Like the Snow, Risk Is Part of the Landscape

Times Staff Writer

The calling card of this rugged slice of British Columbia is extreme sports -- high-glacier skiing, mountaineering -- and inherent in these activities is risk. Helicopters fly in snowstorms, residents drive snow-packed roads in the dark, and the threat of avalanches is a fact of life.

So, although the deaths of seven skiers in an avalanche last week saddened residents and ski guides and caused an invasion of media, people here say they won't change how they live, or how they play.

"It's part of the reality here," said Cathy English, 46, curator of the Revelstoke Museum and Archives. To live here is to live for the snow, which falls in dry, powdery flakes.

"It's some of the best snow in the world," said Dan Herby, 41, a general contractor from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, who last week made his ninth ski visit here. Herby should know. He was once a member of the U.S. ski team.

He favors heli-skiing: With a helicopter instead of a chair lift, he is ferried to a mountaintop and then whooshes down.

"Life is a risk," Herby said before heading to the slopes Friday, his avalanche beacon strapped securely across his chest. "You could step off a curb and get hit by a bus."

Such apples-and-oranges logic -- people must cross streets, but they don't have to tempt fate on snow-packed peaks -- doesn't deter these folks from invoking the risk in mundane activities. A few noted with genuine fear that L.A. freeways can be harrowing.

Revelstoke sits on the east bank of the Columbia River in a valley formed by the Selkirk Mountains to the north, east and south and the Monashee Mountains to the west. During the short days of winter, a gray pallor settles over the town, making high noon not much brighter than dusk.

This modest burg of 8,800 is a collection of unpretentious wood-frame houses, its center a sprinkling of low-slung stores and offices. It lacks the glossy veneer of Aspen or other popular resorts. It also lacks their congestion. There's plenty of parking on MacKenzie Avenue, the main thoroughfare lined with coffee shops, ski outfitters and tchotchke stores. There are no meters, no complicated parking restrictions -- just thigh-high piles of snow where the curb should be.

"It's picturesque," said Jeremy Peterson, 23, working in his mother's coffee shop, Conversations. Peterson was born in Los Angeles but moved here with his family when he was 9. "We were on our way to Alaska and this place looked good," he said. "So we stayed."

Peterson snowboards here regularly (he also surfs in Hawaii). "Usually, if you go into the back-country, you are with a guide who knows what he is doing," he said. "If an avalanche happens, it happens -- same as getting pinned under by a wave."

Revelstoke was settled in 1885 by men building the Canadian Pacific Railway that would link British Columbia with the rest of the country. The worst avalanche tragedy in this area involved not skiers, but railway workers.

In March 1910, a crew was clearing snow from an avalanche off some railroad tracks an hour east of the town when it was hit by another snowslide. Fifty-eight men were killed.

The railway is still a significant employer here. Other industries are forestry and mining. But tourism reigns: When people aren't skiing, climbing and snowmobiling, they're hiking through alpine meadows filled with summer flowers. On weekend nights, skiers and locals jam the Regent Inn's popular bar, where they dance and watch regular Sharon Shook -- a lumber grader by day who dons a cocktail dress and satin gloves at night -- as she belts out "Mustang Sally."

Then there is the business of investigating avalanches. The Canadian Avalanche Assn., with quarters in the center of town, produces a detailed daily avalanche-risk bulletin. But what its employees pride themselves on is a highly technical snow and weather profile of every mountain range in British Columbia and Alberta, issued every day for "avalanche professionals."

"On any given day in the winter, there are 500 or more workers in B.C. whose job is avalanche protection," said Clair Israelson, 53, managing director of the nonprofit association.

Unlike earthquakes, avalanches can be predicted -- sort of. "The science of avalanche forecasting is reasonably well understood," Israelson said. "But we can't forecast for every specific slope."

"When the avalanche association gives out a report, that's like a weatherman saying there will be showers," said Marcello Garrisi, 33, a local outfitter. "Those are general conditions."

Garrisi and his wife, Sasha Stout, run Revelstoke Alpine Equipment. Recently, champion snowboarder Craig Kelly, who died in Monday's snowslide, dropped in to say hello.

"You just have to be aware of your surroundings," Garrisi said. The merchant's inventory will soon include the AvaLung, a device for breathing under snow.

Syd Blackwell, who runs the Wintergreen Inn, lodged most of the skiers who joined last week's ill-fated expedition. He saw the survivors when they returned from the mountain, devastated and drained.

Blackwell recalled: "Every one of them said to me, 'We'll be back next year.' "

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