Wall of snow buried backcountry skiers, suffocating seven

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

CALGARY, Alberta-- A wall of snow 100 feet wide buried several skiers on a remote British Columbia mountain, killing seven of them, including snowboard pioneer Craig Kelly and three Americans.

Three skiers who escaped the avalanche that thundered 300 feet down the mountainside Monday rescued one person, but the others suffocated under several feet of snow, according to police and rescue officials.

"If you get caught in one of those things, you can't flex a muscle, let alone breathe," said Ian Stratham of the Revelstoke ambulance service, who arrived at the scene about two hours after snowslide.

Stratham said the survivors appeared stunned as they were taken by helicopter to their chalet near Durrand Glacier in the Selkirk Range of the Canadian Rockies. "It was pretty emotional for them," he said.

Sgt. Randy Brown of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said investigators would look at what caused the avalanche. He said there were two groups of skiers on the mountain -- a group of 13 higher up and the group of 11 hit by the avalanche.

Fog delays investigation

The skier pulled from the snow was treated at a hospital and released. The three rescuers and the other party of 13 escaped injury.

Heavy fog Tuesday prevented investigators from reaching the remote site and also barred survivors from leaving the mountain chalet, which is only accessible by helicopter.

The names of the dead were not made public, but police said three were from the United States --a 49-year-old man from Littleton, Colo., a 50-year-old man from Los Angeles and a 39-year-old woman from Truckee, Calif. The other four were Canadians -- a 50-year-old man from Canmore, Alberta, a 25-year-old woman from Calgary, Alberta, a 30-year-old man from New Westminster, B.C. and a 36-year-old man from Nelson, B.C.

The Burton Snowboards company of Burlington, Ver., said Tuesday that Kelly, a company sponsored snowboarder, who lived in Nelson, was one of the dead.

Spokeswoman Leigh Ault said Kelly helped pioneer snowboard riding in the late 1980s and was a four-time world champ and three-time U.S. Open champion.

Tim O'Mara of mountainzone.com in Seattle said Kelly was a legendary figure in snowboarding who was greatly involved in the growth of the sport.

"In recent years had gotten extremely interested and involved in backcountry snowboards. Unfortunately, that appears to be what he was doing on this trip," O'Mara said.

The remoteness of the area also contributed to hours of confusion Monday from incomplete or erroneous reports about what happened.

Initial reports said eight skiers died, all of them American, out of a group of 11. Later, Brown said seven people died from a group of 21 skiers that split into two groups on the mountain.

He modified the total number of skiers to 24 at Tuesday's news conference.

Both Brown and Clair Israelson, director of the Canadian Avalanche Association in Revelstoke, said the skiers were well-organized and properly equipped, but neither would speculate on the cause of the avalanche and whether the group proceeded despite an inappropriate risk.

Israelson noted that only one other avalanche was recorded Monday in the Selkirk Range, which he called an unusually low number. Asked if the skiers triggered the avalanche, he said: "We don't know that."

All the deaths were caused by asphyxiation, said Chuck Purse, the British Columbia coroner. He said none of the victims suffered traumatic injuries.

Ingrid Boaz at Selkirk Mountain Experience said the skiing party was flown by helicopter to the company's chalet near the glacier, 6,360 feet above sea level in the heart of the mountains in eastern British Columbia, about 60 miles from the border with Alberta.

Avalanche safety became a national issue after former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's son, Michel, was killed in a 1998 avalanche. Michel's brother, Justin, started an avalanche awareness group.

On the Net:

Selkirk Mountain Experience, http://www.selkirkexperience.com

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