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Cause of snowboarder's fatal fall in Lake Louise backcountry unclear

“Further interviews have since determined the cause of the incident was unwitnessed therefore the cause cannot be confirmed. Visibility in the couloir was poor that day.”

A man killed in a fall from Mount Temple during a backcountry skiing and snowboarding trip Friday (Jan. 26) may not have been hit by a small avalanche as initially reported.

A Parks Canada visitor safety incident report noted the man, who RCMP confirmed was 32 years old and from Melfort, Sask., was climbing up Aemmer Couloir – a steep skiing line on the north face of the mountain – in a party of three.

It was first reported to the responding visitor safety team the man was “hit by a sluff from the rock face above the couloir and knocked off his feet while cramponing,” an Avalanche Canada Mountain Information Network (MIN) report prepared by Parks Canada visitor safety said. “The resulting fall was significant.”

The MIN report has since been removed by Avalanche Canada, and in a statement, Parks Canada clarified further interviews determined no one actually witnessed the incident.

“Further interviews have since determined the cause of the incident was unwitnessed, therefore, the cause cannot be confirmed,” Parks Canada said in a statement released Monday (Jan. 29). “Visibility in the couloir was poor that day.”

The agency also corrected the man was snowboarding, not skiing, as originally noted.

In a Saturday (Jan. 27) news release, RCMP said an investigation into the incident is ongoing but no foul play is suspected.

Parks Canada visitor safety received a 911 call for medical assistance around 4 p.m. Friday, its statement noted.

“A visitor safety specialist and helicopter responded immediately, performed an aerial survey, and located a party of three. The helicopter returned to Lake Louise to gather the fuel and equipment necessary to mount a response. A skier and snowboarder were evacuated to Lake Louise by 4:48 p.m. A fallen snowboarder was recovered at 5:20 p.m. and transferred into the care of Banff EMS and the Lake Louise RCMP. Sadly, they did not survive.”

A STARS ambulance was also dispatched from Calgary but stood down at the scene.

The incident report was posted to Avalanche Canada’s MIN – an online tool used by the public as well as agencies such as Parks Canada’s visitor safety teams and Kananaskis Mountain Rescue to track avalanche, snow, weather, skiing and ice climbing conditions, and enter related incident reports. Since Parks Canada indicated an avalanche may not have been the cause in this case, the report was removed from the Avalanche Canada website.

RCMP public information officer Cpl. Curtis Peters said the surviving two people in the group realized their partner was not with them when they reached the top of the couloir, which they descended safely to find the man had fallen. 

According to the MIN report, the man’s body was not buried by snow.

“Parks Canada would like to extend its heartfelt condolences to all those affected by this tragic incident,” said the federal agency in its statement. 

It further noted that Parks has received many calls for assistance in recent weeks and encouraged people to be prepared to spend the night in the backcountry if necessary.

“Given the limited daylight hours at this time of year, there is the potential that backcountry travellers in distress could need to spend the night in the backcountry. Travellers should be well prepared and carry the appropriate equipment to enable disabled or stranded party members to survive the night.”

Parks recommends people recreating in the backcountry carry a satellite communication device as cell phone coverage is unreliable in remote, mountainous terrain.

“Parties need to be able to communicate between themselves and with emergency services quickly and reliably should an emergency arise. Communication delays may put remaining group members at risk and delay the notification of emergency services, limiting their ability to respond.”

The federal agency also warned of increasing avalanche danger due to warming temperatures and a “complex snowpack” in Banff National Park. 

On Jan. 26, Avalanche Canada rated avalanche conditions considerable at alpine and treeline in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks.

A forecast prepared that day noted recent weather conditions have created slabs at all elevations and to expect more avalanche activity as temperatures fluctuate.

“These slabs are likely to be found sitting on weak layers,” the forecast stated. “As freezing levels rise over the next few days, expect these slabs to become more sensitive to human triggering and to an increase in natural activity.”

As of Monday, the avalanche danger rating was considerable across all elevations – alpine, treeline and below treeline in Banff National Park, according to Avalanche Canada. In Yoho and Kootenay national parks, the danger rating is high below treeline and considerable at higher elevations.

In Kananaskis Country, the danger rating was considerable at higher elevations and moderate below treeline as of Monday (Jan. 29).

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

About the Author: Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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