The bodies of five hikers, believed to have fallen hundreds of metres to their deaths near Lions Bay, B.C., north of Vancouver, have been recovered by search and rescue crews.

Searchers believe a cornice collapsed on the peak of Mount Harvey, sending the group tumbling down the mountain's north face.

Hiker Alastair Ferries was on the trail Saturday when he passed a man in his 40s near the summit who had trailed behind the group. 

But when Ferries reached the summit a few minutes later, the only thing he saw were the group's tracks leading over the edge of the mountain's sheer cliff. 

"They were kind of going parallel to the ridge," he said. "They were back but I could see where their tracks were where the snow had caved away."

"[I] noticed that they'd gone out on a cornice right close to the edge and the cornice had collapsed."

Mt Harvey near Lions Bay B.C.

Five hikers are dead after a cornice collapsed on the peak of B.C.'s Mount Harvey, sending them tumbling down the mountain's north face. (Steven Song)

Search and rescue officials said the group may have fallen as much as 500 metres.

Ferries said the group's tracks showed the hikers had been aware of the cornice — an overhanging mass of ice and snow built up by high winds — but perhaps not of how big it was.

"On Mount Harvey, I think a really large cornice can develop sticking out quite far, so you have to stay quite far back away from the edge and that's not obvious."

Ferries said that after the sixth hiker caught up with him at the peak, he verified there were no other possible explanations for the group's disappearance and the pair quickly descended to get to a place where they could get a cellphone signal to call for help. 

snow cornice

A cornice, pictured above, is an overhanging feature often seen on mountain ridges, formed by the buildup of snow from strong winds. The five hikers are believed to have been on such a cornice at the summit of Mount Harvey when it collapsed. (claude05alleva/Pixabay)

Avalanche Canada cornice danger diagram

This diagram from Avalanche Canada shows how cornices can be dangerous for hikers unaware of how they have formed. 'I've actually at times gotten my probe out and probed the snow in front of me as I'm walking in really poor weather on ridge crests,' says warning service manager Karl Klassen. (Avalanche Canada)

Cornice warning

The week before, a post on a popular hiking website warned people of the cornice at the top of the mountain, and that it would likely break off soon. 

Lions Bay Search and Rescue manager Martin Colwell said cornices aren't easy to see when hikers are on top of one. 

Ferries agreed. 

"Cornices are tricky. It's not obvious how far they can stand out. You really have to be cautious," he said.

"I'm not sure if I was cautious enough yesterday."

Lions Bay Search and Rescue manager Martin Colwell

Lions Bay Search and Rescue manager, Martin Colwell, calls the five deaths, 'a great tragedy.' (Errol Richardson/CBC)

Karl Klassen, the warning service manager with Avalanche Canada says cornices are common at this time of year when there is high wind, warm temperatures and sticky snow.

"If you're travelling on ridge crests you need to stay well away from the edge where the cornice forms, you want to stay on the windward side," he said, adding that cornice failures are quite common.

Steven Song, a local mountaineer and photographer familiar with the area, said Mount Harvey is a straightforward hike in the right conditions, but it can be easy to get in trouble in bad weather.

"The north face is about 500 metres or 600 metres [of] sheer cliff, almost vertical," Song said. "Big granite face. It's pretty impressive [if] you see it from below or from the other mountains nearby."

"It's a big shock that that many people all fell together. It's very sad."

Ferries said the conditions on Saturday weren't great — visibility was limited and varied, and there was intermittent snow. 

Massive search effort

Dozens of search and rescue workers from organizations across the Lower Mainland spent Sunday morning scouring the mountain, including avalanche dogs and helicopter crews.

Lions Bay search Sunday

Search and rescue personnel from across the Lower Mainland worked together to find the missing hikers on Sunday. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

"This is not the outcome which we had hoped for," said Cpl. Sascha Banks of Squamish RCMP in a release.

The bodies of four of the five hikers were found early in the day Sunday, while the body of the fifth victim was not recovered until the late afternoon.

"Our thoughts are with the families and friends of the hikers and the search and rescue teams in Lions Bay," said Banks.

Colwell said the five victims were from B.C.'s Lower Mainland and were part of a regular hiking group.

People talking to Search and Rescuers at Lions Bay staging area

Search and rescuers speak with people who came to the staging area in Lions Bay seeking information about five missing hikers on Mt. Harvey. (Errol Richardson/CBC)

On Sunday, members of the Vancouver Korean Hiking Club, said that two of the victims belonged to the club and had joined last summer.

For the Mt. Harvey hike on Saturday, Jenny Kim said that the pair joined others from another similar club called MJM Hiking Club.

"We know the people," she said. "We are very sad."

Colwell said those in the group may not have known they were walking into trouble.

No beacons, probes

A few of the hikers may have had some winter hiking equipment with them such as shovels, but Colwell said they didn't have full avalanche gear such as beacons and probes.

Police or the BC Coroners Service have not yet identified the victims.

Avalanche Canada recommends people wanting to explore the backcountry take avalanche training, which provides instruction on recognizing dangers posed by cornices.

Klassen also doesn't want people to get complacent because it's spring.

"You know just because it's warm and green in the valley bottom doesn't mean it's over in the mountains," he said. "We still have a pretty wintry snowpack up ... in the mountains."

Mt Harvey Steven Song photograph

Mount Harvey is a popular hike for many people on B.C.'s South Coast due to the stunning views of Howe Sound. (Steven Song)

with files from Canadian Press, Chad Pawson, Gian Paolo Mendoza