My personal incident report has been long in coming. Out of respect for all those involved, and fearful of the backlash from the guiding community, I have hesitated from publishing my experience. With the safety of the community of recreationalists who travel in avalanche terrain as my intended reader, I hope this report will speak to you and you will take from it what you need to have safer experiences in avalanche terrain.
All information below has been shared with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, the guides involved in this incident and the clients who climbed Massey’s. The ACMG has stated, in writing, it “is satisfied that it has a very clear understanding of what happened on the day in question. No substantial facts are in dispute.” Here are those facts.
The blue line represents the ice climb Massey's, directly in line with 2000 meters of avalanche terrain above the climb.
Massey's is a grade 4, multi-pitch waterfall ice climb, nestled in the trees of at the base of Mount Stephen, Field, BC.
Having just returned to ice climbing after a 15 year hiatus, I signed up for a woman's ice climbing camp with the intention of honing my technique, learning waterfall ice climbing 'best practices' and to meet other women with similar interests. The women I met were all there for the same reason. - to get outside, push themselves physically and have fun. Many clients and guides knew each other, some had attended previous camps with Sarah Hueniken Guiding. There were comments from returning clients that they hoped they could climb the 'beer routes' in Field, BC as previous years' they hadn't been able.
We pulled up to the Fireweed Hostel in Field, BC mid-afternoon on March 10, 2019 after a long day of ice climbing at Haffner Creek. This was the first day of a four-day climbing camp, provided by Sarah Hueniken Guiding, for nine clients, a camp manager and five guides. Sonja Johnson Findlater, the camp manager, asked me to help bring in the groceries from her car.
After dinner, ACMG guides Sarah Hueniken, Will Gadd and Merrie-Beth Board separate the women into three groups to discuss the next day’s objectives. They explained that three guides would be joining the group the next morning, and Will Gadd would be leaving for a previously scheduled trip. The women were happy to have Will Gadd present that evening. They knew that Sarah Hueniken had been out for two months with a broken collarbone, and Will Gadd's presence demonstrated support for his partner who was just getting back to guiding after a long hiatus. With a storm forecasted for later that evening and the avalanche hazard increasing, there was a small window to climb in Field, and the guides seized the opportunity knowing they only had one day to climb the ‘beer routes’ the clients had hoped to climb. (Many of the women in the group were returning clients and had been unable to climb in Field in previous years due to the avalanche hazard; there was pressure - perceived or real - to climb in the area). Two groups, including one guide and two clients each, were to climb Massey’s together. Merrie-Beth, who was to lead one of the groups on Massey’s, explained to the four women that Benjamin Paradis would be arriving the next morning and leading the second group. Merrie-Beth discussed the approach – walking distance from the hostel, the grade and length of the climb – an easy forty-minute walk along the railway track, WI4 with four pitches and that we were to bring avalanche gear – transceiver, probe and shovel. There was no discussion of the Class rating of the climb (Class III, Black, Complex). Nor were we shown any photos of the route. There was also no discussion of mitigating risk while in avalanche terrain, safety briefing or any companion rescue practice offered to the clients. Before we retired for the evening, Will Gadd impresses upon me the importance to take my cell phone with me when climbing. I promise to charge my phone and take it with me the following day.
The three incoming guides arrive at the hostel around 6:30am. Introductions are made. Leaving the hostel at 7am on March 11, 2019, our group discussed how much warmer the air temperature was compared to the previous day at Haffner (-8C compared to -21C). The guides confirm that each client is wearing a transceiver and carrying a probe and shovel. The group leaves the hostel on foot along the railway tracks towards the Massey's ice climb. The guides walked ahead, and the four clients walked behind, pacing themselves to the slowest client. As the group came together, Merrie-Beth stated, “I know we are wearing avalanche transceivers and carrying avalanche equipment, but if we had any concerns about avalanches, we wouldn’t be here today.” A few minutes later, Merrie-Beth Board repeats this statement. We hadn't practiced avalanche companion rescue prior to heading out (protocol in guided heli-skiing) and to this statement led me to believe that the group has taken avalanche equipment with us as ‘ice-climbing good practice’, rather than there being an overhead risk from an avalanche. Avalanches were not mentioned again throughout the day.
As the group leaves the railway track, we turn on our transceivers. At the base of Massey’s, Merrie-Beth Board explains that each person is to dig out a small platform at the base of the climb, on which to place our packs and put on our climbing gear. The guides and clients spread out along the base of the waterfall to build our platforms. Once everyone is geared up, the extra gear and safety equipment – thermoses, shovels, probes and clothing - is left behind in a little cave behind a curtain of icicles.
