By Steve Hubrecht
An Invermere man died last week in a freak backcountry skiing accident in Kananaskis country.
Konan Wendt, a 40-year old Columbia Valley resident, was skiing with a group of three other skiers near the Robertson Glacier, when his skis bottomed out in the low, early-season snow cover, and he pitched forward into a rocky area, resulting in severe traumatic head and brain injuries. Wendt was on low angled (i.e. a relatively flat) terrain — ‘ski out’ of sorts — at the time of the accident and was not wearing a helmet. The accident was not an avalanche incident.
The incident occurred on Monday, Oct. 19. The skiers all had plenty of backcountry skiing experience. As soon and the incident occurred, Wendt’s skiing companions began administering first aid, called for emergency rescue and cleared a landing site for a helicopter. Alberta Parks’ Kananaskis Public Safety (KPS) got the call for help at 2:30 p.m. and responded immediately, sending staff and a helicopter.
“It was quite quick. The friends on the ground did an excellent job providing care. They had everything ready and did everything they could to give their friend the best chance (of survival),” KPS public safety specialist Mike Koppang told the Pioneer, adding that Wendt had been transferred by helicopter to an ambulance waiting at the trailhead within an hour of the initial radio call. Unfortunately, Wendt’s injuries were too severe, and according to the accounts of his ski companions, he had already died.
“I can’t be 100 per cent sure, why he had taken his helmet off, but he was in a part of the area that is relatively flat, with a few rollers. The subject was on a split board, and it was flat enough that he was not snowboarding anymore. He had moved it (the split board) into ski mode,” said Koppang. “It is not uncommon to pull your helmet off when the terrain is that flat. I’ve done it myself in the past.”
A KPS social media post that came out following the incident noted that snow cover in the area was about 10 to 30 centimetres deep at the treeline, too shallow to cover many of the rocks and much of the ground debris in the area. The post also said that avalanche forecasters witnessed many loose dry avalanches off steep terrain, not running very far but still active, and that the consequences of being caught in even a small slid would result in injury due to the lack of snow and the chance of a ride over rocky terrain.
“The potential to hit a rock always exists, but it is more likely earlier in the season, when there is not a big snowpack down low yet. It could happen any time of year, but it more likely early in the season,” said Koppang, adding that Robertson Glacier is a popular early season destination for backcountry skiers, and that several other groups had been in the area the day before the accident.
Wendt worked as part of the local B.C. Wildfire Service Invermere crew (he was featured along with his fellow crew members in the Pioneer’s fire prevention feature just four weeks ago) and for local heliski company Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). Friends remember him as somebody who truly loved the great outdoors and who was extremely cautious when it came to the risks associated with playing and working in the backcountry.
“Everyone in our group had 10+ years of experience in the backcountry, worked in the field, had avalanche training, mountaineering experience, wilderness first aid training, carried medical supplies, emergency supplies, radios, inReach, etc.,” wrote Wendt’s friend and fellow CMH employee Patrick Skelton in a Facebook post after the accident. “We went up the Robertson Glacier, and we were having a great time. About 100 meters below the col, we decided that we didn’t like the weather or the hazards. We decided to play it safe, nerd out with a snow profile and skied down from there on low angle terrain.”
Skelton continued that once the group was down on the moraine, on “very low angle terrain,” Konan appeared to catch an edge and went headfirst into a rock.
“We immediately had the inReach (a two-way satellite communication device) triggered. Made contact with Kananaskis Public Safety via the ACMG radio channel, and the heli(copter) was on the ground in 30 minutes. While they were getting to us, we stabilized him, built a stretcher with his split board and an emergency tarp. We treated the wound, cleared his airway, started performing CPR and stomped out a helicopter landing with markers. Visibility was terrible, and I am humbled by the (fast) response time for Kananaskis Public Safety via Alpine Helicopters,” wrote Skelton. “Unfortunately, there was nothing that we or anyone else could (have) done, short of him taking that fall in an ICU (intensive care unit). When KPS landed, we tried an AED (automated external defibrillator), but he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. He passed in my arms… his helmet was in his backpack… I’ve had some terrible things happen over the years, but this takes the cake for worst day ever. It doesn’t even seem real yet.”
Skelton pleaded with other backcountry users to be careful this season. “Wear your helmet. Take an avalanche course. Carry emergency supplies. Take a first aid course. I lost not just a friend but a man that changed my life and made me a better person,” he wrote.