The 2005-2006 winter in the central Canadian Rockies has seen a unique lack of cohesion in the varying snow layers. Most of our avalanche bulletins have in fact remained in the considerable to high range all winter. Slides that were human triggered in Kananaskis Country in February and March penetrated to the October rain crust. They also propagated long distances across ridge lines and into adjoining features.
Within two weeks, three “Class 3” events occurred within 4 valleys of each other. One of those events took the life of David Hurd on the slopes between Mount Smuts and The Fist. Another, one valley over, threatened my neighbor and well known author Alan Hobson. Then on March 1, 2006, Adam Burrell and I remotely triggered another such event on Mount Black Prince, over 500 meters across and down to the October rain crust (rocks).
Mount Black Prince is located in the Spray Mountain Range of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Peter Lougheed is a part of Kananaskis Country which encompasses over 4,000 square kilometers of foothills and mountains bordering Banff National Park in the central Canadian Rockies. Black Prince is adjacent to Mount Warspite and holds down the middle section of the Spray Mountain Range located just north of Upper Kananaskis Lake. These two mountains share the range with several other objectives including: Mount Murray (bolstering the northern end of the range), Mount Invincible and Mount Indefatigable (ending the range to the south).
The Mount Black Prince backcountry ski objective is listed in Chic Scott’s “Summits and Icefields, Canadian Rockies”. This is an 1800'+/- ascent day for one run. Most skiers make multiple runs. The ascent route follows the east ridge and stays out of the steeper north and south bowls. The east ridge itself offers top notch glade skiing. (GR 252194). As teams create switchbacks that lead to the top of this ridge they are teased by the steeper slopes to the left and right. Although the left bowl is in clear vision where hazards can be easily studied on ascent, the right bowl (north) remains a mystery on ascent. Towards the top, the ridge narrows and exposed rock on the ridge marks the top of this ski ascent.
On March 1, 2006, we chose Black Prince because avalanche conditions were high and we thought the ridge to be the safest skiing around. We were no doubt right, but should not have ventured into or near the north bowl as we did. On our ascent we had passed the only other party on Black Prince that day, two guides relishing their day off. All four of us made one fresh powder run down the east ridge and into the trees. We descended a little further than they did and on ascent caught up with them again and made known our intent on exploring the north bowl. Approximately 100’ below the top of the east ridge, Adam took some hard side cuts to get a sense of the snow pack and proceeded to traverse right above tree line over to the north bowl. Within minutes and before I had put my head up to examine the north bowl, I heard and felt what had been an all too common theme this season, the low “whomph” below my skis. For skiers who have experienced this phenomenon can attest, it is a moment that heightens all of your senses in one instant. The entire ground and slopes several meters ahead of us, above and to the left of us started to move in slow motion.
Exit Strategy (crux)
After the avalanche slid, which took a matter of time as it propagated across varying steep terrain, we stood precariously on the only snow left on the north side of the ridge. We had a small fracture line directly above us that had remotely triggered the slide by coming into the bowl from the east. Everything to the west and above was gone except for a small remaining crown. The snow we stood on was of triangular shape and we were at the wrong end.
For an exit, we were limited to three choices: Attempt to return in our tracks which included the trigger several meters back This choice involved putting our skins on which would not be viable. We wanted to have the option of skiing out of a subsequent slide and did not want to be caught with our skies off or our skins on. The second option we discussed was traversing lower to tree line in an attempt to cross back to the ridge on more anchored snow. This was not popular as we did not want to be caught any lower by the massive remaining bulge of snow we were standing on. Therefore, our final conclusion was to ski back to the ridge with as direct line as we could despite the fact this was not the most ideal loaded or angled snow left to ski on.
The two guides who we had caught up to again on our second ascent had reached the top of the ridge and had witnessed the avalanche from the top. After a brief long distance discussion, they concurred with our plan and came back down the ridge to spot us. The two of us went single file giving the first spotters at both ends. We were pretty excited to be back on the ridge.
SummaryThe lessons were variable, but obviously the most glaring consideration was that the avalanche bulletin for Kananaskis that day was in fact “triple high”, meaning high below tree line, at tree line and at alpine level. This fact alone should have been enough information to have kept us out of the bowls. On our way home, we took the time to analyze no less than half a dozen other fresh avalanches. We had been ice climbing the day before and were bombarded with fresh powder. The anticipation of a great ski day had somewhat corrupted our better judgment. The following day we went ice climbing again to gain some positive momentum back to our week.
Mount Black Prince Ski
- Kananaskis Provincial Park
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Accident Reports for Canadian Rockies