The guides lead up the first pitch together, one on the far left, one on the right. The clients of each group follow, one at time, side-by-side, with both groups arriving to two stations together. The guides then lead the second and third pitch and all four clients climb together, side-by-side, to avoid ice from falling on each other. This felt safe, social and expedient. On a flat section between one of the pitches, a client’s boot punches through the ice and her foot is soaked. She says she is ok, and the group continues climbing. My climbing partner noted spindrift coming off Mt. Stephen, above and to climbers left of the group’s position. It seemed substantial in size and duration, but insignificantly far away from where the group is climbing. I am unsure if the guides were aware of the spindrift.
Approaching the fourth and final pitch, the guides offer a client from each group an opportunity to lead. The guides set up a simulated ‘sport-lead’ scenario for the leaders – where 8-9 ice screws and draws were placed on a very short pitch. The ‘leader’ client leads the pitch and the second client cleaned the route. This fourth pitch took up a significant amount of time. Sonja and I seconded this pitch, encouraging each other and having fun climbing side by side.
At the top of the route, around 1pm, the guides suggest an opportunity to set up a top rope for the clients to ‘do laps’ on the first pitch. All but one client is interested in this (because of her wet foot) and the offer is rescinded. There is a walk-off for this route through the trees, however, the guides choose to rappel the descent of the climb. At this moment, I put on my down jacket and place my cell phone in my jacket pocket. The thought that went through my mind was, 'rappelling is the most dangerous part of climbing' I want the phone on my body, not in my pack. The guides explain that the two groups will rappel the route together, one at a time, in two long rappels. Benjamin Paradis, the apprentice guide descends first. At the end of the full rope length, Benjamin sets up an anchor of two screws for the group of six to clip into. This hanging belay is awkward as six people are clipped into one focal point. Benjamin builds a V-thread anchor off to the right for the second rappel. As Benjamin moves from the main anchor to the V-thread rappel anchor, a client asks if the guide should back up the V-thread to the main anchor. The guide backs up the anchor cordelette (not the rope) to the main anchor and continues to set up his rappel device and prussik. Being beside me, I mention to Benjamin to lock his carabiner (he forgot to do so when he was interrupted by the client’s question about backing up a V-thread. ) Instinctively, Benjamin squeezes the carabiner, confirms it’s open, locks the carabiner and begins rappelling. Once the Benjamin reaches the base of the climb, and each client descends one at a time. It is my belief that these errors, in the context of the guide's complacency about the complex terrain above, the Mod/Low/Low forecast, the ignored signs of high winds aloft and the misinformation from Will Gadd that 'any snow from an avalanche would get caught on the 20 degree bench above the climb and not reach the base' led to the unfolding tragedy.
As the second to last client was rappelling, she mentioned that there was a request to practice building V-threads. Once the clients are on the ground, Merrie-Beth Board cleans the station and rappels to the ground. Clients and guides begin to remove their harnesses, crampons and gear. Clients retrieve their stored equipment from the cave and put their belongings - probes and shovels - with their packs. They put on additional clothing, have something to drink and eat. Everyone leaves their packs and equipment on the platform they built for themselves at the beginning of the day. Myself and two other clients join the apprentice guide go to the waterfall and begin building V-threads. Benjamin demonstrates the strength of the V-thread by chipping away at the ice with his ice axe. Merrie-Beth Board is standing near the protection of the cave. Sonja Findlater is standing downslope and in clear view of Merrie-Beth, but meters away from the safety of the ice cave that the guide is standing.
Merrie-Beth Board takes a phone call and suddenly yells, ‘EVERYONE….’!! The startled group at the base of the climb instinctively leap towards the ice and crouches low. Snow begins pouring down, it is difficult to breath. I have my right hand on another client’s back; concerned that we will be buried from the feet up, I lift my head up slightly. The next moment I feel myself thrown backwards, tumbling rapidly downslope. I try to ‘swim’ and everything is black. It takes me a moment to realize I am in an avalanche. I pray that I don’t hit a tree or rock. I remember learning that you can feel when the avalanche will stop and that is when you need to reach a hand to the surface and make an air pocket. I wait for it, and I felt there was a subtle but perceptible slow to the velocity around me and at that moment I put my right hand in front of my mouth to create an air pocket. I thrust my left forearm through the surface of the snow to create an airway just as the avalanche settled. I swept the snow from my mouth with my right hand. The snow settled around me like concrete. I cry out, “help me, help me, help me.” The words are muffled in the snow.
