By the time the final victim was dug out last March, the 2003 winter was already the deadliest avalanche season in British Columbia’s recent history. Twenty-eight people were dead, more than double the annual average of 13. And while many tragedies contributed to the grim statistics, none shocked the guiding industry like the slide triggered on January 20 on Tumbledown Mountain in the Selkirks. That disaster killed seven clients skiing under the watch of veteran guide Ruedi Beglinger of Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME), making it the nation’s first major accident involving a commercially guided trip in 20 years. In the immediate aftermath, rumblings surfaced that B.C. guides had become complacent. But are they really at fault?
It would certainly seem that the guides made questionable calls last winter. For starters, the fact that 13 of SME’s 19 clients were buried in the January 20 slide suggests that Beglinger may have played fast and loose with one of the first laws of avalanche safety—limit the number of people exposed to a potential slide. In addition, Beglinger’s big group was among several parties touring the Selkirks that morning, a day when the official avalanche hazard had been rated “considerable”—which is synonymous with “probable” in slide parlance. In Beglinger’s case, he’d concluded that the conditions were less than considerable on Tumbledown—a decision based on months of independent snow-pit analysis.
Beglinger wasn’t necessarily being cavalier. The reason he went with his own assessment may stem from the fact that B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell slashed the Canadian Avalanche Association budget by C$27,500 in 2001, effectively limiting the frequency of avalanche bulletins to three per week and fraying a key thread of the backcountry safety net. “Cutting C$27,500 from a public warning service that 450,000 users believe in was incredibly insulting,” says Clair Israelson, managing director of the CAA in Revelstoke. It may also have been deadly. In Switzerland, where bulletins were increased five years ago from twice weekly to daily, they’ve seen a 50 percent decrease in avalanche deaths.
Due to the cuts, not everyone believes the blame for last winter should be shouldered exclusively by B.C.’s guides. Supporters point out that Beglinger’s prior safety record—18 years without a fatality—was the gold standard in a province that prides itself on backcountry doctrine. Unlike the comparatively lax U.S. qualification process, nearly all of B.C.’s hut-based touring operations require that guides be certified through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. “Even as a savvy backcountry skier showing up in Canada,” says Aaron Brill, owner-operator of Colorado’s Silverton Mountain and a Level II avalanche expert, “I’d still put my money on a guide.”
The good news: Change is coming. At press time, the Campbell administration had promised to increase funding for avalanche analysis next winter, and Beglinger, among other guiding outfits, plans to limit his group sizes. “Every time we’ve seen major avalanche accidents,” says Israelson, “they tend to set in motion a chain of events that have been positive.”