School trip continues a decade later
Education: Strathcona-Tweedsmuir ramps up safety following 2003 avalanche tragedy
By: Tammy Rollie
| Posted: Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013 10:48 am
Students at a private school north of Okotoks continue to embark on a backcountry ski adventure, but not without the memories and lessons learned from a fatal tragedy 10 years ago.
Rather than discontinue the three-day excursion from the school’s outdoor education program, Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School (STS) staff developed protocols and enhanced the trip’s safety so students could continue to enjoy the school tradition.
On Feb. 1, 2003 three adult group leaders and 14 Grade 10 students were backcountry skiing on a popular trail in the Connaught Creek Valley at Roger’s Pass when an avalanche swept over the group.
Frantic attempts were made to rescue the students, who were equipped with avalanche rescue gear, but seven students were killed.
“After the avalanche of lot of changes happened in the backcountry skiing world, not just at STS but across Canada and across the world,” said Head of School Bill Jones, who was not employed at STS when the incident occurred.
Jones said changes were made internationally to the terrain rating system and Parks Canada’s avalanche rating system. In addition, the Canadian Avalanche Centre, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to avalanche safety, was formed.
The school itself also reviewed its safety protocols and aggressively sought out ways to improve its own guidelines.
For example, the school hired a risk management professional with expertise in outdoor trip planning and connected with global leaders in health and safety, he said.
“With those new standards in place obviously we have completely different ways of evaluating the risk in any trip in anything we do,” he said. “Back in the day there was an inclination to say, ‘We have done this trip for 25 years so we’ll keep doing it.’ Every day is a new day. We look at everything — the current conditions and not just snow pack but what is the weather like. That’s what makes a place safe one year and not another.”
STS director of outdoor education Bruce Hendricks said the trip now takes place in the Banff and Yoho National Parks.
See STS on page 30
Which trails the group decides to ski on depend on the weather conditions and Parks Canada’s Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale ratings.
Parks Canada posts an avalanche bulletin every three days, yet Hendricks maintains regular contact with parks guides for constant updates before determining the route to take.
“Each morning we evaluate the conditions and go based on that,” he said. “Often times people think if the avalanche conditions are high they are high everywhere and there is no place to go that is safe from that. When the avalanche hazard is high they recommend you go to ski areas or class one terrain.”
Parents concerned about avalanche safety are given contact information to check the ratings and speak with parks personnel themselves. If they are still concerned, they can opt out of sending their child on the excursion, said Hendricks.
Jones said STS became the first school in Canada to be accredited by the Association for Experiential Education, a non-profit organization with rigorous standards for trip planning from staff training to parent briefings.
“It holds you to a very high set of standards,” he said. “We are honoured to be the only school in Canada to be a part of it.”
Staff also keeps in touch with Parks Canada regularly to determine any changes in weather or snowpack conditions in an area where a trip is planned, said Jones. The school also hires registered backcountry guides with knowledge and experience in the area to accompany the school group, he said.
“I would say knowing what we know today and having the different measures and the different rating systems, a lot of things that did not exist back in those days, we would decide not to go there,” he said of the trip 10 years ago. “The knowledge at the time and information at the time was different and less complete than it is now. We know that’s not going to happen again.”
Despite the school’s ongoing safety initiatives, the tragic loss of the seven students will not be forgotten, said Jones.
Each year a school assembly is held to honour and remember the students on the anniversary date of the incident, followed by a luncheon for grieving family members, said Jones.
“There’s a deep sense of sadness, even for people who weren’t (at the school when the avalanche occurred),” he said. “It’s obviously a somber day but at the same time there are some smiles and things you would expect in a celebration of life. There are some very fond memories that come back.”
Staff, students and members of the grieving families, as well as former staff, friends of the families and alumni are invited to the ceremony, said Jones.
“The loss was profound for a lot of people, mostly profound for the parents who lost their kids,” he said. “There were teachers who were devastated because they coached those kids… and parents who were friends of the parents who lost kids.”
Each assembly is recorded and posted on the STS website, with alumni from around the world viewing it. Jones said last year’s video had 400 hits.
The seven students are also remembered through the school’s Forever Woods monument behind the school with an area dedicated to each student characterized by pieces of art based on their interests and a bench with their name on it. The monument opened in September 2005 and is often used by students, he said.
STS also established Forever Woods Scholarships, an endowment created shortly after the avalanche by a group of anonymous donors consisting of parents and former parents in honour of the students, said Jones.
The school established a fine arts fund in honour of one of the students and dedicated a fun day for middle school students in honour of another.