It appears that Mr. Scotty Aiken is not only a killer avi-tech, he’s got some pretty good writing skills as well…
This following was taken from the BC Ministry of Transportation Staff Newsletter, Spring 2007.
Mount Seymour Park Avalanche Task
Submitted by Scott Aitken, Snow Avalanche
Technician, Coast Chilcotin Avalanche Programs
“Hi Scott. It’s Bruce. We’re in a bit of a pickle here.”
The voice mail was from a fellow avalanche rescue dog handler (CARDA), friend and wilderness paramedic. It explained why my pager had come to life on a January
afternoon as we returned from field work in Cayoosh Pass and into cell range.
A call in reply quickly briefed me what the pickle jar looked like. North Shore Rescue teams (NSR) and a snowshoer with multiple injuries were hunkering down for second
night bivouacked out in heavy snow and high avalanche danger in Mt. Seymour Provincial Park. Canadian Forces 442 Rescue Squadron Cormorant helicopter crew had stood down after one attempt the previous day due to worsening weather.
The team’s location at Theta Lake was not far from the
ski hill base, but separated by 300 vertical metres of heinous
avalanche terrain down which the subject had fallen.
Paramedics had stabilized Chris Corey (sic: Morley), a lucky 36-year old
Coquitlam man and father of three as darkness fell the previous night. No helicopter extraction appeared likely soon as foul, wet, hypothermia inducing foggy weather lingered on the North Shore Mountains. Rationing had commenced of the limited fuel supply. Bruce,
John, Doug, Rolly, Tim and Gord weren’t yet in peril but
they weren’t getting any drier either.
To exacerbate things, there were fewer sleeping bags than rescuers.
Rapidly increasing avalanche danger had shut down the
rope rescue on Day 2. One of the most experienced rescuers,
Dave, had “gone for a ride” in an avalanche on a
mercifully short slope. Camp was moved when a naturally
triggered avalanche stopped five feet from the team in
their snow shelter. “What was that?” asked Chris when
the avalanche stopped. “Mother Nature,” replies Tim
Jones NSR team leader.
Bruce’s call was to request a professional avalanche control
team respond to blast and establish a safe rope rescue
corridor out of Theta Lake. “Let’s see,” I think. High
avalanche danger, mountain terrain shrouded in heavy
wet snow, numerous rescue personnel including snowmobiles
to control, and huge decision-making pressure
with a national media presence if we screw up with our
“Sure we’ll be there at 7 a.m.,” I tell Bruce. This is a fairly
routine task for an avalanche technician and I’m confident
I can get there with my tools.
MoT Snow Avalanche Programs has made high reliability
an organizational principle. HQ has made managing
the unexpected easier for me today by forming a pre-plan
which includes an MOU with Provincial Emergency Program
(PEP) to provide expertise in response to avalanche
related SAR tasks. I’ve also got a new yellow ¾-ton pickup
equipped to haul explosives.
My program’s explosives are a two-hour round trip away
so I request Bruce to contact Whistler Blackcomb Resort
for more resources. When he calls back we conference
with Dave Sulina, briefing me thoroughly enough to make
Friday January 12, 0315 hrs and I am fairly well rested.
This stormy avalanche season has provided practice in
early sleeps for early starts! It’s more comfortable making
this double coffee than if I had just spent a second
night busted up in a snow cave in the forest I tell myself.
Moderate snow falls outside while breakfast is eaten in
silence in Whistler minus the morning news. I consider
the weather forecast and what my avalanche briefing with
North Shore Rescue had told me. A weak layer of surface
hoar crystals sitting under a 70 cm slab of wind driven
storm snow is not good. Put this combination over an old
ice crust and the result is perfect high avalanche danger
day. Crew safety today is my first and foremost concern.
This snowpack should react to explosive triggers. That’s
I meet with the team at 0430 hrs, all pros from Blackcomb
Mountain Ski Patrol including friends Nigel Stewart and
Ken Nickel. Andrew “Haggis” Haig, and Jack Hurtabies
sled up to the explosives magazine on Blackcomb and
join us with ten explosive hand charges (shots) while I
do dangerous goods transport paperwork with “Cog” the
patrol director. Will this be enough? We’ll see if it’s more
than less. I rib sleepy looking Ken about his young girlfriend
not letting him sleep enough this AM. The crew
was called in from days off and typically upbeat.
