At the present time, accident reporting through the ACMG Incident Reporting & Learning System is both voluntary and anonymous. Guides are under no obligation to report near-misses, significant incidents, rescues or fatalities under the IRLS. The purpose of the IRLS is to encourage a culture of sharing information about incidents and learning outcomes to use the database of reports for educational and research purposes. But as reporting is voluntary, and some guiding companies have a 'no IRLS reporting policy', there is no way to know the accurate number of near-misses, incidents and injuries that occur on guided outings. In the case of a significant incident or fatality, which may have legal repercussions, the ACMG insurer provides a form for the guide to fill out (you can find this in reports). This form is privileged and took months to gain access to.
At the current time, the ACMG has no internal or independent incident investigation protocol. Guides are under no obligation to initiate an accident investigation. Clients seeking understanding are left to fund their own investigation; usually after a battle with the ACMG / ACMG insurer's legal teams to have access to disclosures and documentation. This is at a relentless personal, financial and legal cost to the surviving client(s) or family members. The information available on this website took over a year to procure.
In correspondence with the ACMG president Sylvia Forest, in the notes of the word document, she states, "I was toying with opening the door to Michelle, to suggest that if she has additional comments or concerns, it is possible to re-do the hearings; but I don’t know if I want to open that door.". ACMG executives know that there is move to this story. And I know it too. Lacking any good faith in the complaint process, it is not a path I wish to return.
As we walked out of Massey's, heading to our hostel, Sarah Hueniken and Merrie Beth Board met directly with Parks Canada Visitor Safety personnel. No clients were interviewed. There has been no documentation of this meeting made available. Later that evening, as the women and guides gathered in our hostel, four senior members of the Parks Canada Visitor Safety team arrived. They stood in the corners of the room, silent. After a short meeting with Hueniken and Will Gadd, the most senior member of the Visitor Safety team spoke to the group, he stated, "It was an act of God. We all would have been there today. There is nothing anyone could have done to change the outcome." When I asked a Parks Canada Visitor Safety member why they were present at the hostel, he replied, "We came there to support our friends in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. This is a very delicate time. As first responders, our job is normally done when the rescue is over. But in this case we all felt the need to connect with the group for support."
On May 7th2019, I request the Parks Canada Visitor Safety incident report, specifically requesting the inclusion of the transcript of my call from dispatch on March 11, 2019 that was made while I was digging myself out from where I was buried. Lisa Paulson, ACMG, Visitor Safety Specialist, (who was not apart of the rescue team) states the Parks Canada office is having IT difficulties and they are locked out of their computer system so the file is inaccessible. On May 10th, Paulson informs me that the file is together and that due to her work schedule she would be unable to meet with me until May 21st. I ask that the file be printed off for me for pickup or emailed directly to me. On May 14th, Paulson emails me the file, she states ‘the times are approximate, conversations are summarized and not all elements are captured in the log.’ On May 15th I ask Lisa why the log had been redacted, why my telephone call from Parks is not noted in the dispatch log and why the photos as listed in the Digital Assets were not included. In the reply email from Lisa, she informs me that she met with Sarah Hueniken the previous week to discuss the Parks Canada file. Paulson stated that she and Hueniken made revisions to the timeline of events. No clients were interviewed for the Park Canada documentation. Begging the question…. Why was the file I requested from Parks Canada withheld from me all the while the documents were made available, and personally presented to Sarah Hueniken the week prior, the very week that this information was NOT accessible for me? Parks Canada Visitor Safety are members of the ACMG. They protect their own.
In the months following the incident, I was seeking understanding. When the guides would not provide an incident report and the ACMG Conduct Review Committee would not provide a hearing, I sought out leadership from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA). The IFMGA explained that although the ACMG is under their umbrella in terms of standards of training and professional practice, the IFMGA does not intervene in its member's accident management procedures. The IFMGA president simplified professional mountain accidents by stating, "an IFMGA guide experiences a severe accident once in every thousand days out guiding, and with bad luck, the outcome can be fatal... it's a very common impression ... that the accident could have been avoided; the reality is unfortunately more complex."