If you plan on recreating in avalanche terrain, whether skiing, climbing, snowshoeing, sledding, hiking or mountaineering, please ensure you educate yourself on best practices of your activity and ensure you and each member of your group is carrying a probe and shovel and wearing an avalanche transceiver.
I am told that once the avalanche stopped, a head count is taken, the guides confirm two clients are missing. The group on the surface turns their transceivers to receive, a client (who is also an ACMG ski guide) and Benjamin Paradis begin to search down the slope, Merrie-Beth Board begins digging in the snow around her feet for her pack which holds her safety equipment.
Benjamin Paradis finds me, fully buried, with only a hand waving above the snow. Benjamin pulls snow away from my face and neck. I confirm I am ok, that I have an airway and am uninjured. Further downslope, the client/guide yells out, “I have a signal, 1.8 meters.” Benjamin leaves me and goes downslope. They are now outside of my line of sight as the snow I am pushing away from me makes a wall preventing me from seeing anything below.
Merrie-Beth Board is screaming incoherently on the surface. I am unsure of who else is buried, but by the sound of the screaming I understand the situation is dire. I will come to learn that all the safety equipment has been blown away and buried in the avalanche. The group begins digging with crampons, helmets, an ice axe and sticks.
Merrie-Beth comes over to me. She is barehanded and needs gloves to dig out Sonja. I take off my gloves and give them to her. I am left bare-handed to dig myself out from the snow. I continue scraping the snow away from my body with my helmet. As I remove snow from my chest, I feel my cell phone in my jacket pocket and am surprised to have reception. I am able to get texts and calls out to the Sarah Hueniken, Will Gadd and Margo Talbot. I take a call from Sarah Hueniken. I take a call from Parks Canada dispatch to confirm the avalanche and request assistance for multiple burials.
Sarah Hueniken arrives on site with a shovel and probe 20-25 minutes after the avalanche. She and her clients were driving back to the hostel from their climb when one of the clients in the vehicle pointed a large snow cloud high on Mount Stephen. Sarah Hueniken recognized the avalanche was running down the mountain directly over Massey's ice climb. Sarah called Merrie-Beth to alert the group to the avalanche above, which gave Merrie-Beth just enough time to shout “EVERYONE…!” before the group was hit. Sarah called Parks Canada and the other guides in the area to request assistance for a rescue immediately after the avalanche hit. (Later that night, Merrie-Beth Board will confirm she had tried to yell 'Everyone to the wall' but we were hit before the directive came out. I still do not understand why she didn't yell AVALANCHE, as that would have alerted us to the actual danger we were facing.)
As the client/guide had the last transceiver reading on the Sonja, she begins to probe. She has a strike and Sarah begins to dig frantically while the others clear that snow away. One of the clients from Sarah’s group arrives on site. The client is asked for her shovel. The client was told by Sarah Hueniken at the parking lot, “empty your pack of everything but your avalanche gear and follow me.” In the excitement, and seeing that Sarah Hueniken had run off with only a light jacket, the client stuffed additional warm clothes in her pack and forgot her shovel and probe. Vital safety equipment was left behind at the car.
Within 35 minutes, Sonja was dug out, her skin blue and not breathing. CPR begins. Another guide, Scott McKay, arrives on site and offers an OPA (oropharyngeal airway medical device). I watch as four ACMG guides and the client/guide assist in the CPR. The client who arrived with Sarah Hueniken takes pictures of the scene while at Sonja's feet. The other client is off to the side, in shock and exhausted from the efforts of digging. I continue to scrape snow away with my helmet.
With the client/guide's assistance, I am extracted from the snow with the shovel. It has been 50 minutes since the avalanche. Before I have a chance to look around, Sarah Hueniken orders myself and two clients to head down to the railway tracks.
Parks Canada sends in a rescue specialist on a long line to fly Sonja to their staging area. STARS is waiting nearby in Field, BC and flies Sonja to Calgary. Sonja’s brain is unresponsive to tests and she is declared brain dead the following day. Sonja was able to donate five organs because of the CPR she received.
I extend my continued sympathies to the family and friends of Sonja Johnson Findlater, she was loved by all. I am thankful for the efforts of my party to dig Sonja from the snow and to provide continuing CPR in the hopes of a full recovery. I am grateful for Parks Canada Rescue Specialists who risk their lives to assist others on what will likely become their worst day in the mountains. And above all I am indebted to those who have held me close in the worst days following the aftermath of the avalanche on Massey’s.