Parks Canada Should Investigate the Avalanche at Sunshine Village

Sometimes there are deep-seated instabilities in the snowpack that lie dormant, while all appears normal, waiting for just the right trigger to unleash disaster.  Likewise sometimes there are deep-seated and well-hidden flaws in safety management systems that have very much the same effect.  It will take an independent and objective investigation to see if that is what played any part in last Monday’s almost-killer avalanche at Sunshine Village.

In December 2010 Sunshine Village embarked on a labour relations strategy that was associated, to some extent, with an almost 100% turnover of the Snow Safety department responsible for avalanche forecasting and avalanche control.  It is this department that is responsible for the management of the avalanche hazard in the Delirium Dive area as well as the other big avalanche paths that affect the in-bounds advanced terrain at Sunshine Village.

At the commencement of the 2011/12 season only one avalanche technician remained on the Snow Safety team from the start of the previous season.  This was the result of a massive and wholly unprecedented turnover that included firings and resignations.

Normally employee turnover in the Snow Safety department is minimal with only one or two changes per season, if that.  This minimal turnover rate allows for gradual and progressive training and mentoring of new Snow Safety team members to develop the specialized skills, knowledge and judgement that are essential for the safe management of areas such as Delirium Dive.  It also allows for effective supervisory oversight and review of all information and an effective and essential well-informed, team-based, decision making process.

To compound matters, during the 2010/11 and subsequent season there was also considerable turnover within the Ski Patrol department which works very closely with the Snow Safety team.  Again this turnover was closely related to the labour relations strategy that affected the Snow Safety department.  Typically Snow Safety team members are chosen from  experienced senior ski patrol staff and both departments rely heavily upon each other.  At the commencement of the 2011/12 ski season the Ski Patrol department also experienced an unprecedented high turnover of staff and a large influx of very new and inexperienced ski patrollers.

The combined effect of this turnover was a massive loss of skills, knowledge and experience on both the Snow Safety and Ski Patrol teams.

Avalanche forecasting is as much art and judgement as it is science.  It relies on teamwork and a constant flow of information and observation and even “gut-feelings” from experienced personnel who are highly familiar with the area and the terrain and who know its history.  Employee certification is just the very start of this process.  Certification does not make anyone an expert, in fact there are very few lone “experts” in avalanche forecasting.  Team input, evaluation and critique is essential to sound decision making.

On March 31, 2014 two guests were caught and injured in a very large avalanche in Delirium Dive.   According to various news stories one guest was completely buried and both were seriously injured.

Milky Way (centre) - scene of the March 31, 2014 in-bounds avalanche at Sunshine Village that caught and injured two guests

Milky Way (centre) – scene of the March 31, 2014 in-bounds avalanche at Sunshine Village that caught and injured two guests. This was not the first time Milky Way slid while the Dive was open.

Sunshine Village says that everything possible was done to make sure the area was safe. Sunshine Village also says that it is investigating the incident.

The question that arises is will Sunshine Village honestly and objectively investigate to what extent the massive Snow Safety and Ski Patrol staff turnover may have weakened the training, mentoring and staff development of the departments responsible for managing the big avalanche terrain like Delirium Dive.

The next question that arises is, if that turnover did create weaknesses in the team, did that weakness play any part in the factors leading up to the serious avalanche incident on March 31, 2014.  If it did, would Sunshine Village admit it?

Aircraft accident investigators know that almost any incident is caused by a chain of factors and not one single factor.  Often those factors include human error, training issues and failures in the safety management system. This even occurs with highly professional and well-trained pilots and maintenance technicians.  That fact is not just applicable to aircraft incidents.

Air crash investigators leave no stone unturned to discover all the factors that lead to an incident.  That is the process that leads to true learning and true safety.

Will Sunshine Village conduct such an investigation?  More to the point – should Sunshine Village conduct such an investigation?  Sunshine Village has yet to complete any sort of investigation and make the results public but the company is already making public relations statements that appear biased and which raise more questions.

