Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Police officer killed in avalanche near Nelson, first fatality of season

A weak snowpack has an Avalanche Canada forecaster concerned about the potential of human-triggered avalanches.

A City of Nelson police officer has been killed in an avalanche near Kaslo, B.C., the Nelson Police Board says.

In a post on the City of Nelson Facebook page on Monday, the board said another officer was also critically injured.

The board said the pair were on snowmobiles when they were struck by the avalanche. No further details were immediately available.

According to the Avalanche Canada website, conditions were rated a three on its five-point scale, indicating a "considerable" avalanche risk.

It was the first avalanche death in Canada this season.

Simon Horton, a senior forecaster with Avalanche Canada, said there have been an average of 10 fatalities a season over the past 10 years.

“Each season is different,” he said. “They can have accidents as early as October to November, but they’re quite often more mid-winter in January, February [and] March, as the snowpacks get deeper and more complicated.”

There have been notable close calls this season, he said, “with people caught in the avalanches that have luckily survived,” and it is still early in the season.

Right now, the snowpack is “tricky,” he said. “It has to do with the prolonged periods of cold weather we had at the start of the winter, then followed by a bunch of storms over the holiday period.

“We’re worried about people triggering large avalanches.”

Forecasters believe current conditions make it difficult to anticipate where avalanches may be triggered.

“The complication with this snowpack setup is that the layers are deep enough that we are a lot less likely to see clues, like nearby avalanche activity, whumpfing or cracking snow,” said Mike Conlan, a forecaster with Avalanche Canada.

“If you do experience any of these, then of course, it is a strong sign to keep things tame. But right now, we must remember that the first sign of trouble could be triggering a high-consequence avalanche.”

B.C. avalanches: What areas are of concern?

According to Avalanche Canada, there are three main geographical areas of concern: the Columbia Mountains, parts of the Interior mountain ranges and the Rocky Mountains.

Horton believes conditions could catch some people by surprise. “Through most of the Interior ranges, we’re seeing a very weak snowpack structure, and people are triggering large avalanches on them,” he said. “And we’re concerned that this is a kind of avalanche problem that doesn’t have obvious clues when you’re heading out.”

The south coast is experiencing its own “interesting” conditions, with a relatively cold start to the winter and less snow than usual, Horton said. Areas of concern on the coast include Pemberton, the Duffy Lake area, and more northern inland parts of the region.

On Vancouver Island, there is a thinner-than-normal snowpack.

“We’re right in the period of really active wet coastal storms, so it’s going through a pretty difficult period of heightened avalanche conditions during the storms, followed by lulls in between the storms,” he said.

What to do if you’re going into the backcountry

Avalanche conditions can change by the day or even by the hour, so Horton said anyone going out should have the training and equipment to manage their own avalanche safety.

He said it’s important to be careful when it comes to terrain choices, making “more conservative choices like lower slope angles, being in mature timber and staying away from large slopes overhead.”

Risk can be also managed by:

  • adopting a conservative mindset when in avalanche terrain;
  • being diligent about terrain choices, sticking to slope angles less than 30 degrees when in clearings, open trees, and alpine terrain;
  • following disciplined group decision-making, ensuring that each group member is engaged in terrain selection;
  • minimizing exposure to overhead hazard, given that these avalanches can be remotely triggered and travel far in runout zones;
  • travelling one at a time when exposed to avalanche terrain and regrouping in safe spots well away from overhead hazard;
  • avoiding exposure to terrain traps, such as gullies, cliffs, and trees to reduce the consequence of being caught in an avalanche; and
  • practicing patience, avoiding complacency, and accepting that you may need to manage this risk for weeks or months to come.

For more information, visit Avalanche Canada's website

— With files from The Canadian Press