Avalanche Canada reviews snow-slide fatalities

Outreach program to six communities included on-snow safety demonstrations as well as presentations

Photograph shows the location of an avalanche in the Renshaw area east of McBride that killed five people in January

Photograph shows the location of an avalanche in the Renshaw area east of McBride that killed five people in January

“The culture’s got to change.”

That seemed to be the principal message brought by  Gilles Valade, executive director of Avalanche Canada, during a presentation held Saturday evening at Dutch Lake Community Centre in Clearwater.

While the majority of snowmobilers are responsible, too many, particularly those coming in from outside the region, do not have the right training and equipment, and do not make use of the information that’s available to them to make prudent decisions.

“We can’t go around and be the fun police,” Valade said. “If you get the training and equipment, you can go out even in high avalanche danger conditions and have a good day by sticking to moderate terrain.”

Valade and Avalanche Canada’s snowmobile program coordinator Brent Strand were in Clearwater as part of a outreach program to six communities that included on-snow safety demonstrations as well as presentations.

The pair had been up on Raft Mountain earlier that day with some local snowmobilers and had been alarmed after they dug some pits to examine the snow layers.

“There’s some scarey stuff happening,” Valade said.

Details of what they found can be seen on the Avalanche Canada website.

Primary focus of Saturday’s presentation was the avalanche that occurred in January of last year in the Renshaw area east of McBride in which five snowmobilers were killed.

“This is a learning opportunity, not a blaming opportunity,” Brent Strand said. “We want people to say, if they’re in a similar situation, ‘This looks like the Renshaw thing.’ If that happens, then hopefully, those people didn’t die in vain.”

The Renshaw is a large and popular snowmobile area but there is little data coming from there to the avalanche forecasters, they said.

Nevertheless, there were warnings of possible problems on the Avalanche Canada website before the incident.

According to their statistics, 11 people viewed the report about the Renshaw on their website before the weekend.

There were about 250 trail passes sold to the Renshaw on the day.

The site of the avalanche was a wide, open slope that the snowmobilers have to cross to get to a place called Spirit Lake.

Because of the danger, there should have been only one snowmobiler crossing at a time. However, there were two on the slope, both stuck.

Several parties were making the crossing at the same time, meaning there were people waiting on either side of the slope in what they thought were safe locations.

The actual triggering event was a person on the left side of the slope setting off to help his buddy who was stuck on the slope by circling above the rest of the people on that side.

That set off a small slide that in turn caused a huge avalanche about 550 m wide by 500 m long.

Those on the left side of the slope were all swept away. Many of those on the right side would have been buried as well, except a large slab above them fortunately held fire.

Up to 18 people were involved and five of them were killed.

Three of those killed carried air bags, which are supposed to float them to the surface of an avalanche.

However, such was the force of the slide that, in some cases, it was impossible to tell if the air bags had been deployed or not.

Body recovery after an avalanche can be difficult, Valade noted.

“It’s not like the movies, what a body looks like after an avalanche. It’s not a video game,” he said.

Fortunately, those who were not killed were generally not buried too deeply. Most were able to self-extricate or were near the surface and easily found. One man had his arm sticking up out of the snow and was found by his son.

There was a Robson Valley Search and Rescue volunteer riding recreationally nearby and he was able to help with the search.

Other SAR personnel were on the scene within 45 minutes by helicopter.

The incident occurred in the early afternoon and all the injured were evacuated out of the area by dusk.

The Avalanche Canada outreach tour started in Mackenzie on Feb. 14 with a snow-safety presentation for students.

The pair then went to Prince George, Valemount, Blue River, Clearwater, and Kamloops.

About two dozen people attended the presentation in Clearwater.