Locals avoid death in fatal Canadian slide | AspenTimes.com

Locals avoid death in fatal Canadian slide

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Two men from the Aspen area escaped injury Monday when an avalanche killed seven fellow backcountry skiers in the Selkirk Mountains in eastern British Columbia.

A former world champion snowboarder was among the fatalities.

Dan Dimaria, an employee at the Snowmass Lodging Co. and an officer in the Aspen Cycling Club, and Charles Bieler, a top local cross-country ski racer, were both on a guided trip with Selkirk Mountain Experience when the avalanche occurred.

The organization specializes in expert backcountry skiing 20 miles north of Revelstoke, Canada.

Clients are routinely flown in by helicopter on Saturday to a remote chateau surrounded by 24 peaks and dozens of potential routes. Then they climb up and ski down as much as 5,000 vertical feet in a day near the main chalet or trek to another chalet, set higher in the mountains.

The week-long trip has become popular with experienced backcountry skiers from the Aspen area. Two other local men had been booked on the same trip, but canceled for different reasons.

Clients are usually taken out in two groups at SME, with the stronger group of skiers going with lead guide Ruedi Beglinger, an accomplished veteran mountaineer in the Selkirks.

On Monday, two parties were out on a slope, one group above the other. Ten skiers were in the upper group, and 11 were in the lower group.

A 100-foot-wide avalanche fractured and came down on the lower party, burying eight of the 11, according to Canadian officials.

The seven skiers died of asphyxiation, according to Chuck Purse, the British Columbia coroner. He said none of the victims suffered traumatic injuries.

Dimaria wasn’t caught in the slide, according to friend Jeff Hall.

“He’s fine and he wasn’t caught in that avalanche,” said Hall, a manager at Snowmass Lodging Co. “I talked to his father. [Dan] was in the hut that day and didn’t even go skiing. I understand from his father he may have participated in digging out.”

Bieler was also uninjured.

“We know he is OK,” said Neal Beidleman, a mountaineer from Aspen who first skied and climbed with SME in 1993. He got word Tuesday that both Aspen men were OK.

The victims were buried deep beneath the slab of snow which quickly hardened tight around them. Rescuers transported the bodies back to the heliport where the trip started. Some members of the skiing party returned to the Durrand Glacier Chalet for the night.

Hall said Dimaria may have flown out on the helicopter and then flown back to the chalet. Bieler was thought to be uninjured, and it was not clear Tuesday if he had been in the upper or lower group of skiers.

Craig Kelly, 36, a professional snowboarder who was four-time world champion and three-time U.S. Open champion, died in the avalanche. Originally from Mount Vernon, Wash., he had been living for two years in Nelson, British Columbia.

Kelly was a pioneering legend in the snowboard industry. He and Aspen Olympian Chris Klug were both early riders for Burton.

“I was in shock all day. I was good friends with Craig growing up. I really looked up to him a lot,” Klug said.

Four Americans were among the victims, including Kelly, Ralph Lunsford, 49, of Littleton, Dennis Yates, 50, of Los Angeles, and Kathleen Kessler, 39, of Truckee, Calif.

Three others were from Canada, including Naomi Heffler, 25, of Calgary and Dave Finnery, 30, of New Westminster, British Columbia. The name of a 50-year-old man from Canmore, Alberta, was not release pending notification of relatives.

A survivor said Tuesday he was awed by the incredible power of the snow slide.

??It was like swimming down the roughest river I?ve ever been in and trying to keep my head above water,?? John Seibert of Wasilla, Alaska, said of getting caught in the avalanche that thundered 300 feet down the mountainside.

??If you get caught in one of those things, you can?t flex a muscle, let alone breathe,?? said Ian Stratham of the Revelstoke ambulance service, who arrived at the scene about two hours after the snowslide.

Seibert, a geophysicist, described the week-long backcountry ski trip that began Saturday as dedicated to safety, with a seminar on using the avalanche beacon each member carried the first order of business.

He said his three decades of experience in mountains and skiing gave him no warning of the avalanche that began with a loud crack.

??A few seconds later, the moving snow swept me off my skis and I started down the slope,?? he said. ??I came to rest with my head and left hand exposed. The remainder of my body was locked in concrete-hard snow.??

The other survivors were in a kind of shock after the avalanche, Seibert said, but some stayed up on the mountain Tuesday instead of coming down when weather cleared enough for a helicopter to reach the chalet where they spent the night.

Sgt. Randy Brown of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said investigators were looking at what caused the avalanche as the skiers, divided into two groups, made their way up a slope.

Clair Israelson, director of the Canadian Avalanche Association in Revelstoke, was asked if the skiers triggered the avalanche, he said: ??We don?t know that.??

[The Associated Press contributed to this story.]

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]

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