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Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School honours 7 students killed in 2003 avalanche

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A Calgary-area school's student body and staff gathered Wednesday to remember the seven students who died in a 2003 avalanche along the Connaught Creek Trail in Rogers Pass.

Carol Grant-Watt, the head of school at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School (STS) in Okotoks, says the focus of the annual event is to inspire the school community to live their best lives.

"I believe that (students) take this very seriously," said Grant-Watt. "They understand the importance of it and I am so proud of this community when it comes together on Feb. 1 with the level of respect that our students have."

In 2003, 14 students and three adults participated in a field trip to the Connaught Creek trail to ski the back country, something Grade 10 students have been doing for years with the school.

All 17 people in the party were buried by an avalanche. Rescuers managed to dig out 10 members of the group, but Ben Albert, Daniel Arato, Scott Broshko, Alex Pattillo, Michael Shaw, Marissa Staddon and Jeffrey Trickett did not survive.

A memorial to the late students remains on display in the school library.

"I remember what I was doing on the day that the event happened," said Grant-Watt. "I feel like I know these kids. I've gotten to meet many of their families and I just feel a connection to the students.

"I come here so that I see their faces and make a quiet promise to them that we will continue to honor their memory."

Judith and Peter Arato's 15-year-old son Daniel is on that library memorial. The couple has spent years trying to find out what happened on that field trip and why.

"I think our goal at the very beginning was to understand the chain of causality that led to the deaths of these children," explained Judith Arato. "We wanted to leave no stone unturned until we understood how it came to be that seven children lost their lives on a school trip."

The Aratos have been instrumental in bringing about change at the school, Parks Canada and the guiding community with the safety of children at the forefront.

"It's probably time for somebody to take a step back and say 'okay, what do we do for the next 20 years?," she said. "Because complacency is the worst thing you can you can do when it comes to  safety for children, I mean safety for anybody but safety for children in particular, which is our area of interest."

Much has changed at the school since the tragedy and. while every student still participates in some form of outdoor learning including backcountry skiing, safety has become a core value and priority in all decision making.

"We bring in outside experts to vet and review our processes, make recommendations and then, most importantly, we implement them," said Grant-Watt. "We talk every day to our students about this. We invest in a lot of training for our staff and it's front and center."

STS regularly helps other schools and organizations assess and develop their risk management and safety systems as it has been certified by the Association for Experiential Education.

"We are continually contacted by schools from all over the world who want to learn more and understand what we do," Grant-Watt said. "So we're happy to share. We collaborate. We want every student who participates in these types of activities to be safe, to have an enjoyable experience and to make this a lifelong pursuit."

Avalanche Canada will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2004. James Floyer, a program director, says the organization was established as a direct result of the devastating 2003-04 avalanche season where 29 lives were lost.

"I'm 100 per cent certain that without Avalanche Canada in the mix we would be seeing a huge number of more fatalities per year," said Floyer. "We measure the fatalities over a 10 year period. We find that that gives the best representation of some kind of recent average and the 10 year running average. We're at 10 per year, which is 10 too many of course, but that's now consistent with the last time we saw those numbers way back in 1997."

Floyer says those are promising numbers as in 1997 there were only a fraction of backcountry users compared to today. He says the organization has recently updated its website to make it easier to find up-to-date avalanche conditions and is always striving to share valuable information with the public.

"We can work towards providing higher resolution forecasts, at least when and where they're needed," he said. "It's actually a building block for providing more computer based or automated or semi-automated forecasting processes as well.

"So I expect in five to 10 years on the horizon, we'll start to see those technologies come online."

Mountain guide Steve Blagbourgh was one of dozens of people helicoptered into the site of the 2003 avalanche to help with the rescue.

"It's hard to believe it's 20 years already. I think those sort of events remain very clear in your mind forever, really."

Blagbourgh still guides in Rogers Pass today and recalls guiding a group of adults through the same route on the Connaught Creek trail in the season that followed the STS tragedy.

"I remember getting to the spot where it happened," he said. "I actually just excused myself from the group for a few minutes and just had a sort of contemplation of what happened, I'm not a very religious person but I had a little prayer just there for sure."

The guest speaker at Wednesday's 20-year anniversary event at the school was Ryan Straschnitzki, a survivor of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash tragedy.

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