Early avalanche fatality raises awareness for skiing safety

Winter is at least a month away for most places in the Northern Hemisphere, but unfortunately the season’s first avalanche fatality has been recorded. Trevor Sexsmith, a 27-year old skier based out of Golden, British Columbia, died on Sunday, Sept. 25, while skiing Mount Victoria in Banff National Park. Sexsmith and a friend had been making their way up Victoria’s East Face that day when they encountered unfavorable conditions and decided to turn around. During the descent, Sexsmith was knocked off his feet by a small slide and was swept over a 328-feet cliff to his death. The slide was only about six-inches deep.  

I did not know Sexsmith, but I was familiar with his skiing exploits. I had read many of his trip reports on online ski forums and his blog, perpetualski.ca. His skiing accomplishments consistently blew me away, as they often entailed descending big mountain lines alone and during unconventional times of the year. He put together some of the most impressive summer and fall ski descents I’ve ever seen, and I don’t throw that praise around lightly. One of his most recent, and tragically last, descents made the rounds online just two weeks prior to his death. It entailed his dazzling descent of a powdery spine wall on Mount Warren in Jasper National Park. Upon ogling the photos of his tracks down the spine wall, the last thing I expected to find myself reading was Sexsmith’s obituary just a few days later.  

The news of Sexsmith’s death came as a shock to me. It’s never people like Sexsmith that you expect to read about dying in the mountains, people with so much experience and knowledge. And yet, more often than not, experienced backcountry skiers are the ones who die in avalanches.  In the backcountry, it takes just one mistake to erase a lifetime of good decision making. One misstep in judgment, one missed calculation, and the entire mountain will come crashing down in a plume of snow and rock. Mountains do not deal in sympathy, even to the experienced.

Sexsmith’s death stands as a stark reminder that early season snowpacks shouldn’t be taken lightly. The snowpack is often riddled with weak layers early in the season, and dangers like cliffs and crevasses that get buried by midwinter are still front and center. It doesn’t take much to get seriously injured or killed skiing early in the winter. The slide that pushed Sexsmith over the cliff was nothing significant; it was just big enough to knock him off his feet. So as the beginning of the ski season in southwest Montana is now probably just a week or two away, remember to keep it in check, at least until the rocks get buried and the snowpack consolidates a bit. The mountains won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.