6 Caught in Avalanche Saturday in Alberta, Canada

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Ranger Creek ice climbs.
Ranger Creek ice climbs, where Saturday’s avalanche occurred.  photo:  Kananaskis Country Public Safety Section

6 ice climbers were caught in a class 2 avalanche at Ranger Creek, Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada at approximately 9:50am on Saturday, November 2nd, 2013.  Only one climber was completely buried apart from a foot sticking out above the snow’s surface.  This climber was quickly extracted but was hypoxic and not breathing when initially freed from the snow.  This climber was successfully resuscitated and was able to walk out on her own.  Another climber was buried up to his chest.

None of these climbers had an avalanche beacon nor a shovel nor a probe.  Only minor injuries were suffered by the climbers.

View Larger Map, Map of Ranger Creek, Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada.

This is the story from Grant P., one of the climbers involved in the avalanche on Saturday:

“Yesterday I decided to head to Ranger Creek with a buddy and his girlfriend for this morning. I’ll leave it to others involved to identify themselves in the interest of privacy. We opted to head out early and be done early. The weather report was forecasting <1cm overnight, 2-4cm in the morning and afternoon with more coming Saturday evening. Winds were set at 9kmh coming from the SW, swinging to south by 7am, and SE by 8 or 9am. I figured conditions would deteriorate but we’d be gone by then. At around 6 to 6.30am as we drove down Hwy 40 there were more Elk on the road than snow but snow was falling very very lightly. As we geared up at the car light winds were indeed now coming from the south. It was around 7.15am and too dark to see up the drainage or to ridgetop.

Photo by Rich Wheater
R & D ice climb. This was where the climbers were headed Saturday. photo: Rich Wheater/climbing.com

Putting the pack down on the road to strap the rope on, very little snow got on it, just a light cover barely covering the ground. The beaver ponds had more snow lingering but obviously from the tracks it wasn’t new.

As we got up into the drainage it was getting light enough to see R&D so I suggested keeping an eye out for conditions/spindrift. My buddy who is a backcountry skier felt snow underfoot was reasonably stable and it wasn’t very deep either. We were still stumbling over rocks in the drainage.

We opted to head up to Lone Ranger as it looked in decent shape, was our first climb of the season, and was more in keeping with the abilities of our third team member. As we reached the climb I suggested not gearing up in the drainage directly below the climb expecting this to be more exposed. We had started to pull gear out when the first bout of spindrift came down. Not big but big enough to increase my discomfort. I won’t hide the fact that I had a close encounter at R&D last year so I was a little reticent and my comment was something along the lines of “if that continues, we’re bailing”. Another party arrived having noted the spindrift. Some general chit-chat happened, including some consideration of leaving when a second load of spindrift came down. I think a third load of spindrift would have sealed the deal. Unfortunately an avalanche dropped on all six of us as we considered it.

I was carried downslope a few meters and partially buried. Everyone got caught, but one person was missing. We were all pretty frantic when a foot was spotted. All of us were quick to head down a ways and start digging. When we got her head out she was not breathing and hypoxic. Two of us headed back upslope to find one of the two PLB’s and/or the radio. I activated my PLB fearing for her life. We were lucky to get her breathing again fast and had good responses from her so we cancelled the PLB signal.

A cursory gathering of scattered gear occurred while our buried climber started to descend. I suppose I was jacked on adrenaline because I was dizzy initially, and stumbled a fair bit as we descended. We still took the time for two of us to head closer to R&D and inform the party on it of what happened, advising them to bail. Then we continued down.

When we reached the road, an RCMP and a Parks truck were waiting for us. After we arrived more Parks, fire, and an ambulance showed up. I was informed that with an unconscious burial having happened it was the right thing to have activated the rescue beacon. Even though we extricated ourselves, it was the right thing to do because complications could have set in later. We were all interviewed, two of us received on site assessments, then chose to continue to hospital in our own vehicle.

All involved are safe. Most had no lasting effects. The burial victim is a little sore. I have a destroyed helmet that probably prevented more than the huge goose egg and minor concussion. I think I got hit by some rocks which besides the helmet messed my neck and shoulder a little.

Personal lessons: many years ago I would have avoided avi terrain with incoming weather instead of trying to get in and out before the hazard rose. Despite re-evaluating as we went, our decision to bail came too late – I should have known better than to be there. I now need to carry that reminder forward to future decisions. You can’t get avalanched if you don’t go there.

Other lessons: Avi beacons might have been more important had one of us been completely buried. I don’t own one but having one certainly wouldn’t hurt. However if there is a significant risk of avi – maybe you shouldn’t be there to start with.
Avi beacons would not have altered the outcome today, they wouldn’t have stopped the avi. The PLB proved to be more use.

Your lesson – avoid Ranger Creek for the next few days at least. Beacons and PLB’s or Spots may help when things go wrong but the area is currently unstable

As much as I want people to stay safe by staying out of there right now, as and when anyone does venture up there, we lost a lot of gear. Gear was unpacked and scattered down slope when the avi hit. We did a cursory search for surface items but slightly buried items are still there. Injuries and concerns about further releases (none came) prompted us to leave. We’ll look to see if we can retrieve anything when conditions stabilize. Any items discovered will be deserving of typical karma, beer, and even cash rewards.

I’m feeling pretty shitty right now, both physically and in terms of reviewing todays events. I’ve typed this to share my mistakes and realize it leaves me open to criticism. I now have to decide to hit post or delete.” – Grant P

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