So, I sought out the opinion of Canadian Avalanche professionals. Each Canadian professional expressed to me that they were unwilling or unable to provide an independent review of the events that occurred on Massey's, After being turned down by numerous Canadian experts, I looked towards USA and Europe. An Alaskan forecaster explained to me '...as you probably know, you are up against a fairly heavily entrenched set of heavy hitters in the Canadian avalanche scene. I would anticipate resistance..." Most Canadian avalanche professionals are members of, and closely related to, the ACMG.
Nepotism runs deep within the industry. Girls on Ice and the Open Mountain Project both hired Merrie-Beth Board to guide custodial (youth) groups the summer of 2019, just months after Sonja Findlater's death. With confidence, I can state that neither company informed the parents that their children were being guided by an individual who was the lead guide in a recent mountain fatality. Merrie-Beth Board's competence to return to the field was not assessed, because the ACMG has no Return to Work Policy following a significant incident or fatality.
The ACMG Conduct Review Committee is an internal group of members and includes volunteers of the 'general public', who review complaints against members. Sarah Hueniken and Barry Blanchard, both of whom have had fatalities on their guided trips became members of the Conduct Review Committee after their incidents.
Sarah Hueniken has been appointed to act as Ice Climbing Ambassador for Avalanche Canada having still not, 18 months post-incident, provided an incident report. (Update: A report has now be submitted, please find the Guide's Report, with independent critique, in the Reports section of this website). The executive director of Avalanche Canada defended the appointment of Sarah Hueniken by stating: "we've made our selection and we do not wish to 'revisit' the events that occurred on Massey's". The events on Massey's have yet to be reviewed in a truthful or accountable manner. The discussions and decision making that resulted in five groups of Sarah Hueniken Guiding camp climbing the beer routes in Field, BC on March 11, 2019 have not been disclosed or reviewed because there has yet to be an accurate account of the day. There has even been statements that the guides were unable to provide any meeting or field notes about the weather and avalanche conditions because they were not completed. The truth is, the events surrounding Massey's have yet to be 'visited' in a transparent and thoughtful manner at all. The report, as was provided 18 months post-incident, has dozens of inaccuracies and omissions.
Sarah' Hueniken's partner, Will Gadd, attended the evening meeting on March 10, 2019. Will Gadd is an internationally renowned ice climber and sponsored athlete who explained to me in the weeks following Massey's that "Massey's is so safe that he had his client climbing laps at the base of Massey's the previous month" and "that avalanches never reach the base of Massey's as snow would get caught in the 20 degree bench above the route" and that "wearing a backpack (thereby keeping your avalanche gear secure) would put everyone there at an increased risk of being swept away," Gadd was given the authority to sit on a panel at the Banff International Film Festival to discuss "Searching for Climbers" in avalanche terrain in the fall of 2019. Arc'teryx has just begun a campaign to sell jackets with RECCO technology, Will Gadd is their spokesperson.
ACMG guides involved in fatalities are hired, promoted and esteemed within their mountain community network. Their decisions, actions and outcomes are never questioned. Their incidents are dismissed as 'an act of God".
Following the tragedy on Massey's, there have been some ACMG guides who have, at great personal expense, spoken up for the need for transparency, truthfulness and accountability following a fatality. From experience, they know that is the only path for understanding and closure.
ACMG executive and members have used Mental Health as a pawn, a pawn to protect some and discredit others. Concern for the guides’ wellbeing has trumped “the need to know by anyone else”. But asking for an honest, transparent report of the day has resulted in certified ACMG guides defaming me on social media and in the community as ‘damaged’, ‘crazy’ and ‘foolish’. I have been accused of pushing a ‘false narrative’ when the guides responsible for the decisions at Massey’s have been shielded from telling the truth.
One local guiding company's answer to the lack of transparency and learnings following the tragedy on Massey's, was to provide Avalanche Courses specific to Ice Climbers. The course was promoted by a renowned local recreational climber. The response from the entrenched ACMG establishment? They reported this course to Avalanche Canada for review in an attempt to shut it down. There is a culture of intimidation and bullying within this association.
