Avalanche survivor takes a hard look at guide culture

A former TRU instructor shares his experience surviving an avalanche, and the aftermath that followed

Ken Wylie was one of the lucky ones.

In January 2003, he was one of six pulled from the snow alive after an avalanche hit the backcountry ski group he was guiding, killing seven.

His book, “Buried,” which Wylie presented on campus last week to the public and adventure tourism students, explores how his own human error played into the events of that day.

Wylie was working for Selkirk Mountain Experience as an assistant guide when he and lead guide Ruedi Beglinger, a well-known guide with an unblemished 18-year safety record, left for a week-long trip into the backcountry outside of Revelstoke. The 24 skiers were on their third day when trouble hit.

Former TRU instructor Ken Wylie speaks on human error and the avalanche that killed seven people in 2003. (Alexis Stockford/The Omega)

Former TRU instructor Ken Wylie speaks on human error and the avalanche that killed seven people in 2003. (Alexis Stockford/The Omega)

Wylie said he had doubts about La Traviata, a technical slope the group had been eyeing, before he even began to climb.

“The terrain was steep and imposing and rock studded, and rocks mean that there’s weaknesses embedded into the snow pack,” he said. “It’s kind of like drilling holes in a piece of plywood and then you can snap it along those holes.”

That, plus stories from other local guides and awareness that the weather earlier in the winter may have led to unstable layers underneath the snow, made Wylie suspicious of the ground under his feet.

Despite his doubts, he said nothing to Beglinger.

That silence, Wylie told the 40-person audience gathered in the Alumni Theatre on Nov. 11, was due in part to his desire for Beglinger’s acceptance, a disconnect between the two guides that made Wylie reluctant to speak, a lack of social courage to go against authority and the hierarchical guide system where the lead guide had final say over where the group would go.

“I see that as a deadly dynamic,” he told his audience. “We weren’t working as a team.”

Terry Palechuk, a mountain guide and adventure studies instructor at TRU, said he has never personally experienced the sort of rigid hierarchy that Wylie described.

“Anything that I’ve been involved in, even with some very old, experienced guides – we would have discussions. We would go ‘Well, what do you think?’” he said.

He also said that he tries to foster that collaborative attitude when he takes clients into the backcountry and when he is in the field with TRU students.

“It’s a learning environment, always,” Palechuk said. “So I want to know what they’re thinking and I [tell] them, ‘If you’re not sure, I want you to ask me. In this group, I have one set of eyes, but amongst eight of us, we have eight sets of eyes and we can see more.’”

According to Palechuk, the role of lead and apprentice guides should create an environment where apprentice guides benefit and learn from the lead guide’s experience, although he also said that some guides are more prolific in their mentoring roles than others.

The snow clears

After recovering from his brush with death, Wylie came to TRU as an instructor in the adventure studies department, later developing stress-related health problems. He left the university in 2007.

Some have said that the avalanche in 2003, as well as another in Glacier National Park less than two weeks later that killed seven high school students, helped change back country guiding, but Wylie said he does not think those changes are industry-wide.

“There have been some changes,” he said. “Some guides have embraced change. Some guides have worked better as teams, and yet there’s some work to do.”

He encouraged current adventure studies students to take their time through their education, gain as much real-world experience as possible and spend time in self-reflection.

“Through knowing themselves and knowing their biases and knowing their faults and knowing their Achilles heels, they’ll make better decisions,” he said.