I’ve radioed and phoned the road crew for Duffey Lake –
Bridge River for a snowfall updates of my own avalanche
patch the Coast – Chilcotin and updated my supervisor,
Brian Atkins. The dry side of the Coast Mountains is
lightly dusted today. I’m good to go.
Now Whistler SAR manager Brad Sills and I will drive south to meet 40 or 60
other SAR members at Mt. Seymour Ski Hill.
Doug Tuck, Assistant Avalanche Technician will be in at
0700 and out for a road patrol to cover our Highway #99
Rd #40 responsibilities. The Sea to Sky corridor avalanche
forecast is priority. Decker my CARDA dog sleeps away
in the back seat. It’s routine for him and I guess for me
too. So why is my stomach doing flip flops as we drive
south in the rain? Best eat some more food for the long
day in the snow whether the gut wants it or not.
The trip through the S2S construction is uneventful
other than the CBC radio news which we, the ‘avalanche
experts’ are now part of. I haven’t been in Mt. Seymour
Provincial Park for, let’s see, 23 years. We get to the foggy
ski hill parking lot and NSR’s mobile command post the
‘Bat Mobile’ is buried to nearly the top of its wheels in
storm snow. I let Decker out for a squirt behind the patrol
room turned search base. A NSR member guards the
explosives. It’s time to get briefed, look at maps, and make
a plan. These folks are organized which is good. I suit up
in MoT issue outerwear. Ten 1kg shots are transferred to
team packs and we’re off! No wait, the snowmobiles are
getting unstuck. As the TV cameras role we wait, talk,
joke, and laugh. All’s routine so far.
The sleds depart after quickly delivering us outside the
ski area boundary. We probe the snow with our ski pole
handles and feel the soft layers over the hard ice crust.
This is our first clue as to today’s stability.
It’s quiet on the ski tour to the NSR advance base camp
above our rope rescue corridor “The Staircase”. The subject
is only 1.5 km away from the ski lodge but it might as
well be 10 km for the effort this steep task will take. A lot
of resources are lined up behind us to make this happen.
All the tools in the tool box are available.
We confirm with Tim that he’s in a totally safe place. I
pull out the tools of my trade to do a test snow profile.
The snow gives up instability clues under my shovel and
snow saw: moderate compression test failing on the crust
surface hoar combo and a mid-slab moist layer. It should
go! I double check that Tim is in safe terrain. He fires a
parachute flair up and it comes from a safe spot. That’s
good. Nigel’s first shot rips out a size 2.5 slab avalanche
and as the other rescuers recover their heart rates at the
sudden bang, Tim reports the avalanche size at Theta
Lake which is the runout zone.
Now I have the unpleasant task of telling Rob, BC Park
Ranger that this terrain is too ‘sporty’ for his skill level on
telemark skis. He takes it well. Dave stays back too with his
big pack directing the rope teams. Now we’re a manageable
team of six.
Okay let’s go cautiously and keep track of all team members.
Every shot is releasing thick slabs of storm snow. Tim
reports avalanche sizes on the radio. The team members are
now moving to new shot placements. I again urge caution
since we’re now skiing on the icy crust which has shed its
new snow load.
The pros move like mountain goats over the steep terrain between
big trees. From above I hear a wild yell in panic from
Brad and fear the next sound will be a body thud. All goes
quiet except for his ski rattling down the gully to my right.
He has self arrested. Phew! That’s good! He has followed
Nigel’s exploratory tracks instead of mine and blown a ski
when he hit the crust. He’ll climb back up a bit to his ‘comfort
zone’ and wait to direct rope teams. S**t! Why didn’t I
give him ‘the hook’ with Rob? Why did he stray from my
tracks? Follow the guide is rule one! “Situational awareness,
Scotty,” I tell myself. “Look back as well as ahead.” That will
be one to debrief I think.