The ACMG Release of Liability and Waiver of Claims Agreement will be presented to you, by your guide, prior to your outing. The Release and Waiver will remind you of the natural hazards you may encounter like rock fall, cornices and avalanches. What no guide has ever directed my attention to is the negligence clause. And yes, it's right there in BOLD lettering, it just never occurred to me that a guide would be careless, distracted or complacent while moving through the mountains. But, by signing the release you sign away your legal rights even when the guide is negligent. The ACMG insurer will provide robust legal counsel up to the point that the guide is believed to be criminally negligent. As was on Masseys, your guides can make an number of errors on rappel, be complacent about the weather conditions while holding a clinic at the base of a climb with 2000 meters of terrain above without any concern of legal responsibility to their clients . There are no restrictions on hours worked per month or rest requirements as you find in most travel and safety industries. Merrie-Beth Board can come off a two week stint at a helicopter ski operation working 14 straight, 12 hour days, without a day off to start right back into four day course on her 'week off' to freelance guide for Sarah Hueniken Guiding. Sarah Hueniken herself had been out of the field due to a broken collarbone for seven weeks prior to offering her course. She returned to guiding the Field Ice Camp within a week of having a sling removed. There is no Return to Work reintegration procedure to return to the field post injury. And all of this is acceptable within this professional association.
- Standardization of the presentation of the Release of Liability and Waiver; to include informing clients they are signing away their right to pursue compensation even if the guide is negligent
- Release of Liability and Waiver to include a section specific to the route or outing they have selected; specifically, Classification of Avalanche Terrain, Rating of Difficulty, special avalanche advisories, weather / temperature / group considerations
- Avalanche training and companion rescue to be instructed prior to ice climbing in avalanche terrain – similar to what is presently practiced prior to ski-touring and mechanized ski programs
- Ongoing Informed Consent – regularly documented to report conversations about changes in weather, route conditions, time, safety etc., ensure formal morning meetings so that each participant is involved in the decision making process
- Post-Incident Reporting – mandatory rather than voluntary – this includes minor injuries to fatalities; signed off by both guide and client, filed with the ACMG, analyzed for trends\
- Client care post-incident – gear retrieval/replacement, debriefing and follow-up
There have been a number of significant Canadian avalanche and mountaineering incidents that have captured the attention of the public and governing bodies. It must be acknowledged that the incidents selected to be 'focusing incidents' involve recreational groups (i.e.: snowmobilers and climbers) and non-professionally guided custodial groups (Mt. Temple and Strathcona-Tweedsmuir) rather than focusing attention on any ACMG guided incidents.
In 2003, seven members of a professionally guided ski-touring operation were killed in an avalanche on La Traviata. The following week, seven students from Strathmore-Tweedsmuir were killed in an avalanche on a school trip. The first incident was dismissed as 'simply a tragic accident' where-as the second incident resulted in numerous reports, recommendations and the formalization of ATES - the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale.
Statistics between 2010-2020, pulled from Avalanche Canada, confirm that 38% of skier avalanche fatalities involve an ACMG guide. This is a fatality rate that is increasing from the decade previous. This has not been discussed or disseminated in any way. In fact, many dismiss this statistic stating, "for the number of days skied, this is insignificant"..
The 2019 Banff International Film Festival included a discussion panel on 'why climbers should use avalanche safety gear' following the deaths of three North Face athletes on Howse Peak. Massey's, a guided ice climbing event where the gear was carried, but unsecured due to guide complacency influenced by the authority of the 'expert halo' could have been the focusing incident, but it was not. To note: three out of four panelists were ACMG members.
The challenge within the current Canadian waiver / insurance framework is that it puts individuals in direct opposition to one another after a significant incident. Sylvia Forest, ACMG President, has expressed to me that the "guides involved would have willingly provided more information had they not been constrained by their lawyers and their insurer." Forest goes on to say, "...in time, the guides involved will have the freedom to talk more openly... they would like to create a case-study for everyone to learn from... because this is a fatality... until there are no longer any legal repercussions to their transparency..." the guides will remain silent. So there are no learning outcomes or shared healing or improved guiding practices that will come out of a tragedy until the two year statute of limitations is passed. The fear of litigation inhibits those who are directly involved from processing their experience and prevents others from learning from the event.
New Zealand currently models a no-fault accident injury compensation system. The framework allows injured people to be financially compensated, without the necessity of litigation. This model allows for transparent incident investigation where learning outcomes and improvements to risk management systems to be applied immediately.