when two people were killed and 31 others were injured after an avalanche swept through a crowd watching an event near Revelstoke, B.C.

“I would like to think that the Howse Peak incident, sad as it was …is an opportunity for us to make some change,” Statham said.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin makes preparations at Toronto’s mass vaccination clinic, Jan. 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
3 deaths, 234 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

One death connected to outbreak at Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital, where 20 patients and 28 staff have tested positive

(THE NEWS – files)
Snowy days ahead for the Okanagan and Shuswap

The region could get up to 5 cm by Thursday

Penticton Search and Rescue completed two rescues in succession of each other Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021 afternoon. (PENSAR / Facebook)
Penticton Search and Rescue members execute back-to-back rescues

PENSAR had barely completed their first rescue of the day when they received a second call

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

Crystal Johns used her lunch break to film her audition video for the Vancouver Canucks.
VIDEO: Former Vees anthem singer wants to bring her voice to the Canucks

Crystal Johns made her audition tape during a lunch break

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

Heather Barker. (File)
Manslaughter charge laid in Vernon woman’s 2018 death

Shaun Ross Wiebe, 43, faces manslaughter and assault charges related to the death of Heather Barker

Zaudanawng “Jay-Dan” Maran in his Creston home. Hanging on the wall behind him is a logo of Kachin’s Manaw festival. Photo: Aaron Hemens
From Myanmar to Creston: The story of a refugee

In October 2007, Zaudanawng “Jay-Dan” Maran and his friends encountered a woman being sexually assaulted by two Myanmar soldiers.

Protesting farmers and their families gather around a bonfire to mark the harvest festival, which is called Lohri, on a blocked highway in protest against new farm laws on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Changes in India’s farm laws could potentially open up one of the world’s most populous markets and are being closely watched by Canada’s agricultural and economic sectors, say experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Altaf Qadri
UBCO students asking for support in raising funds for Indian farmers

UBCO’s Bhangra Club and Punjabi Student Association are raising funds for Khalsa Aid

Kamloops This Week.
48 COVID-19 cases and one death associated with outbreak at Kamloops hospital

One of the 20 patients infected has died, meanwhile 28 staff with COVID-19 are isolating at home

The City of Vernon is sending a letter to the provincial government to request that church be deemed an essential service amid the pandemic. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
Vernon mayor scolded for revealing stance on making church essential

Coun. Scott Anderson calls Cummings’ actions ‘arrogant’

The scene of a serious crash on Highway 33 in Kelowna that killed one and severely injured two others on June 20, 2018. (File)
Driver found guilty of causing death, injury in 2018 Kelowna crash

Travis Ryan Hennessy will face sentencing at a later date

(Michael Rodriguez - Capital News staff)
Downtown stairwell fire suspicious, Kelowna RCMP say

Crews were called to Gotham Nightclub for a report of a stairwell fire

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

Most Read