Bruce and I had talked about trying to make it to Prospectors Valley and back out on a one-day ski trip. We had each hiked up Marble Canyon to Tokumm Creek that flows down Prospectors Valley during the summer, but wanted to see what that beautiful valley looked like in winter.
We arrived at the entry to Marble Canyon as early as we could. The day was spectacular—blue skies and new snow on the trail that was a couple of days old. That was just enough time for a few others before to have made a ski track and relieve us of having to break trail. As we climbed out of the canyon, the valley opened before us, the sun beamed down and all was well in the back country.
We moved along at a good clip—lots of youthful energy and great ski conditions. We passed a large group who were settled in, off the trail, having their lunch break. It was an ideal spot, but we decided we wanted a place of our own, so we just waved to them and continued. We entered into a forested area as the trail continued to climb along the north side of the valley.
After about fifteen minutes we broke out into an open area that had been created by a rock slide on the same, east side of the valley. We looked up that slope in awe of the size of the rock slide. The warm sun on my back was making me sweat, which is not a great thing to do in freezing temperatures, so I took off a few layers and put those in my back pack.
The sun was brilliant and lit the snow-covered peaks on the other side of the valley. I took out my camera to take a picture and as I was looking through the viewfinder I saw a huge cornice of snow break off at the top of one of peaks opposite. The peak was a long distance from us, so we decided to watch the developing avalanche. As it raced down from the top it gathered speed and started other avalanches which joined the first one, magnifying its size. We watched it finally disappear into a hanging valley about half way down the mountain on the other side of the valley.
“So, I guess that’s it”, I said. “Was that ever neat.”
“Yah”, replied Bruce. “I can’t believe how it built up to be so large.”
After what seemed like thirty seconds, but was probably only five, Bruce looked up and saw the remnants of the avalanche shooting out of a crevasse in the side of the hidden valley.
“Wow, look at that. There is still some left over.”
I looked up to see the snow, still flowing, not toward us, but off to the side. Then it hit another, vertical valley and the combined flow started roaring down the rock slide opposite to the one we were on.
“Oh hell, it is coming towards us,” I yelled.
As though it was being guided, the avalanche had shot out of the hidden valley above, on the other side of the main valley and crashed against another rock wall, sending a billowing cloud of snow about forty feet high directly at us. When it was further away, during its earlier development, we couldn’t see how big it was, but now we could. There was no way to get out of its path in time.
We both quickly realised our predicament and jointly yelled at each other to find cover. I had been looking at a large tree just up the rock slide on our side of the valley, wondering how it had survived the old rock slide. I headed for it, side stepping in my skis as fast as I could, to get some protection before the avalanche hit me. I just made it as the impact of the snow locomotive arrived.
The first thing was a blast of wind from the air pushed in front of the avalanche. If the tree hadn’t been protecting me that wind would have blown me over. Next the snow hit. It was not solid, but a towering wall of snow and ice particles like you might see in a serious snow storm. The temperature immediately plummeted ten to twenty degrees colder than what we had been standing in. This snow was the same that we had seen break away from the top of the mountain. Up there it was a lot colder than on the valley floor. Everything then went completely dark. Any oxygen was sucked out of the space around me, leaving me gasping for air and starting to feel faint.
The sound was deafening. I can only compare it to the sound of two large diesel railway engines at full throttle when you are standing ten feet from them. I pinned myself against the tree, waiting for the onslaught of the wall of snow itself, already thinking about how I would get myself out, but then wondering if these were to be my last thoughts.
But that last stage didn’t come. The noise slowly abated, the light returned and I was able to breathe. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
I looked around the tree to see if the avalanche had truly stopped and it had. The piles of snow had hit the creek bed at the bottom of the valley and come to rest. Thank goodness we had been about fifty yards up the other side. I looked some more, but couldn’t see Bruce.
“Bruce, where are you? Are you alright?”, I yelled.
Down hill from the trail there was some motion in the snow and up popped Bruce, looking like a bed sheet, covered in snow.
“I can’t believe what I did”, he yelled out with expletives. “I looked for cover and then skied down the hill to a big rock, closer to the avalanche! Idiot!”
We looked at each other each in our personal cloak of snow and started to laugh, I think mostly to relieve our nerves and fear. We were both shaking from a combination of shock and the now sub-freezing temperature. We dusted each other off, then got our additional clothing layers out of our packs, dressed and felt our body temperatures start getting back to normal. We then woke up to the fact that we were still exposed out on the rock slide. so we quickly skied up the valley trail to the next forested area.
We were both so shaken that it didn’t take us much time to decide the valley was too dangerous that day to go further. As we came out to the rock slide again, there was a lone skier making his way across toward us. We told him about our ordeal, but he didn’t seem very impressed. I don’t think he had any idea of what just happened.
When we got back to where the group had been having their lunch break, they were still there. They hadn’t moved an inch. They had been very close to the avalanche and must have seen it, yet didn’t realise the need to get up and check to see if someone had been caught in it. We were going to go over and tell them, but we decided we couldn’t trust ourselves to keep our cool in the midst of such ignorance. We wasted no time skiing back down to the mouth of the valley, Marble Canyon, and the car.
The next day I called the Kootenay Park Wardens Office in Radium to let them know what had happened. The warden thanked me for the information and then told me we had been very lucky. He said that valley is known for its avalanches and there is no way to avoid them if you are in the valley bottom.
Lucky we were, but what an experience. Another thing—I never did make a photograph of that mountain valley on that day.
Here is fascinating video of a large avalanche on Fortress Mountain in the Kananaskis, Alberta. This is exactly how ‘our’ avalanche started.
From the BBC Series Frozen Planet II