B.C. avalanche survivors urge skiers to take responsibility for their own safety

·3 min read

Dave Crompton is still mourning Doug Churchill, his friend of two decades who died four years ago after being caught in an avalanche while on a guided ski tour in B.C.'s backcountry.

But while Crompton, along with Churchill's wife and friends, initially wanted to blame the backcountry guides for Churchill's death, they have turned their grief into action.

The group has launched an initiative that encourages skiers to take responsibility for their own safety, especially with COVID-19 travel restrictions pushing people to seek out winter adventures close to home.

Churchill, who was 64 at the time, had headed out on week-long trip with Crompton, their wives, and several other friends in the backcountry near Golden, B.C.

It had been a beautiful blue-sky morning and the experienced group of skiers was with two guides — which in hindsight had given them a false sense of security. The group felt relaxed, trusting their guides to keep avalanche safety front of mind and choose only safe slopes.

But the group triggered an avalanche that day in February 2016. Doug Churchill died three days later.

Submitted by Dave Crompton
Submitted by Dave Crompton

Sheila Churchill and Jenny Crompton, Dave Crompton's wife, were among those who were injured and traumatized by the incident.

"I was blinded by the expectation that [the lead guide] was going to keep me safe and out of harm's way," Churchill's wife Sheila says in a video on the Backcountry Safe website, which has the support of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG).

Sheila Churchill filed a lawsuit in February 2018 against the tour guides and ACMG.

She claims that her own injuries and her husband's death were caused by the fact that the guides didn't inform the tour group of an Avalanche Canada warning, and the group triggered the avalanche because the guides chose an improper descent route.

"If you think about the cost at the end of the day and who the winners are, typically nobody wins," Dave Crompton told Chris Walker, host of CBC's Daybreak South,. "We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, [and] that money could have gone into making the [back]country safer."

The lawsuit has come to a halt after Sheila Churchill filed a notice of discontinuance to the court this February.

Backcountry Safe contains videos where the avalanche survivors and Peter Tucker, executive director of ACMG, share what they've learned from the tragic experience in order to make outdoor experiences safer in the future.

"There were mistakes made by all parties leading up to the avalanche that took Doug's life," says the website.

ACMG promises in a letter on the website to better regulate itself in order to make backcountry experience safer.

The website initiative comes at a time when Canadians will be sticking close to home amid COVID-19 international travel restrictions.

"We are gearing up for a busy season," said James Floyer, forecasting program supervisor of Avalanche Canada. "The providers that provide the Avalanche Canada avalanche skills training courses are reporting higher than usual numbers of students enrolled."

Crompton says adequate preparations by skiers and guides before the tour could help both sides avoid the often very expensive lawsuits should dangers happen.