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Survivors share harrowing experience in new avalanche safety initiative

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The survivors of an avalanche incident in the backcountry are sharing their tragic experience as a warning to others. As Emily Olsen reports, Avalanche Canada predicts a surge in backcountry exploration this year – Nov 12, 2020

A new initiative started in Alberta is looking to prepare backcountry explorers for the unthinkable.

The founders of the Backcountry Safe are drawing from their own tragic story of surviving an avalanche in 2016. 

Read more: Timeline of Canada’s deadliest avalanches

“Upon reflection, over the last couple of years every member of our group has come to realize that we had a shared responsibility,” Sheila Churchill, avalanche survivor and Backcountry Safe co-founder, said.

They say having experience and confidence just aren’t enough to prevent a tragedy.

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“Obviously we thought we would be fine too,” Churchill said. 

Initiative co-founder Mitch Putnam said an incident during the group’s ski trip continues to leave each of the members with heavy hearts as well as scars.

“There’s no doubt it was very tragic,” Putnam said. “We lost a dear friend and Sheila’s husband Doug Churchill passed away as a result of the tragedy and we had multiple injuries within our group.”

Putnam said hiring a guide is not where the preparation should end.

Read more: Coronavirus: Rescue groups warn backcountry users to limit risk in Alberta, B.C. mountains

“We did not come as prepared as we should have been individually,” Putnam admitted. “We checked out mentally and left everything to the guide, which was a mistake.”

Backcountry lessons

The initiative groups learned lessons into main themes:

  • Know yourself and your group.
  • Plan your day.
  • Know what to do in an emergency. 

“How are you communicating and making decisions?” Putnam said. “That’s a really interesting piece for anyone heading into the backcountry or undertaking any outdoor adventure.”

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Avalanche Canada is projecting a significant spike in people hitting the slopes this winter. 

A spokesperson from the organization said that backcountry gear sales have increased among their associated distributors and retailers, and enrollment in their training programs has increased as well.

“These are new people to the backcountry,” Putnam said. “And especially this year we think with COVID-19 that there’s going to be a real influx of new backcountry users. So that is certainly a concern, and we just want to create some more dialogue and discussion around how to be properly prepared and keep yourself safe.”

Read more: ‘I just stomped out SOS’: Alberta hiker saved by B.C. remote satellite camera technology

The group wants to hear from others’ experiences to add to their range of tips and warnings.

“We know that the stories are there and that is where we will learn as a community,” Churchill said. “By sharing these stories together and keeping everyone safe.”

A documentary on their harrowing experience is included on the Backcountry Safe website.

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