McBride avalanche 1st responder speaks out on culture of sledding
'Everyone just happened to get there at the wrong time. It's unfortunate,' says Barry Walline
In 20 years of snowmobiling, Barry Walline says he's lost many friends to avalanches in B.C.'s rugged mountains.
And now he's lost a few more.
Walline was one of the first search and rescue technicians to arrive after a 700-square-metre avalanche tumbled down a slope in the popular Renshaw snowmobile trail network, just outside the village of McBride.
Three of the men caught in the slide had been staying at his home last week, and he was tasked with flying in on a helicopter mission to try to rescue them.
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"It was one of the biggest avalanches I've seen," said Walline, a veteran backcountry snowmobiler, and a member of the Robson Valley Search and Rescue.
"Flying in, it was a bit mind-blowing because there's so many bodies and so many people, it was a little unnerving."
Seventeen people from four different groups were caught in the slide. Five men from Alberta died in the avalanche, one of the deadliest in B.C. in almost a decade.
Officials say the slide was human-caused, but there is no indication the victims were doing anything wrong.
The avalanche risk in the Renshaw area was a three on a scale of five, and the men were all equipped with avalanche beacons and other safety gear.
Walline says the groups were caught in what he calls a "pinch point," an area where there's only one way in and out, when the slide was somehow triggered.
"Everyone just happened to get there at the wrong time. It's unfortunate,"said Walline.
The BC Coroners Service has now released the Renshaw avalanche site, which had been closed for the investigation.
But it is advising snowmobilers to visit Avalanche Canada's website about conditions before entering the area.
In a release it also says everyone heading into the backcountry should have avalanche training and be properly equipped.
Victims were not 'high-marking'
Walline believes 80 to 90 per cent of human-caused avalanches are triggered by 'high-marking," where snowmobilers attempt to literally make the highest mark possible on the untouched snow of steep slopes.
"I used to do it years and years ago and I'm a lot older now and probably a little wiser," said Walline, after leading our CBC crew on his snowmobiles up near the top of Mount Lucille, just across the valley from where Friday's avalanche struck.
Some of that wisdom has been gained from his own life-threatening experience.
About a decade ago, Walline was caught in an avalanche in the Clemina area near Valemount, B.C., and was buried with his snowmobile under two and a half feet of snow.
"It happened many, many years ago, when I was doing that kind of crap," he said, pointing to some fresh snowmobile tracks near the top of a nearby cliff.
"I was very lucky. I happened to be scared enough to hang onto my sled and I ended up underneath it with an air pocket," said Walline.
"I don't do it anymore because it's just not safe. And I don't need to do it anymore."
Walline is now president of the McBride Snowmobile Club, and runs with a different group of friends who are content to play in much safer terrain.
He's now taken a number of avalanche skills training courses to manage the inevitable risks of simply being in some of the world's wildest snowmobiling territory.
"I smartened up, I play safer, and I don't ride with anyone else who doesn't adhere to those rules, and most people do," said Walline.
Culture change in B.C. snowmobiling?
Walline says he's noticed a marked change in the general attitude of snowmobile enthusiasts over the 15 years he's been sledding in the McBride area, home to one of the largest networks of groomed trails in B.C.
He says despite the reputation of snowmobilers and their sport as extreme or risky, most who come here aren't doing anything that jeopardizes their safety.
"People don't want to die. They want to go home to their wife and their families," said Walline.
"Ten years ago nobody cared. [They would say] 'Ah there's fresh snow, we're going.' And now they're looking at the [avalanche] forecast."
Walline advises all snowmobilers to take safety courses to be able to better read the terrain, and to talk to more experienced riders about daily risks.
"You can be safe, it's very simple," he said while adding that Friday's avalanche was simply a freak, and very unfortunate accident.
with files from Stephanie Mercier