3 dead, 4 injured after avalanche hits heli-skiing group in B.C. Interior, police say

An RK Heliski helicopter is pictured on Thursday, the day after an avalanche killed three of the company's clients. Four others were hurt in the slide, including one of the company's guides. (CBC - image credit)
An RK Heliski helicopter is pictured on Thursday, the day after an avalanche killed three of the company's clients. Four others were hurt in the slide, including one of the company's guides. (CBC - image credit)

Three people are dead and four more seriously injured after an avalanche in the B.C. Interior around noon Wednesday, RCMP say.

A statement Thursday said a total of 10 people were caught in the avalanche while they were heli-skiing in the area of Panorama Mountain Resort near Invermere, B.C., around 160 kilometres southwest of Calgary.

The group was made up of nine skiers and a guide. The clients were all "foreign nationals," police said, but their guide is Canadian.

The three remaining skiers weren't hurt. None of the skiers' identities have been released.

RCMP said the four injured skiers, one of whom was the guide, were taken to hospital in Invermere. They are expected to survive.

The slide came down in an area outside of the Panorama resort's boundaries. The group was on a tour with RK Heliski, a local company founded decades ago.

News of the fatalities came just after daybreak in Invermere, a small community of 3,900 at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. The district is a popular travel destination in both summer and winter for its easy access to the backcountry, including for many Albertans who own second homes in the area.

CBC
CBC

"Everybody will be quite distressed by this this morning. It's a very sad thing to wake up and hear," said RCMP Cpl. James Grandy.

"Unfortunately, this season has just been really horrible for avalanches."

Around 44,000 heli-skiers hit B.C.'s remote mountain slopes every year, according to HeliCat Canada. The season runs from mid-December through the end of April, employing roughly 3,000 staff.

To heli-ski, small groups of skiers are flown by helicopter to the starting point of their ski run on a mountaintop, or transported on a snowcat, a massive vehicle with caterpillar tracks designed to operate on snow and carry up to 12 guests.

A three-run day package starts at about $1,000 per person or as much as $14,000 for a more luxurious private package.

Corey Bullock/CBC
Corey Bullock/CBC

Avalanche big enough to bury a car

B.C. Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister Bowinn Ma offered her condolences to the families of those who died and to those still in hospital.

"Our backcountry is beautiful. It draws people in, it is why a lot of people live in British Columbia, it's why a lot of people come to visit British Columbia. But as we've seen the last couple months, it can be deadly," she said.

Avalanche fatalities in B.C.

 

In a statement Thursday, Avalanche Canada communications co-ordinator Lisa Perazzoli said Wednesday's fatal avalanche was a size three — big enough to bury and destroy a car, damage a truck, destroy a building and break trees.

She said the slide broke on a southwest aspect at alpine elevation, approximately 2,500 metres, and was a "deep persistent slab avalanche" caused by this season's weak base layer.

"This year's avalanche season is plagued by a deeply buried weak layer across much of Western Canada, making it a very difficult snowpack to safely manage," she said.

"This weak layer has caused many high-consequence avalanches since its formation."

Highly volatile season

There have now been 12 avalanche fatalities in B.C. in 2023 so far, including a search-and-rescue volunteer killed in the Chilcotin region, two off-duty police officers who were on a ski trip near Kaslo and two brothers from Pennsylvania who were also on a guided heli-skiing trip in B.C.'s Interior.

Avalanche Canada has compared this season's snowpack with conditions last seen in the winter of 2002-2003, when 25 people lost their lives in B.C.'s backcountry, making it one of the province's worst years on record for avalanche fatalities.

The number of deaths recorded so far this season is also the highest number since 2015-2016 and the fourth-highest number over the past two decades.

British Columbia avalanche deaths per season

However, Avalanche Canada and backcountry experts warn against making straight comparisons between historic data and more recent years, as the number of people going into the mountains has significantly increased and, along with it, safety training — leading to fewer deaths on a per capita basis.

Avalanche Canada urged recreational backcountry users to make conservative, low-consequence choices if they decide to travel in avalanche terrain.

People heading into the backcountry are urged to check the avalanche forecast and make conservative decisions about which terrain they choose to explore. An avalanche transceiver, snow probe and snow shovel are essential, along with practice in their use, according to officials.

Backcountry not being closed

Asked whether access to the backcountry should be closed for the sake of safety, Ma said the province is in contact with Avalanche Canada and is "ready to act as advised.

"People who are going out to the backcountry right now need to recognize a lot of the deaths that we have seen here in British Columbia were people who were very experienced or were with guides who were highly experienced in the backcountry," she said, speaking to reporters outside the B.C. Legislature.

"We need people to seriously consider and assess the terrain that they're going into and potentially consider delaying their trip until conditions are safer."

WATCH | Experts offer avalanche safety tips:

A timeline of avalanche events this season

Dec. 31: A skier suffers life-threatening injuries in a slide near Emerald Lake in southeast B.C., near the Alberta border, Avalanche Canada says in a report.

Jan. 5: Avalanche Canada warns of a touchy snowpack, with various weak layers created by long periods of drought and cold weather. "Riders have triggered large, scary avalanches with high consequences,'' the advisory says.

Jan. 9: Two off-duty police officers are caught up in an avalanche near Kaslo, B.C., while backcountry skiing. Nelson Police Service Const. Wade Tittemore, 43, dies and Const. Mathieu Nolet, 28, sustains severe internal injuries.

Jan. 21: Nolet dies of his injuries in hospital.

Jan. 21: Two snowmobilers riding at the base of a slope near Valemount, B.C., accidentally trigger an avalanche from above, sending a slab of snow onto one rider while the other escapes. The buried rider is found unresponsive and dies.

Jan. 23: Heli-skiers and their guide are caught in an avalanche near Revelstoke, B.C. The two guests, brothers and American businessmen Jon and Tim Kinsley, are dug out of the snow unresponsive and declared dead in hospital. The guide is taken to hospital in stable condition.

Jan. 23: A slide comes down on one person near Cherryville, B.C. Emergency health services say the person is taken to hospital with undetermined injuries.

Feb. 11: Two skiers are caught in an avalanche on Potato Peak, 175 kilometres southeast of Prince George. Both victims were buried alive and were found deceased by search-and-rescue crews. One of those killed is identified as an off-duty member of the local search and rescue team.

Feb. 16: Three people are buried in an avalanche triggered outside of a ski-area boundary near Golden, B.C. One is partially buried and extracted, while two are fully buried and do not survive.

March 1: Ten people are caught in an avalanche near the Panorama Mountain Resort, close to the B.C.-Alberta border. Police say three died, while four others taken to hospital are expected to survive.