Alex Cooper and Aaron Orlando
REVELSTOKE Two men are dead after a wall of snow 10 metres high swept down onto a large group of spectators and participants in an snowmobile event on Boulder Mountain near Revelstoke Saturday, burying dozens of the nearly 200 people standing in its path.
The victims were identified as Curtis Reynolds, 33, of Strathmore, Alta., and Shay Snortland, 33, of Lacombe, Alta.
The accident occurred at the popular Big Iron Shootout snowmobile gathering. RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said about 200 people were in the Turbo Bowl area on the mountain when the slide came down at about 3:30 p.m.
Initial reports were grim, with many reported buried, but the situation looked up Sunday as more and more were accounted for. “We’re in a far better condition today that we were 24 hours ago,” he said on Sunday.
RCMP spent Saturday night knocking on hotel room doors and tracking down the owners of trucks that were left at the Boulder Mountain parking lot.
“We have no outstanding missing persons report from this event,” said Cpl. Dan Moskaluk at a press conference at the community centre Sunday afternoon, though he didn’t rule out the chance of uncovering more victims.
“The site will not be left until there’s full confidence no one is left up there,” he said.
The avalanche was massive. Moskaluk told national media that the avalanche was about 150 metres wide and ran up to a kilometre in length at a depth of about 10 metres. Witnesses described it as a huge cloud of snow barrelling down the mountain.
Four search and rescue organizations, helicopters and other resources were mobilized. In addition to Revelstoke Search and Rescue, crews from Golden, Arrow Lakes and Nelson were called in to assist.
Dog search teams were also called in to assist in the operation.
At least five helicopters were called into action to help with the injured. They ferried the dozen injured to the Revelstoke airport where four ambulances took laps between the airport and Queen Victoria Hospital.
Community members gathered at the airport to watch the rescue spectacle, and young men with shovels and rescue gear tried to hitch a lift back to the site to help out.
At the hospital, staff were triaging the injured in the lobby, with many of those patients appearing to have relatively minor injuries. Staff members could be seen rushing to the hospital after all available staff were mobilized.
RCMP now say that 31 people were injured in the avalanche, 19 of whom were treated at Queen Victoria Hospital. One person remains in critical condition, and three in serious condition. They have been sent to hospitals in Kamloops, Kelowna, Vernon and Calgary.
RCMP worked through the night to ascertain the number of missing people, doing door knocks at local motels and hotels and contacting the owners of vehicles left at the Boulder Mountain parking lot.
At the community centre, Revelstoke Emergency Social Services set up an information centre to provide food and other support to slide victims.
“A lot of people are coming in and registering,” said Luana Kaleikini, the director of Emergency Social Services on Sunday. “Today we’re seeing a lot of people that were injured. It’s very sad.”
George Hall III, from Montana, was at the community centre with a bandage on his head. “I’m doing fine but I’m sore,” he said.
He was in a group of nine people, including his 13-year-old son, George Hall IV, watching the event “right dead in the middle of where the slide came down,” he said.
“It was chaotic. Everything happened so fast,” he said.
All nine people in his group survived the avalanche. He said that after the slide settled, those who weren’t buried lined up and started a formal search of the area.
“We owe our lives to them,” said Hall III. “I was underneath the snow before I was found.”
He was heli-lifted and treated at Queen Victoria Hospital. He said no one explained the avalanche danger to him at the mountain.
Bert Vantongeren said he was watching the event with his son, daughter and another couple from a knoll above the valley where most people were watching.
“We thought it was a safe spot,” he said. He was thinking about leaving the area when he saw a huge wall of snow come down.
“In two seconds it hit me from behind,” he said. “I figured I was in big trouble and I hoped for the best.”
When the slide stopped all he saw was white. He thought he was buried completely. Fortunately, when the snow settled, he realized he was only buried up to his waist.
Nearby, his son Bob was in distress. He suffered broken ribs and an abrasion in his leg. Bert’s daughter was partially buried as well.
By the time they were lifted off the mountain, Bob said he was getting hypothermic and was going in and out of consciousness.
Solicitor General Kash Heed visited Revelstoke to take a helicopter tour of the slide area and survey the rescue effort on Sunday.
“I’m touched by what I’ve seen and by the spirit I’ve seen from the community in Revelstoke,” he told reporters at Sunday’s press conference. “Because of your community and these volunteer we’re fortunate there weren’t many more lives lost.”
About 40 to 50 search personnel were on Boulder Mountain starting Sunday morning. They included staff from many agencies, including dog rescue teams. RCMP termed the operation a “rescue/recovery” operation.
Police later provided an update, saying ground crews resumed searches at 10 a.m. after avalanche risk assessments were made and the site was deemed safe.
By the end of the day the area was cleared of debris. The trapped snowmobiles were dug out of the snow and placed to the side of the clearing.
A more limited search using avalanche rescue dogs will take place Monday.
The Big Iron Shootout is an annual informal snowmobile gathering, and has a reputation for having a party atmosphere, with many riders and onlookers gathering to watch as riders perform stunts, such as high-marking, where riders compete to see who can ride their high-powered sleds the highest on a steep slope.
Kyle Hale of Golden Search and Rescue said high-marking seemed to be the “apparent cause of the avalanche.”
An analysis of the site to determine the exact cause of the avalanche is planned for Monday, he said.
Sympathy and condolences to friends and family of the avalanche came in from all quarters, including Premier Gordon Campbell, Columbia River – Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald and Revelstoke mayor David Raven.
“I want to commend the efforts of rescue personnel and volunteers who quickly responded to those in need and prevented further tragedies,” said Campbell in a statement issues Sunday. “In times such as these, it is important we draw on the strength of each other and the community around us. Our thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this avalanche. Our hearts go out to all of them in this extremely difficult time.”
Praise also came in to those who took part in the rescue effort.
“I have a huge appreciation for the volunteers that helped in the rescue effort,” said Raven
The organizer of the event has not been identified.
“It’s a non-sanctioned event that we have nothing to do with,” said Tom Dixon, a director with the Snowmobile Revelstoke Society, which operates the trails in the area.
He would not say who the organizer was, but indicated he was a sledding enthusiast.
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Moskaluk when asked who it was.
A joint statement by the Revelstoke Snowmobile Club, the Snowmobile Revelstoke Society and the British Columbia Snowmobile Federation also expressed sympathy with the family and friends of those caught in the avalanche.
“While it is unfortunate that this incident occurred, snowmobiling in the backcountry has inherent risks and through proper education snowmobilers are able to make better informed decision while recreating in the mountains,” the statement said. “The Revelstoke Snowmobile Club will continue to promote snowmobile backcountry safety to all recreational snowmobilers in an effort to reduce this type of incident.”
The avalanche rating was listed as considerable at the time. There was 30 to 50 centimetres of new snow in the alpine around Revelstoke in the days leading up to the avalanche, coming after an extended period of very little snow.
A full investigation of the incident is being conducted by the RCMP and B.C. Coroners Service. B.C. Minister for Public Safety and Solicitor General Heed said the province would look at ways to prevent further tragedies.
“The ministry of tourism is looking at what they can do to ensure we have safer use of these machines on crown land and areas in the backcountry,” he said.
A death review panel released in January by the B.C. Coroners Service made 15 recommendations, including developing new avalanche awareness programs and materials for snowmobilers, improvements to the Avalanche Skills Training course, increasing the frequency of public avalanche forecasts and decreasing the size of bulletin regions, and creating a terrain rating classification for popular snowmobiling areas.