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Safety key in avalanche recovery

Avalanche technicians John Tweedy (right) and John Buffery (left) show media some of the explosive devices that will be used in Monday’s recovery effort. - Bob Hall photo
Avalanche technicians John Tweedy (right) and John Buffery (left) show media some of the explosive devices that will be used in Monday’s recovery effort.
— image credit: Bob Hall photo

Avalanche technicians say their primary goal today was to guarantee the safety of the party that recovered the body of an Alberta man killed in a slide in Kokanee Glacier Park Sunday.

They bombed the slope above the victim from a helicopter to ensure its stability. John Tweedy, a retired technician, says when he went in yesterday, he felt the terrain still posed a risk of further avalanches.

“We ran out of daylight and weren’t able to do any avalanche control, so we didn’t allow the crew to go in to recover the individual,” he told reporters at the Nelson airport this morning.

Tweedy says when they left yesterday, it was quite windy. The area received 10 cm of fresh snow overnight, while temperatures stayed reasonably mild. They worked today in an area with an elevation of 2,500 to 2,600 m.

“I expect there is going to be some avalanche activity, and we’re going to use explosives to release the snow,” Tweedy said.

He was “kept awake a little bit last night worrying” about whether further avalanches could bury the body. However, after reviewing pictures of the site, he saw the victim was below the surface of the snow and covered with a tarp, and expected any further avalanche activity to flow overtop.

In heli-bombing, a fuse is lit, and then a stopwatch started.

“We work for a minute and 30 seconds. At that mark we back off and watch detonations. So we are going to be eyes in the air watching to see if any avalanche activity that’s going to come down.”

Tweedy says the body was in the middle of the slope, behind and to the north of the Kokanee Glacier cabin.

The avalanche risk is between considerable and high, but Tweedy saw little evidence of natural avalanche activity on the flight in yesterday.

“Putting people on the slope is obviously enough of a trigger to create avalanches, whether it’s a backcountry skier, snowboarder, or snowmobiler,” he says. “It is touchy out there.”

John Buffery, a senior avalanche officer with the Ministry of Transportation was the bombardier who placed the explosives on the slope while attached to the helicopter.

A backcountry skier himself, he was working at Baldface Lodge this past weekend.

“A lot of companies were out in the mountains this weekend and having a good time with their clients,” he says. “We were not skiing challenging terrain, which was safer for us … If you can do it right, you can do it.”

Tweedy noted Sunday’s fatality came 35 years to the day of an avalanche on the Kootenay Pass that killed three people, and kick-started the province’s avalanche control program.

— With files from Bob Hall

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