2 snowmobilers die in massive Canadian avalanche

  • Sun Mar 14th, 2010 11:48pm
  • News

Los Angeles Times and Associated Press

SEATTLE — An estimated 200 spectators and participants were accounted for Sunday after a massive avalanche smothered a high-risk snowmobile rally in southern British Columbia, killing two men and injuring 30 others.

“We’re more optimistic today than we were yesterday. There are still two deceased, but it’s certainly a small miracle that we didn’t end up with a complete, massive group buried under the snow,” said Cpl. Dan Moskaluk of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Moskaluk later said the search is over. He said they have searched for abandoned vehicles and canvassed area hotels and there is nobody that they know of left unaccounted.

An even worse tragedy may have been averted because many of the snowmobilers had come equipped with avalanche recovery equipment and dug people out even before rescuers arrived at the scene, according to police.

An avalanche 150 yards wide and as long as 1.6 miles long thundered down a steep snow bowl at the Canadian Rocky Mountain resort of Revelstoke, B.C., where competitors on high-powered snow machines were attempting to scale the treacherous slope during an unsanctioned rally Saturday afternoon.

“From the information that we have, it was triggered by the snowmobilers,” said Greg Johnson, forecaster at the Canadian Avalanche Center in Revelstoke. “It swept over lots and lots of snowmobiles, trees. It is a very large avalanche, and there is debris everywhere.”

Canadian officials in recent years have been battling an increasing number of avalanche deaths, often among snowmobilers who authorities say are using ever-more-powerful machines to ascend steep, high-risk slopes, often in unstable snow conditions.

There have been four avalanche fatalities already this season. Last year, 26 died, prompting the avalanche center to warn, in a report called “The Year of Sledding Dangerously,” that snowmobilers had been largely ignoring warnings to avoid steep, unstable slopes in the mountainous backcountry.

The report said authorities had shown so little success in getting snowmobilers to heed their warnings they had begun targeting wives and mothers with their advertising campaign. Accident investigations had demonstrated “some stunningly aggressive terrain choices,” the report said. “It’s hard to watch as the same avalanche accident scenario unfolds again and again.”

Conditions this month due to unusual weather conditions were “unprecedented,” prompting the issuance of special avalanche warnings each weekend for the last month. “We’ve never done that before,” Johnson said.

A relatively dry, low-snowfall winter allowed a number of weaknesses to form in the upper portion of the snowpack, he said. That was followed by a strong storm on Thursday and Friday. “The snow that fell overloaded those weaknesses in the snowpack, and created a generally unstable situation,” he said.

Participants had gathered for the annual, unofficial Big Iron Shoot Out rally in an area of remote Boulder Mountain known as the Turbo Bowl, an event which has drawn criticism from other snowmobiling groups in the past for its risk-taking nature.

“It’s essentially high marking, which refers to these individuals with the high-powered, custom snowmobiles who ascend very steep inclines to get as close to the top, or up to the top, as possible,” Moskaluk said.

The tally Sunday was one critical injury among the 30 injured, with 19 people treated and released at the local hospital.

The number of fatalities might have been higher, but many participants appeared to have utilized self-rescue equipment, which can include search probe sticks, air bladders and global positioning system locator beacons.

George Hall, who came up from Montana for the event, turned and wrapped his arms around his 13-year-old son in the seconds before the avalanche swept over them. The two tumbled together down the side of Boulder Mountain.

Hall was knocked unconscious, coming to as rescuers frantically dug him free to see his son was still by his side.

His son, also named George, said he saw stars floating in front of his eyes as the raging snow tore their bags, gloves and helmets from their bodies.

Hall Sr. was left with a huge gash in the back of his head, while his son was banged and bruised but otherwise OK.

“There were a bunch of sleds on top of us, but somebody dug us out,” he said, his voice unsteady.

“I owe somebody my life for it.”

Hall’s friend wasn’t as lucky.

The man he identified only as Shay was slightly higher up the mountain when another sledder zipped around him, darting up the mountain and setting off the first cascade that grew larger and larger as it rushed toward the others below.

Hall said he was blue and cold by the time his fellow riders were able to dig him free from under the snow.

Hall said it was difficult facing his wife after insisting again and again that their young son was safe with him while they were both out on the snow.

But the experience won’t dampen his enthusiasm for the sport.

“I have no regrets at all,” he said. “When you’re extreme riders it happens to all of us.”

Ervin McKeen, 62, of Nanton, Alberta, was nearby when the snow came down and tossed snowmobiles around everywhere. He said one man was screaming “Where’s my son?” as he desperately searched the area.

McKeen, an experienced backcountry user, said he used his equipment to lead survivors with shovels to places in the snow where electronic avalanche beacon signals indicated people might be buried.

The Canadian Avalanche Center had issued a warning of a “considerable” risk for avalanches in the region over the weekend after a powerful storm blanketed the area with snow.

Adam Burke, 20, a member of the Revelstoke Snowmobile Club, said he chose not to go to the rally because of the dangerous conditions in the mountains.

Burke said the Big Mountain Shoot Out was started by a Calgary businessman several years ago, and got bigger over the years. It has a reputation for having a party atmosphere, with many riders and onlookers gathering to watch riders perform high-marking and other stunts.