Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
It’s been interesting to watch the thread about the January 2003 Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME) avalanche disaster over on the Couloir Magazine forums. This is the avalanche the killed seven guided backcountry skiers. It has been controversial and received a ton of press.
The guide, Ruedi Beglinger, has an amazingly good safety record — considering he takes people skiing in avalanche terrain year after year. Nonetheless, per common practice in European and Canadian guiding, Ruedi had a large group (21 customers) on an avalanche slope at one time, and this time he and his clients received the sometimes dire consequences of gang skiiing an avalanche slope.
On one side of the issue are people loyal to Ruedi (many are his friends and customers) who argue he made no mistakes, while others argue that Ruedi may have made mistakes, and perhaps Canadian backcountry ski guides should be more conservative in their approach.
(Having never been guided in Canada, my position is not firm. I’m uncomfortable with exposing more than one person at a time to avy hazard, but I understand that in large groups, spreading out over the landscape introduces other problems and hazards, such as guides not being able to care for clients.)
It’s an interesting discussion, since all backcountry skiing has risk, and the question is, how much risk mitigation is culturally and ethically acceptable? In other words, your guide may have you ski with a helmet, but does he have a helicopter hovering overhead with a trauma team at the ready? Or in the case of exposing groups to avalanche hazard (standard in non-guided groups is to expose one person at a time), what should the standard be? More, exactly how risky is being guided in Canada? My gut feeling is that it’s incredibly safe to ski with a guide like Ruedi, but it would be nice to see some numbers that compared the risk of driving to Canada with that of skiing backcountry powder once you get there.