More shots yield more avalanches. Nigel and I take turns on
‘point’. We analyze the terrain, the hazards, and the path of
least resistance, and direct where the shots go. Several times
we retreat back up to a safer line and blast it clear when cliffs
block our descent.
We’re fully engaged, using all the mental and physical skills
accrued over decades of avalanche work. It’s still snowing
and the cloud is on the deck. Occasionally we hear Peter
Murray trying to pilot his ASTAR B2 helicopter in to Theta
Lake and wrap up this task. He can’t get past the white wall
of wet coast weather.
Noon passes with no thought of a lunch break. Then we throw our second last shot. We find
an exit through a steep walled gully and the staircase A/C
route ‘goes’. There’s the lake and the avalanche debris in the
run-out zone. We’re in the clear! As we ski out Andrew finds
a broken tree top under the snow surface. Pop goes his ski
in easy terrain and he thrashes head downhill in soft snow.
My stress lowers as we chuckle at his embarrassed pose and
ski down to Theta Lake.
Tim with his head poking from an orange garbage bag and the soggy rescue team emerge
from the forest happy to see us. Brad’s ski is recovered to be
stashed with the camp gear and retrieved later (and sharpened).
Nigel lights our last shot’s fuse and the detonation blackens
the snow beside the heli spot to help Peter with landing reference
in this white-on-white world. It’s rest time and we
chat, snack, and exchange information. I say hi to a bruised
and broken Chris who’s in good spirits and cracking jokes
thanks in part to a recent morphine injection in his butt.
Final diagnosis will include fractures to maxilla, mandible,
wrist, and leg as well as lost teeth and multiple contusions
and lacerations. He fell so hard pinballing through the trees,
that he arrived at the bottom minus a boot and snowshoe
and with a dislocated shoulder.
I count up the number of bums vs. helicopter seats and we’ll
be air lift number four. Not a chance today. We’ll kick a line
of steps back up the staircase route for the rescue team to
follow. See ya! I listen to the weather forecast from base: not
good but some hope for change around 1600 hrs. My team
is already in single file boot hiking up, skis strapped to packs.
I catch up and take my turn breaking trail bareheaded and
sweating under a wet Gore Tex shell back to the top of the
I never actually see the helicopter half an hour later. Peter
arrives and departs by tenaciously flying tree top to tree top,
setting a line of way points on his GPS then retreating to
insure the weather window is still there behind him. Tim announces
over the radio that Chris is airborne for the hospital
after a “Vietnam style load & go”. We all cheer! Tim’s pride
is in the helicopter as his son is the receiving flight paramedic
on board. The overnight teams are going to boot hike out in
our tracks and won’t be out ‘til after dark. Emotions bubble
out of everyone involved. We’re stoked! This is fun being
out of our ‘bubble’ in new terrain with a different crew.
We climb past Bruce who is setting up the
rope raise. He grins and tells me Decker has
been cared for by base team members. He
is thorough as always and I tell him his call
was crucial. Ten more minutes and we top
out and chat briefly with the camp team who
give me a ham and cheese to go.
It’s foggy and nearly dusk at the Bat Mobile
and the media ignores us. We sign out and
head home as CBC is reporting the successful
conclusion, giving Peter the credit he
deserves. Tim thanks me via cell phone call
and I check-in with my understanding wife,
Melissa, and MoT offices. The number of
resources required for this task is sinking in
to my wet consciousness. The size of this effort
is not routine. Brad and I talk about his
near miss. No place for a fifty-three-year-old
Pique News Magazine, the local Whistler
paper prints a more sensationalized version:
“The Whistler-Blackcomb team, they just rock,” said Don
Jardine, a search manager for NSSR.
“They just did a fantastic job, man, just so impressive.”
“They dropped in on skis, bombing and blasting the whole
way down. They cleared the whole site down to where we had
the patient… and basically they stopped there, had a drink
of water, shook hands, and they were off back up.”
“It was like special-forces had parachuted in.”
Why wasn’t this emergency? It was routine because we
pre plan and practice. Why? Because we’re professionals.
I echo these comments – these guys rocked.