Rosemary Langford and Pascal Haegeli
Research report prepared for HeliCat Canada, Simon Fraser University Avalanche Research Program, Burnaby BC, p. 18.
Publication year: 2020

Executive summary

Backcountry activities in mountainous terrain are inherently risky, and while helicopter and snowcat skiing operations have developed advanced risk management strategies, accidents that result in death and serious injuries among guest and guides still occur. The majority of fatalities that occur in the mechanized ski industry are a result of avalanches. Using fatal avalanche accident records, research can direct areas for learning, improvement, and continued development in risk management practices.

This report presents an overview analysis of the 46 fatal avalanche accidents and resulting 83 fatalities that occurred between 1970 and 2020. Many results presented in this overview support existing understandings of accident patterns. Examples are the fact that most fatal avalanche accidents are associated with Persistent Slab avalanche problems, that fatal avalanches are more prevalent on north-facing slopes, or that the majority of fatal avalanches are triggered on slopes between 35 to 40 degrees steep. However, the present analysis also offers new insights on fatal avalanche accidents in the mechanized skiing industry such as on which run of the day fatal avalanche accidents occur, the presence or absence of tracks, which group member tends to trigger the fatal avalanche, and the role of groups on the same run in contributing to fatal avalanche accidents.

The present overview also highlights limitations resulting from both the quality and the availability of data in incident records, which adversely affect our ability to develop a high-quality dataset that supports effective trend analyses. Supplementing this dataset with near miss data and data on avalanche involvements that did not result in fatalities is necessary to completing more sophisticated analysis and, thus, providing more meaningful insight. Furthermore, we suggest that considering additional aspects in incident and near miss reporting could provide new opportunities for identifying avalanche risk management challenges, improving safety practices, and supporting the wellbeing of staff and guests.

In illustrating results that support existing understandings and providing insights into opportunities for development, this overview offers a foundation for enhancing safety practices through improvements in data quality and quantity, recording near-miss data, and a comprehensive consideration of future analysis topics. The recently developed HIRE incident recording and exchange system serves as a custom platform that can support industry members in operationalizing such changes, consistently recording data, and remaining adaptable to future developments. With this system in place, future research will be able to better support the mechanized skiing industry in fulfilling its mandate of continual improvement.

Click here for a copy of this report.