Avalanche claims life of experienced skier

Many mourning loss of role model, thoughtful friend in Mt. Currie slide

Family, friends and members of the close-knit ski community are mourning an inspirational yet humble role model, a caring and thoughtful friend, a talented and intelligent skier and a genuinely great person after a Class 3 avalanche on Mount Currie claimed a life last Wednesday (March 31).

Noted big-mountain skier Jack Hannan, a Pemberton resident who made his mark in the area with his wide-ranging ski mountaineering over the past 10 years, is being remembered for his kindness, his love and respect for the mountains and his many talents after the powerful avalanche caught the 35-year-old during a scarce few minutes where he was in a vulnerable spot.

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Pemberton's Dave Treadway, the 25-year-old star in professional freeskiing and big-mountain skier, said Hannan was his role model, both as a "sensei" for Treadway in skiing and in the admirable relationship Hannan had with his wife Laura Ogden, a fellow freeskiing champion and companion in pioneering ski areas around Pemberton.

"The thing with Jack is I just can't really think of anything, from all the time that I knew him, that is negative. I have nothing bad to say. For me, he was my role model," Treadway said on Sunday (April 4), citing Hannan's intelligence on the mountains and far-reaching skiing around the area. "He was quite humble, and yet he was a leader."

Frank Konsella, a fellow mountain lover and backcountry skier, first met Hannan in the winter of 1996-'97 in Crested Butte, Colo., and watched as Hannan went on to achieve a long string impressive results in top freeskiing competitions. Konsella wrote a blog post on Sunday to say Hannan's death means the world has "lost one of the best people ever to walk the Earth."

"Impressive always came easily for Jack, not that you'd ever know it, as Jack was as humble as they come," Konsella wrote, describing Hannan's forays on mountain bikes and snowmobiles, his patience as a teacher, his prowess in building houses and his comprehensive exploration of the skiing around Pemberton and Whistler along with his close friend Jon Johnston.

Treadway was part of the four-person ski party with Hannan in Wednesday's excursion on Mount Currie, along with Ogden and Treadway's wife Tessa, another accomplished freeskier.

The avalanche hazard was rated at considerable in the alpine, moderate at the treeline and low below the treeline that day, Treadway said, but when the skiers checked the avalanche stability and conditions, there didn't seem to be any red flags that would warn them off. While driving to the Pemberton airport, he and Hannan talked over the primary dangers they might face, and made plans for how they should approach the run.

Treadway was skiing the 8,501-foot Mount Currie for his second time, but Hannan had skied the mountain that looms over the Pemberton Valley quite a few times, Treadway said.

After getting a helicopter lift to the lofty summit, Treadway said the group called a friend off site to lay out their exact plan for the day, and then hiked to the start of the line they sought to ski, known as the Y Couloir, on the striking north face of the mountain.

After taking their time to test for avalanche possibilities, do some ski cutting and establish confidence in the snow, Treadway said the skiers then dropped into their line, skiing the whole run in a leapfrogging pattern with the person in the back pressing forward until he or she became tired and then tucked into a safe spot.

"We skied it quite efficiently and safe, (and) the snow was feeling really good," Treadway said.

It was a beautiful day, and Treadway said the skiers soaked up the experience, sharing high-fives, smiles and shouts of excitement. During one moment when he stopped in a safe spot with Hannan, he said, "we high-fived, and we were both saying this was the best run of the year."

At the bottom of the chute, members of the group were exiting into their selected safe spot and encountered a roll that caused some concerns because it had some sunshine beaming on it, Treadway said. Hannan offered to test out a way to get around the bottom of the spot, and he took about eight turns down from Ogden and Tessa Treadway to check it out.

Finding that was quite tricky terrain, Treadway said Hannan prepared to put on the skins used to make uphill progress so he could climb back up past the few turns he had made.

In those few moments of vulnerability for Hannan, the tragic slide started.

Poised above the others in a safe spot, Treadway said he was staring up at the top of the mountain, and saw a slide start coming down, while the women were in safe spots and Hannan had paused in that vulnerable place.

Treadway said he yelled a warning at the others, and saw Hannan start running for the side. But the frighteningly forceful avalanche reached Hannan in a matter of 10 to 15 seconds, Treadway estimated, and carried him over some 800 vertical feet of cliffs. Treadway said he thought his friend would have died before the slide stopped.

"We skied in safe zones the whole way so that at any given time there was only one person that was exposed to the slope, and Jack, essentially, was trying to find us a safer way out of the spot, out of the chute. He was putting himself into a vulnerable situation so that we would all be safer in getting out," Treadway said.

"Unfortunately, that four to five minutes that he was exposed, it was just bad timing, and that's when the avalanche came down."

The skiers regrouped quickly after tragedy struck, Treadway said. They called their off-mountain friend to alert him to the details in 20 to 30 seconds and seek a call to authorities, and then Treadway and Ogden searched for Hannan using their transceivers and equipment.

Ogden, a nursing student who has almost completed her program, was the one who found her husband buried under one to three feet of snow, Treadway said. Checking his pulse, she found nothing.

After Treadway called their off-site friend again to tell him of Hannan's death, asking only for a helicopter for help to get off the mountain, Ogden concentrated on building a landing pad, while Treadway took on the devastating duty of going back up to pull his friend off the mountain.

"That was probably the hardest thing I'll ever have to do, and it's the hardest thing I ever have done I think, without the faith in God that I have, I don't know how I would have gotten through it. I hope that no one ever has to go through that in their life," Treadway said.

The call to the RCMP triggered the activation of the Integrated Avalanche Rescue Plan, which involved a coordinated response from the RCMP, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol members, Whistler and Pemberton Search and Rescue team members, and Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association personnel. The responders evacuated the three skiers, according to an RCMP statement, and then recovered the body.

The ski community has rallied to support Ogden and Hannan's other loved ones, and plans for memorial events are underway in Pemberton and Crested Butte. A donation account has been established to help Ogden finish nursing school, and Konsella said anyone wishing to show sympathy with a contribution can send cheques made out to "Jack Hannan Memorial" to the Bank of the West, P.O. Box 429, Crested Butte, Colo., 81224.

Treadway said it's been amazing to see the flow of support and love here, like the gesture from the group of friends who recently got together to complete a week or two's worth of maintenance work on Hannan's and Ogden's house in a day, so their Pemberton home could be ready to host family members.

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