- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2003

REVELSTOKE, British Columbia, Jan. 21 (UPI) — Investigators Tuesday began trying to determine what triggered an avalanche that killed seven skiers in the mountains of western Canada even as the danger of more deadly slides remained high.

The Canadian Avalanche Association warned that conditions around the British Columbia resort town of Revelstoke were still ripe for avalanches such as the one that swept over a party of skiers in the Selkirk Mountains on Monday, burying 11 of them and killing seven.

"The frequency of avalanches observed has declined, but their size has not," the agency said in a warning to other skiers planning on venturing into the British Columbia backcountry. "Each day large avalanches continue to be reported in the Selkirks. Tragically, a large avalanche in the…region occurred on Monday, resulting in multiple fatalities."

Investigators were not certain Tuesday what triggered Monday's avalanche and why it hit one group of skiers while another nearby party was left unscathed.

"What I understand is that there were two groups traversing the area — a higher group and a lower group," Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Randy Brown told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "It was the lower group that was struck by the avalanche."

The RCMP said they were looking into the possibility that the higher group may have accidentally triggered the avalanche that roared down on the group below.

Snow conditions have grown increasingly dangerous in the region since Christmas, the Avalanche Association said. A thin film of icy particles — known as surface hoar — or "hoarfrost," had been gradually buried by subsequent snowfalls, leaving tons of snow precariously held on the mountainside by what basically was a layer of unstable ice.

"This layer can be difficult to find, and although strength tests indicate an improving trend, it remains a concern," the association said.

The names of Monday's victims were not released Tuesday, however four Americans were said to be among the victims. They included three California residents and a man from Littleton, Colo.

The other victims were identified only as Canadians, including a man from Nelson, B.C., who reportedly was professional snowboarder Craig Kelley who was also a guide to the backcountry area that is a popular destination for skiers who fly into remote areas by helicopter.

Kelley, 36, was called a champion who "left an indelible mark on the sport of snowboarding" by his sponsor Burton Snowboards of Vermont.

"I can't think of a bigger loss to the sport, and to all of us personally," Jake Burton said on his company's Web site. "To be world freestyle champion four times and rule the sport the way he did was a huge accomplishment, but to retire from competing and go on to become a backcountry guide says far more about him."

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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