The CBC reports the following comments from Sunshine Village’s  spokesperson:

Over the past week, the resort used explosives and helicopter bombing to stabilize the snow and skiers criss-crossed the area to check the stability, said spokesman Crosbie Cotton.“In fact, on the morning of the incident, two trained avalanche experts were in Milky Way checking it, cutting it, criss-crossing it and they deemed it safe.”

Can the public trust this company statement as an objective and informed investigative conclusion or is it just more PR and marketing?  Is Sunshine Village’s spokesperson saying that this huge in-bounds avalanche slope was not checked and/or evaluated since that morning?  Hopefully that was not the case.

An avalanche area deemed as safe in the morning may not be safe in the afternoon.  This is especially true in spring conditions when mid-day solar heating often plays a significant role in snowpack stability. An avalanche path like Milky Way needs more than just a morning check.  It needs regular evaluation during the day by knowledgeable staff who can feed pertinent information to the decision process. Sunshine’s statement, at least as reported by the CBC, leaves this in doubt and it needs to be clarified.

It’s not the first time that Milky Way has avalanched while Delirium Dive was open to the public.  Was this fact known and taken into account by all the ski patrol and snow safety staff on March 31, 2014?  History and experience matters and it takes time to pass that on and time to learn it too.  A ski area can’t turnover snow safety and ski patrol staff the way it does ticket sellers and lift operators – not when it routinely opens big avalanche terrain like Delirium Dive.

This is no small thing.  People nearly died.  A near miss doesn’t get any closer than this.  It is Parks Canada that is ultimately responsible for public safety within Banff National Park.  Parks Canada should independently and diligently investigate the incident and publish its findings in a formal and reviewable report to the public.  This is not a matter than can be left to a private corporation with a vested interest in the outcome.

How long does it take to replace the combined effectiveness of decades of experience, skill, knowledge and cross-departmental teamwork? Quite possibly an objective investigation will find that the massive loss of experienced Snow Safety technicians. ski patrollers and senior mountain operations staff during and shortly after the 2010/11 season played no part in the incident that occurred on March 31, 2014.   But the point is, we won’t know unless someone takes an honest and objective look at that particular factor as part of an independent and thorough investigation.

This was not just a public safety incident but also a workplace safety incident.  It may not have directly affected any workers but it affected their workplace and their work tasks and process.  Accordingly Alberta OH&S should also take a close look at this incident.

Media Update:  Avalanche survivor owes rescuers ‘the world’ (Calgary Herald – April 4, 2014)

Sunshine Village Roof Avalanche Takes Down Guests

LAST SATURDAY A LARGE ROOF AVALANCHE TOOK DOWN GUESTS RELAXING ON A PATIO AT THE SUNSHINE MOUNTAIN LODGE IN BANFF NATIONAL PARK.

It’s not the first time that the Sunshine Mountain Lodge has experienced large damaging roof avalanches.  If the lessons from past incidents had been learned and applied, the latest incident could easily have been avoided.  Rooftop snow removal is not rocket science, it’s basic routine safety management.

On March 16, 2013 an unknown number of Sunshine Village guests were relaxing on the patio outside the Chimney Corner restaurant when suddenly and without warning they were hit by a large avalanche of snow and ice from above.  The incident occurred when a large load of accumulated snow slid off a roof at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge and hit and partially buried the guests who had no time to run or protect themselves.

The Sunshine Mountain Lodge showing the new Chimney Corner roof that avalanched onto guests.

The Sunshine Mountain Lodge showing the new Chimney Corner roof that avalanched onto guests.

Initial reports indicate that none of the guests was seriously injured, but at least one or more required medical treatment.  It could have been worse.

The Sunshine Mountain Lodge has a history of potentially deadly incidents involving large snow slides from roofs and overhanging snow cornices collapsing.  Prior to last Saturday’s incident, the roof avalanches had only caused property damage.  Sunshine Village’s management had been warned in the past that failure to competently manage this type of hazard could very forseeably lead to injuries or even fatalities.  Sunshine failed to heed those warnings in the past, which resulted in documented property damage.   Unfortunately the warnings were also not sufficient to prevent the latest incident either.   

