Opinion Column

Mountain disaster

By Steve Burgess

Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains. (Postmedia Network/Files)

Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains. (Postmedia Network/Files)

Riding through Stanley Park on Sunday I looked up to see the North Shore mountains, their white snow shining through a break in the clouds on what passes for a sunny day in spring 2017. It is a reliably beautiful sight this time of year. I couldn't see the helicopters, didn't know that even as I looked a grim operation was underway. Five bodies were being located and removed from the slopes of Mount Harvey near Lion's Bay. On Saturday afternoon a group of local snowshoers, unaware that they had wandered onto an unstable shelf of snow, plunged down the steep face of the mountain when it gave way. A sixth hiker was saved only by the fact that he had lagged behind the others, one of those random tricks of fate that tends to leave people scrambling to draw some sort of meaningful conclusion other than the most terrifying one: that the line between life and death is often a random scribble.

Mountains are dangerous. Everest is an open-air graveyard, its slopes dotted with frozen bodies of climbers who succumbed to hypoxia and fatigue and weather over the years. Yet our mountains are not the Himalayas. They require no oxygen tanks to ascend and can often be reached via public transit. We rarely ever see a disaster of this magnitude. And it is the very welcoming quality of our wild landscape that holds its own dangers. When it comes to our scenic peaks, familiarity and accessibility are a blessing and a curse. Himalayan climbers at least know the danger they face, and the challenge forces them to prepare. Many of those who set out for an encounter with local mountains do not. Proximity breeds overconfidence, and accessibility increases the odds of trouble.

The victims of this tragedy were experienced hikers and the avalanche threat for their route was not high. But this time of year always holds extra dangers in the back country. Now we are all getting a reluctant introduction to the term “cornice,” a deceptive outcropping of snow that can trick hikers into thinking they are on solid ground when in fact they are walking onto a trap door. The doomed group did not carry all the equipment that caution would dictate. But it is unlikely that any extra gear would have saved them—the catastrophe was swift and decisive. Five lives is a horrible price for another reminder that our beautiful mountain backdrop can kill.