PHOTO: RYAN BRAY//PARKS CANADA
PHOTO: RYAN BRAY//PARKS CANADA
PHOTOS SUPPLIED BY NORRIS YEUNG
JASPER SCRAMBLER CAUGHT IN AVALANCHE ON DESCENT FROM MT. EDITH CAVELL
A Jasper woman is thankful to be alive after being caught in an avalanche on Mount Edith Cavell.
On September 13, Rikke Liisberg-Foss and her scrambling partner, Norris Yeung, began what was supposed to be a terrific cap to a summer of scrambling. What the trip ended up being was a long, harrowing day after the duo failed to heed their own better judgement.
“I told myself to respect the conditions, but I didn’t,” Liisberg-Foss said. “I knew all the risks and I ignored them.”
All summer long, Liisberg-Foss was itching to get up Mount Edith Cavell. She had scrambled up more than a dozen mountains when she decided that she was ready for Cavell’s west ridge.
“I had an idea the whole summer to train to go up Athabasca or Cavell,” she said.
When she and Yeung met at 2 a.m., they were both aware that they had never climbed a mountain together, but they felt confident in their own abilities. The going wasn’t easy, but it was engaging and fun. However, they could see the upper mountain had accumulated snow.
“It was two feet deep in some places, but in other places it was firm,” Liisberg-Foss said.
Eventually, the pair used that firm snow to gain the summit ridge, traversing a steep, southwest feature that supported their bootsteps early in the day. By noon, Liisberg-Foss and Yeung were nearing the top, but the intensity of their objective was becoming more and more apparent. As they moved along near the top of the mountain, evidence of avalanches gave them pause.
“Avalanches were banging all around us,” she said. “Every minute a big slab or debris would fall off a rock.”
RIKKE LIISBERG-FOSS AND HER HUSBAND BRAD WERE REUNITED AFTER RIKKE HAD A HARROWING ACCIDENT ON MOUNT EDITH CAVELL//BOB COVEY
Despite their trepidations, they pushed on in the exposed terrain. By 2 p.m., they were on the summit. However, instead of taking celebratory selfies, Liisberg-Foss and Yeung debated calling for a rescue. Because the weather was warming, Liisberg-Foss didn’t want to traverse down the steep snow slope they came up. Yeung, on the other hand, didn’t want to down-climb an exposed rock band. Thinking they’d be on the hook for the price of a rescue, they decided not to dial 911. They were also embarrassed that they put themselves in the situation in the first place. They convinced themselves they’d be OK, and started down the south ridge, which led back the way they came.
Soon they were knee-deep in snow and looking down at the slope they had ascended. Evidence of avalanches increased, but they felt they were out of options. Liisberg-Foss led, but their progress was slow.
“It took us forever to traverse,” she said. “It was very steep.”
Nearing the end of the gully, the snow got deeper and softer. Just as Liisberg-Foss started to find firmer foot placements and turned to watch Yeung, she heard a loud crack. Four metres above her, a fracture in the snow opened up. It was an avalanche.
“I thought ‘shit,’” she said. “Then I thought ‘get your ice axe.’”
A 15 metre-wide avalanche plowed into and over her, shaking her loose from her perch and momentarily dragging her under the snow. At first she slid with the avalanche, feet first, paralyzed with fear. Then something clicked inside her and she started to swim.
“I used my legs to kick,” she said. “And I jammed my ice axe into the rocks.”
The slope flattened out, but not until Liisberg-Foss had been dragged 75 metres down the gully. As she arrested herself on the rocks, she watched the avalanche cascade below her.
“It was the most scary moment of my life,” Liisberg-Foss said. “I feel so lucky that I got out of it alive.”
Liisberg-Foss had injured her foot in the accident, but she righted herself and made her way back up to where Yeung had been. With most of the snow slope having slid away, they continued their descent, eventually gaining the west ridge and a modicum of safety.
But her foot was getting worse. As they picked their way down the scree slope that led to the base of the mountain, each step was more agonizing than the last.
Very slowly, they descended towards the Verdant Pass trail, Liisberg-Foss using her hiking poles as crutches and eventually, Yeung carrying her part of the way on his back.
“Norris was a champ, he was like a sherpa,” Liisberg-Foss said.
A full moon guided their path, but soon it was midnight and they were still a long way from the Astoria Trail. Finally, at 2 a.m., Yeung got cell service. After an initial call to his roommate dropped, Yeung frantically searched for a cell signal again. When he got one, Liisberg-Foss called her fiancé, who immediately gathered an emergency kit, called Parks Canada, and struck out to meet them. When he arrived on the trail, at nearly 4 a.m., he put her in a sleeping bag and gave her food. Parks Canada public safety members would be along at first light.
“I felt the happiest I had been in so long,” Liisberg-Foss said. “I was really embarrassed, but really happy.”
Liisberg-Foss admits she was careless in her risk management, but less forgivable, for her, was ignoring her inner voice that said the route they were on was too dangerous. She feels not calling for a rescue was a mistake, too, but the bigger issue was letting her ambitions get in the way of her safety.
“I like to get things done,” the 26-year-old said. “But it’s just not worth it when it’s not the right time for it.”
On September 26, she and Foss got married. Her family flew from Denmark to join in the celebration. Liisberg-Foss knows how close she came to missing that occasion, all for a moment on the mountain.
“That avalanche is something that will always stick with me,” she said. “When I look back I see I was taking a lot of risks. I’m not willing to do that again.”