THE CONNAUGHT CREEK AVALANCHE TRAGEDY – The 2003 Avalanche that buried the entire 17 person group from the patrician Strathcona Tweedsmuir School and killed seven tenth graders, was a defining event for modern Canada.
It ignited an emotional firestorm across the nation, preying upon all parents’ worst nightmare and throwing doubt upon Canadians’ relationship with their fiercely beloved backcountry. Coming 12 days after an earlier avalanche that killed seven expert backcountry skiers, the STS tragedy riveted the nation with images of seven funerals, grieving parents and students, heroic mountain guides Rich Marshall and Abby Watkins, a memorial service in Calgary’s Saddle Dome, monumental avalanches–and fiery analysis and dispute from all corners.
A national debate followed the tragedy, fueled by terror over children’s safety. Stakeholder groups with an interest in the backcountry: Parks Canada; Provincial Parks; the Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia; schools with Outdoor Education programs; commercial skiing, mountaineering, heli-skiing, cat-skiing and adventure companies; lodge and hotel owners; the Association for Canadian Mountain Guides; The Boy and Girl Scouts; and politicians from local to national levels, all got involved. Vancouver MP Hedy Fry called for the closing of the backcountry until the risk was analyzed, and Vancouver MP Libby Davis called for a temporary moratorium on backcountry skiing.
The rhetoric went on for months, as officials, experts and families of dead children dissected the accident, covered voluminously in print and video by the media including The Globe and Mail, the Calgary Herald, the Vancouver Sun, Macleans, the CBC, news channels, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Outdoors magazine, and numerous Internet sites. Subsequent major milestones continued to make national news for years: results of inquiries; publication of School, BC and Parks Canada reports; Parks Canada’s ongoing development of public avalanche technology including a Terrain Classification, the North American Avalanche Danger Scale, and the Avaluator; Regulation of Custodial Groups; the formation of the Canadian Avalanche Centre; and Outdoor Education restructuring. Public awareness and avalanche warnings have become mainstream in the mountain provinces, and every February 1 Strathcona Tweedsmuir School and Canada’s media remember the seven students.
Some courageous parents, Donna and Dave Broshko and Judith and Peter Arato in particular, chose to create good out of their unthinkable grief, in the desire to stop such a tragedy from happening again. They partnered with passionate professionals including Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle, Grant Statham, a senior mountain guide and Mountain Risk Specialist at Parks Canada, Eric Dafoe, Park Canada’s Public Safety Specialist who was the Rescue’s Incident Commander, Bruce McMahon, the head of the Rogers Pass Avalanche Control Section, Clair Israelson and Ian Tomm, Directors of the Canadian Avalanche Center, to build a new backcountry winter safety structure for Canada.
Within two years Parks implemented a de novo safety structure that leads the world. Statham built an Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale that mapped all avalanche terrain in the national parks and assigned each area a rating system. He listened to Peter Arato thunder ‘Never Again!” and worked with national outdoors risk leaders including mountain guide and Thompson River University Professor Ross Cloutier to design Custodial Groups regulation. Spearheaded by grief, the new regulation was analyzed, designed, passed and implemented at lightning speed.
Ten years post-accident, across Canada, all organizations, public and private, commercial and not-for-profit, have changed how they bring youth groups into avalanche terrain, and brought on Risk Management staff. Outdoor Education and Adventure trips have been canceled or revised. The country has changed. But most importantly, parents have a heightened awareness of the risks their children may be taking in the outdoors. Parents are paying attention–they don’t want it to happen to them.