The mother of a 45-year-old Squamish man who died in an avalanche described her son as a kind soul who would give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it.
“There was apparently a small avalanche that knocked over [his partner] first, and he got her secured and got their boards on and decided they had to get out of there fast,” Newton told The Chief on Feb. 16.
“He zoomed ahead and she was following, but the rest of the mountain came down and that was it.”The avalanche was classified as a Size 1 by Avalanche Canada, which is the smallest rating an avalanche can have from a scale of up to five.
Newton, a resident of Omaha, Nebraska, said her son meant the world to her.
“He was a free spirit and he loved life and adventure to the fullest and pushed the envelope, and loved rock climbing, snowboarding. Those were his passions,” she said.
“He was very generous with everything he had. He was willing to give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.”
She added she’d been told stories of her son’s kindness from those who knew him.
In one example, a friend of Henkel told her he would loan his truck to friends anytime they needed it.
“If you needed it, you had it,” she said.
Henkel also made a lot of friends, many of whom he taught how to rock climb or snowboard, she said.
Newton also added that while Henkel liked extreme sports, he took pains to practice them safely.
“He loved his family. He loved life. He was a free spirit,” she said.
“He was doing what he loved.”
Whistler Search and Rescue president Brad Sills said rescuers dispatched a doctor, a dog, two avalanche forecasters, and six rescue technicians to the scene on Saturday.
He said the terrain where the snowboarder was found is steep, angled at over 40 degrees.
Brandywine Meadows is a popular destination north of Squamish during all four seasons. It is a hiking and climbing destination during the summer and is a snowmobiling and ski touring area during the winter.
Calls like these are never easy.
“It does take its toll, without a doubt, especially when it’s a community member that we know — it’s particularly difficult,” Sills said.
He noted that authorities have issued avalanche warnings for the Sea to Sky, and he warned the snowpack this year is perilous.
“Previous behaviours are not going to do you well this year. If you’ve been skiing slopes for years and thinking, ‘Well I’ve skied it last year, it’s great,’ — it’s not going to work this year,” Sills said.
Generally, B.C. south coast has a reputation for having a stable and relatively easy risk assessment, he said.
Snow is usually quite moist and layers fall upon each other and bond quite well, he said.
“That’s why we produce some of the best freeriding skiers in the world, because we can ski this terrain. Well, this year we don’t have that snowpack,” said Sills.
This year, the snowpack more closely resembles that found in the Rockies, he said.
Furthermore, multi-directional wind loading is masking the clues that advanced skiers use to determine whether the snow is stable or not.
“I call it spooky snowpack,” Sills said. “It’s definitely weird weather.”
He said the rain, warm cycles, cold nights, and other weather occurring since December have been unusual for the coast.
“We had cold periods and a shallow snowpack at the start, which is quite unusual,” Sills said.
This year’s snowfall wasn’t continuous but started and stopped in fits, he added.
“It’s advisable to dial it way, way, way back — back to skiing that you probably would not find particularly appealing, but that’s the level that we’re looking at,” Sills said.
Grant Helgeson, a senior forecaster with Avalanche Canada, had a similar assessment.
He said an atmospheric river weather event will be coming to the coastal region this upcoming weekend, further testing a relatively unstable snowpack.
“I think it’s time to take a big step back,” said Helgeson.
Danger ratings may come down, but this year’s conditions are still very uncertain, he said.
“I have lost friends in the mountains, and I think it’s really important to remember — definitely in times like these — when you have a tricky snowpack that backcountry skiing, backcountry recreation is actually a bloodsport,” said Helgeson. “You’re playing for keeps out there.”
Helgeson said the snowpack this year has caused challenges for backcountry recreationalists in B.C.’s coast, because old guidelines for safety don’t work in these circumstances.
A previous rule of thumb was that skiing was possible 24 hours after a storm event, but that bit of advice does not apply to the snow this year.
Furthermore, areas that may have been considered safe zones for years may not be safe at all this season.
A recent stream of Arctic air created differing wind conditions, which may be confusing for even the most experienced backcountry riders.
“All the places that may have been your safe places before are now the places that might actually have the wind slab,” said Helgeson. “And to make matters worse, that wind slab was sitting on all that rotten snow created by the Arctic air.”
Helgeson noted Brandywine may be heavily trafficked, but not all areas are safe.
He said the avalanche occurred in a border between relatively easy and more challenging terrain, but it didn’t occur in complex terrain where avalanches are most dangerous.
Sadly, he noted, it doesn’t require a big avalanche to lead to a death.
Sandra Riches, the executive director of BC AdventureSmart, said preparation is absolutely essential, but in some cases, good planning isn’t enough.
“It is a unique situation right now what the weather’s done,” said Riches.
“Sometimes the best plan is no plan at all. It’s a really conscious decision and a sound judgment to make is not to go and save it for another day. The mountains are going to be there for a really long time.”
Multiple SAR calls
The past week was filled with backcountry incidents that prompted rescue responses.
On Feb. 12, a party of three had to be rescued after two people were caught in an avalanche on the flank of Phalanx Mountain above Blackcomb Glacier/Creek.
Avalanche Canada reported two people were caught in a wind slab and were buried. One of them was recovered but the other died.
On Feb. 11, a military helicopter was called in to rescue two men from the Super Couloir area near Mamquam Mountain in Squamish.
One of them had broken his leg after being caught in an avalanche.
Rescuers were called out to help a lost skier at Red Heather Hut on Feb. 12, but that person was able to walk out on his own.
Finally, rescuers helped recover two people who were injured in a vehicle collision on Garibaldi Park Road, which is the access point for Red Heather Hut.
One person had a leg injury and another had a hip injury.
Squamish Search and Rescue has received 10 calls this year. These calls do not include the Whistler-area rescues, which are the responsibility of Whistler Search and Rescue.
In 2020, at this time of year, there were five calls. In 2019, there were seven.