The Bow River, covered with ice, in Mînî Thnî on Wednesday (Jan. 3).Matthew Thompson/Rocky Mountain Outlook

Don’t let the thermometer fool you, it’s winter in the Rocky Mountains.

Whether it’s minus 25 degrees Celsius in mid-February with a biting wind chill or barely freezing in early January, the season demands caution and preparedness throughout.

“Avalanches are a big risk and they can kill you, but there’s also lots of other things out there that can kill you in the wintertime,” said Derek Ryder, director of the Friends of Kananaskis Country.

The Friends and Alberta Parks are hosting Winter Safety Day to educate the public on managing and mitigating risks while exposed to the elements, particularly in the Kananaskis and Bow Valley area, where visitation averages about four million people annually.

“This time of year represents a whole pile of special safety issues. There are avalanches, absolutely, but hypothermia is also a big risk, and cold water – there’s more people wild ice skating. There’s a lot more people out there doing a lot more things and there’s a big cross section of safety issues that come out of that,” said Ryder.

On Dec. 25, a 61-year-old Calgary man fell through the ice and drowned in the Bow River in Mînî Thnî. RCMP said it’s believed the man walked out onto the thin ice to take a photo of the scenery.

Without specialized equipment, including a boat that was called in from Cochrane RCMP and an ice rescue team from Canmore, first responders with Nakoda Emergency Services were unable to rescue the man due to the dangerously thin ice.

“That’s what needed to happen before anybody could go out. I saw pictures of the ice area and it was very treacherous, thin ice out there,” said RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Troy Savinkoff.

Nakoda Emergency Services director Reg Fountain noted warmer than average weather in the region is not supporting stable ice conditions on the Bow River and many other water bodies in the area, and extra caution is required when venturing near or on ice. 

He said there have been no other occurrences of people falling through ice on the river on the Nation in 2023-24, thus far, but the number of incidents is usually related to warming weather. 

“By this time last year, we’d already had two or three weeks of -20 or -30C and that ice was thick enough that people were racing cars and trucks on the Ghost Reservoir,” he pointed out. This year, however, seeing a pickup truck and a lone fishing shack on the lake recently was enough to give him pause.

On Dec. 26, a dive team recovered the Calgary man’s body a short distance away from where he fell through the ice, near Mînî Thnî Road.

That same day, a family of three that was reported missing and last believed to be using a UTV side-by-side, were found dead near a bridge on Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation west of Edmonton.

Recovery of the Pelsma family, including Kelly Pelsma, 39, Laura Pelsma, 37, and Dylan Pelsma, 8, was conducted by members of Parkland RCMP, Lac Ste Anne County Fire Service and an underwater recovery team.

The fatalities prompted Alberta RCMP to issue a warning against people going onto frozen rivers, lakes and other water bodies without measuring ice thickness, especially as warmer weather persists.

According to the Canadian Red Cross Society, ice should be at least 15 cm for a person to walk on, 20 cm for a group of people and 25 cm for a snowmobile or other off-highway vehicle. It also advises carrying an ice screw to measure thickness, carrying a safety rope and wearing a flotation device.

On Nov. 11, an avalanche near the Lone Ranger ice climbing route in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park fully buried and killed a 29-year-old Squamish, B.C. man. A 26-year-old woman also caught in the slide was partially buried and able to dig herself out.

In addition to checking weather and avalanche forecasts, Avalanche Canada advises anyone recreating in avalanche terrain have level 1 Avalanche Skills Training (AST 1) and carry tools, like a transceiver, probe, shovel, emergency communication device and avalanche airbag.

Ryder said Alberta Parks’ annual winter safety event used to focus solely on avalanche awareness and has not been held since 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the Friends helped to bring back the winter safety event to include avalanche information and workshops, but also information on ice safety, wild ice skating preparedness, building emergency winter shelters, Fat Biking, snowshoeing, backcountry and cross-country skiing, hiking, ice fishing and more.

“It doesn’t matter what activity you do, there will be somebody there talking about the kind of risks you can have, what you should be doing and what you should be carrying,” Ryder said.

The Canmore and Area Mountain Biking Association, Foothills Search and Rescue, Alberta Parks, Kananaskis Mountain Rescue and various other organizations are involved in the effort.

Don McPhalen, a certified avalanche dog handler with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) and medical director with KMR, will also be in attendance with his avalanche rescue dog, Java, to provide a search demonstration and teach others about how CARDA dogs are trained.

The KMR team, which performs backcountry search and rescue operations for the Kananaskis region, as well as avalanche forecasting, training and public outreach and education, responds to about 380 backcountry incidents annually, according to Alberta Parks.

The rescue agency operates 24/7, 365 days per year, but winter rescues present different challenges and hazards, Ryder noted.

“Folks need to be aware of things like how much more difficult rescues are in the winter – your days are shorter; your risk of overnighting is worse. If you overnight, you’re into much colder temperatures,” Ryder said. “There’s lots of different risks that exist.”

Winter Safety Day is free to attend and will run Saturday (Jan. 20) from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Burstall Pass trailhead and parking lot off Smith Dorrien Trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. For more information on the event visit:

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jan 07, 2024 at 14:53

This item reprinted with permission from   Rocky Mountain Outlook   Canmore, Alberta

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