Nine Perish as a Fatal Avalanche Turns Heli-Skiing into a Skiing Hell
“Waiver of Liability (Warning: By Signing This You Give Up the Right to Sue):…I am aware helicopter skiing has, in addition to the usual dangers and risks inherent in skiing, certain additional dangers and risks, some of which include: 1. Avalanches…”
Some 5,500 adventurous souls sign that waiver every year, along with a check for as much as $4,000 made out to Canadian Mountain Holidays. Then they fly high into the mountains of British Columbia for a week of rugged skiing in pristine wilderness, gliding through deep powder on steep, ungroomed slopes. In the judgment of 12 adventurous skiers from five countries who signed up for a heli-skiing adventure in the Bugaboo Mountains earlier this month, the potential for excitement outweighed the risks. Then reality came crashing down on them in the form of an avalanche: Eight men and a woman died, including one American, David Karetsky, 50, an Aspen, Colo., businessman. The deaths raised to 30 the number of Canadian Mountain Holidays heli-skiers killed in the past 26 years. Correspondents Mary Huzinec, Susan Hauser and Fred Hauptfuhrer spoke with three survivors of the disaster:
Jeff Bloomberg, 43, a New York City investment banker:
Prior to this point I had thought of helicopter skiing as being relatively safe. It’s not a thrill-seeking sport in the sense of, Will I survive or not? The exhilaration is from skiing the unpacked powder.
The trip was supposed to run from Saturday, March 9, for a week. We flew to Calgary and took a bus and then a helicopter to the lodge. On the bus they school you on how to use the Skadi [a radio transceiver carried by skiers to find one another if buried in the snow]. So the first words you hear are about safety. At the lodge in the evening, you see a film on how to locate people if you are in a slide. You have no choice but to be aware that danger is involved. And the staff is constantly testing the snow. If there’s a risk of an avalanche or a slide, they will avoid it.
The accident was on Tuesday afternoon, just after 3 P.M. We were 12 skiers and one guide. We started at 7,000 feet and traversed over to a slope called Bay Street. A group had preceded us by about five minutes. Our guide, Jocelyn Lang, was followed by skiers in single file about 75 feet apart. There was a relatively steep and narrow chute to the extreme right. Then people skied across to the left center of the slope to wait for each other before we would ski on. Nine people skied ahead of me after the guide.
Ted Leach, my old Dartmouth roommate, was the “sweep,” or last skier. I was just before him. Hilary, a British woman, was a little hesitant to go down the chute. She waited a bit, and I preceded her. When I reached the end of the chute, Ted yelled, “Stop, Jeff! There’s a slide!” I was skiing out to join the others and stopped. I saw a break in the snow, which I later learned was about 270 feet across, two to six feet deep. It made no crack, no sound.
Hilary Dowson, 46, owner of a bed and breakfast in Upper Broughton, England: The mountain just broke off and slid. There was no noise.
Bloomberg: The wave of snow just swept the other skiers away. Literally, it was seconds from the time it started to the time it slid 2,000 feet down the slope. [Avalanches can travel more than 100 mph.] I watched it—there was a numbness—I was just looking, hoping to see people bob [above the snow]. Jocelyn wound up 2,000 feet below. She dug herself out and was uninjured.
Dowson: We waited until the snow stopped moving, then began to search. I hadn’t been able to see past the trees to see what had become of the others. My husband, Ben, and his cousin, Buffy Clifton, were caught in the avalanche, but I don’t remember any feeling at all. I was numb, really, just on automatic.
Bloomberg: Three of us from the top and the group ahead from the bottom—we found the first body in about four minutes.
Dr. Philip Allmendinger, 53, a surgeon from Hartford, who, with his sons Scott, 24, and Craig, 21, had quit skiing early that day:
My oldest son and I had planned to go back to the lodge at 4 o’clock. And my youngest son said right out of the blue, “Ah, I think I’ll go back in too.” He wasn’t tired, but for some reason he came back with us. This other fellow was waffling about whether to come in with us, and he suddenly decided to go make this last run. And he was killed.
We’d just walked into the lodge when Jocelyn radioed that they were in an avalanche. She wears a collar microphone all the time. As she was being tumbled, she was broadcasting back to the center, “Class A emergency! Avalanche!” They came running out of the office and said, “Get your skis, get your boots, we need you on the slope.” Myself and my friend Dr. James Wickwire went out to see if we could resuscitate anyone.
There was one group that had just gone down the slope. The avalanche stopped about 20 yards from them. They started going up, doing a grid search. Others were lifted up by helicopter from the lodge and came down on skis.
The first body was near the surface, entangled in a tree. The rest were spread out from the top to the bottom of the slope, two to three feet under the snow. As soon as you’ve pinpointed the people with radio signals, you know you’re directly over them. So you use hands, ski poles, shovels, anything to immediately remove snow from the face. That’s the objective, to try to get it off the face, out of the mouth and off the chest so they can breathe if it’s possible. Immediately we checked pupils and checked for pulse.
Bloomberg: We spent the next two hours recovering people. I think the saving grace is that nobody knew what hit them. The snow turned from powder to almost cement. It was very heavy. They were killed instantly. They were broken up either by the snow or by being taken through trees. I’ve talked with some of the families of the deceased. We wanted to assure them that the victims were happier than hell, were downright ecstatic right up to the moment the avalanche took place. They were having the best day of skiing in their lives. And they didn’t suffer.
Allmendinger: We made attempts to do CPR and check for any signs of life, but these people were already dead. It appeared that they died from their injuries rather than suffocation. Most of them were crush injuries to the skeleton, multiple fractures, chests crushed and, I’m sure, necks broken—as you would expect, with somebody tumbling at high speed with that tremendous weight of snow throwing them against trees and rocks. It’s hard to imagine the force of this thing. They described it as a 3.5 on a scale of 4, and a 4 avalanche will take out a steam locomotive like it’s a toy. It was just monstrous.
Dowson: I searched for two hours and helped locate two bodies. Back at the lodge they told me my husband’s body had been found. [His cousin was also killed.] I guess I knew he was dead but I’d been shutting it out of my mind.
Bloomberg: I had nightmares the first couple of days. Had it not been for my friend calling out for me to stop. I probably would have joined the others. So I was five seconds away. Fifty feet. I don’t know If I’ll helicopter-ski again. I don’t think there’s anything they could have done differently. I view the accident as a fluke.
Allmendinger: The next day we decided to leave. About half the people stayed and continued skiing. I think it was their way of handling the grief, to try and go out on the mountains again.
Dowson: My sons and I will ski again. My husband would have wanted it that way. He taught us. It’s his legacy to us. It’s something we loved doing together. In the same week 10 people died in a terrible road accident in England. It’s better to go when you’re having a wonderful time and you’re happy.