Canada's avalanche season gets off to deadly start

Tue Jan 8, 2008 5:10pm EST
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By Scott Haggett

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A Quebec man skiing in the back-country wilds of Banff National Park this week was the latest fatality in what has been an extraordinarily deadly start to the winter avalanche season in the mountains of Western Canada.

The 19-year-old man was skiing with a companion near Lake Louise, Alberta, on Monday when they triggered an avalanche. The man died while being airlifted to a hospital.

He was the fourth avalanche fatality in Western Canada in a two-day stretch and the 10th of the season, a tally experts say is unparalleled.

"It is unprecedented for this early in the year," said Mary Clayton, spokeswoman for the Canadian Avalanche Centre. "It's staggering."

Among those killed was a 21-year-old Australian man who died on Sunday while snowboarding at a ski resort in southern British Columbia. That was the first avalanche death on an in-bounds area of a Canadian resort in 25 years, Clayton said.

Over the past 10 years, Western Canada has had an average of 14 avalanche deaths each winter. However, the early months of the season are usually more benign, with most of the fatalities occurring later in the winter, according to the Avalanche Centre.

The season became particularly vicious for back-country skiers and snowmobilers after a "Pineapple Express" -- warm, moisture-laden air from the Pacific Ocean -- pushed into the mountains of southern British Columbia, bringing rain that reached high altitudes and created a crust of ice.

That ice now has a layer of granular snow on top of it that is covered with a meter (3 feet) or more of lighter snow that is prone to slipping.   Continued...