Since at least 2009, rooftop snow removal and related fall protection for workers has been a significant public and workplace safety issue at Sunshine Village.  In 2009 Sunshine Village obtained four separate external consultant proposals for installation of fall protection systems to enable workers to safely remove rooftop snow hazards.  One proposal was chosen but for reasons of insufficient budget the proposal was only partially implemented.

That same year, Sunshine Village added a multi-million dollar new wing to the Sunshine Mountain Lodge.  When installation of a rooftop fall protection was recommended the then GM and VP of Operations Ken Derpak stated that there was no budget for installing fall protection systems on the multi-million dollar new building.  A system was installed on the original hotel roof but during the 2009/10 season the hazard was mismanaged by Sunshine Village and eventually resulted in at least two documented incidents and major property damage.  Despite the obvious need to implement a fully comprehensive control program, Sunshine Village subsequently issued a memo confirming that there was no budget for further fall protection systems.  It is unclear if that budget restriction has since changed but regardless, the incidents keep coming.

Sunshine recently renovated the Chimney Corner restaurant.  The renovation resulted in a new roofline and a new rooftop accumulation of snow.  It’s clear that this created a hazard similar to that which caused the previous incidents and this time the consequences of that hazard impacted Sunshine’s guests, literally.

Last Saturday’s incident proves beyond doubt that Sunshine Village must implement an effective public safety program to control all rooftop snow hazards at the resort. The program must include fully code-compliant engineered fall protection systems, competency-based training and competent supervision for the workers who are sent up on the roofs to do the job.  Bottom line, this incident is unacceptable in a Canadian national park  that prides itself on its public safety record and international reputation as a world class destination.

ROOF AVALANCHE HITS GUESTS AT SUNSHINE MOUNTAIN LODGE. Last Saturday snow on this roof slid onto the deck and into the hot tub, hitting and injuring guests. Sunshine’s management has been previously warned that a failure to manage this type of hazard would result in injuries or even fatalities. (Photo from Sunshine Village Google+)

This photo from Sunshine Village’s Google+ page shows the recently renovated Chimney Corner restaurant. Last Saturday this roof shed it’s snowload without warning onto unsuspecting guests.

Sunshine Village’s Response:

Sunshine Village Watch contacted Sunshine’s lawyer to provide the company a 24-hour pre-publication opportunity (extended to 48 hours) to comment on this story and/or to dispute the information provided.  Here is the company’s responses (edited for relevance):

Prima facie your allegations are defamatory, including those of “a history of potentially deadly incidents”,  “negligent mismanagement”,” failure to heed warnings”, “repeatedly ignoring safety warnings”, etc.You publish this material at your peril. Our client objects to publication of this story and reserves all rights in relation thereto. Be advised that your mere 24 hour time for response will be relied upon by Sunshine as evidence of malice on your part.

… for the record Sunshine Village denies the allegations you propose to make in your story.  Your proposed sub head is inflammatory and it appears that you are taking advantage of one incident to paint an unfair picture of the company.  Sunshine Village is committed to safe facilities for the benefit of guests and workers.

L. Frank Molnar, MIR

Field Law LLP

Further comments by Sunshine Village will be published here if received.

Other Sunshine Mountain Lodge safety posts:

Did you witness this incident?  Do you have additional information, photos or video?  If so please contact Sunshine Village Watch.

Meanwhile, the following video (not from Sunshine Village) demonstrates the harm even a small roof avalanche can do:

 

Sunshine Access Road Parking Threatens Public Safety

The ongoing parking congestion and heavy shuttle bus traffic on the Sunshine access road threatens the safety of visitors to Banff National Park and makes a mockery of climate change issues as well. Mixing heavy traffic, parked cars and pedestrians on a narrow mountain road in the middle of winter is a recipe for tragedy. For some reason, Parks Canada continues to allow this foolishness in breach of basic common sense and its own policies and guidelines.

What is Parks Canada thinking?  Is this really what passes for public safety, road safety, environmental leadership and a world-class” “visitor experience” in Canada’s Banff National Park?  If so, the wheels have truly fallen off the bus for the Canadian national park system.