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iN VIDEO: New initiative shares lessons learned from tragic B.C. avalanche

Image Credit: Backcountry Safe
December 10, 2020 - 9:00 PM

A group of avalanche survivors want to get the word out about the dangers inherent to backcountry travel. They’ve recently launched a website and documentary to share some of the important lessons they’ve learned. 

“We’ve come to the realization that we have a story to tell, and it bears repeating at the beginning of every ski season,” explained one of the creators, Sheila Churchill.  

Churchill, along with eight friends and her husband, was caught in an avalanche while backcountry skiing outside of Golden, B.C. in February 2016. 

The group sustained a wide-range of injuries, with Churchill suffering a broken leg. Her husband, Doug Churchill, passed away from his injuries three days later after being airlifted to a Calgary hospital. 

Along with fellow survivors Dave Crompton and Mitch Putnam, Churchill is now hoping to draw attention to the story and the important lessons they learned. 

The project is called Backcountry Safe and can be found at

The tragedy occurred during the group’s first full day of skiing on a multi-day trip, when their guide led them to a north-facing slope known as Hogzilla. 

There they found a steep narrow chute that would change their lives irrevocably.

One by one, the group, which was thirteen people in total, made their way down the run, enjoying some exhilarating turns. 

That joy quickly changed to terror when the last person of the group set off a large avalanche that swept the group around a kilometre down the slope. 

“I remember being hit as if I was hit by a freight train and just being thrown and tossed,” said Churchill, who broke her leg and was knocked out during the ordeal.

She gained consciousness after being dug out.

Churchill said many lessons came out of the tragedy. In her view, one of the major ones is to never underestimate the importance of good communication in the backcountry. 

“Whether you choose to have a guide, or you go unguided, you have to communicate,” she said. 

People can have different priorities, objectives, and levels of experience when they get together on a trip. It’s important for everyone to feel comfortable and to speak up if they are concerned. 

“How do you accommodate all the members [of a trip] so that no one is pushed out of the comfort zone or their risk tolerance?” she asked.  

Putman describes getting caught in the avalanche as a “hellish” ride. When he came to a stop he was only partially buried. 

“When I was travelling in the avalanche, my biggest fear [was that] I’m going to hit a tree or something,” he said.  

The group is also seeking to raise awareness about how the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) reacts to such tragedies and the protocols they have in place to discipline their guides if need be.  

Following the incident, lawyers and insurance companies became involved. 

The group says that they were unhappy with the ACMG’s disciplinary/post-incident process.

“The goal was to [also] take ACMG to task,” said Crompton, describing the genesis of the project. “We were more frustrated after a four year process than when we started.”

The group said the ACMG has taken some positive steps forward and is now working with them to further improve things.  

“We went from being adversarial to being collaborative, and now, they brought us in to help them establish a  list of changes that need to be made” he said.  

Backcountry Safe will also serve to keep the memory of Doug Churchill alive. 

A biography section of the website is dedicated to his memory. It explains that he was a father of two with a passion for tinkering with things. 

Churchill said that he could build anything and was a fabulous partner and father.

The two met when they were living and working at Sunshine Village, and quickly fell in love.

“He was my unequivocal soulmate,” said Churchill. “Basically, from the first time I met him, I knew that this is going to be my forever person. He was just that beautiful blend of fun, adventure and kindness and compassion.” 

— This article was originally published by the Sun Peaks Independent News Inc.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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