A Montreal man has been rescued but his spouse is dead after their ski trip turned into a 10-day battle to survive in the snowy backcountry near B.C.'s Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.
Gilles Blackburn, 51, and Marie Jose Fortin, 44, were apparently lost for 10 days in the mountains near Golden, B.C., with only two granola bars for food after they skied out of bounds at the resort on Feb. 15.
But despite two reports from a local heli-ski company that SOS symbols had been spotted carved in the snow, neither police nor search-and-rescue teams began ground searches until Tuesday.
By the time help finally arrived, the woman was dead and the man suffered frostbite, hunger and exposure to cold, police say.
SOS spotted twice, but no ground search started
According to the Purcell Helicopter Skiing company, on Feb. 17, the company first received a call from an off-duty ski guide ski touring in the area just west of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, alerting them to an SOS sign and strange tracks he had spotted.
The resort was contacted to check if it had any reports of missing skiers. In turn, the resort notified Golden & District Search and Rescue, according to a statement released Wednesday by the heli-ski company.
The search team then checked for unreturned rental skis and missing persons reports at the resort. But finding none, it didn't start a ground search, according to a statement also released Wednesday by the RCMP.
On Feb. 21, as the ski guide was returning from a trip, the guide again saw two more SOS signs and notified the heli-ski company, which immediately reported the sighting to Golden RCMP.
The RCMP then checked with the local search-and-rescue team, which said the case had been looked into already and there were no reports of any missing people in the area.
So once again, no ground search was initiated, according to Const. Annie Linteau, who speaks for the RCMP in Vancouver.
Couple reported missing
Finally, on Feb. 23, the couple was reported missing to Montreal authorities after the two failed to return from their ski trip.
The next day, while on the outbound flight for a day of heli-skiing, a fourth SOS in the snow was spotted, this time by a pilot with the heli-ski company.
While the pilot was circling the area to get a GPS co-ordinate, he noticed a man waving his arms.
The helicopter was not able to land, so the pilot immediately reported the GPS co-ordinates and sighting to the base, which in turn notified the Golden RCMP and requested a search-and-rescue response, said the company.
The man was eventually rescued and taken to Golden and District General Hospital, where he was being treated for injuries related to exposure, said police.
"He was obviously in need of medical attention," said Linteau. "He is still in the hospital. My information is he is suffering from frostbite and basically injuries related to exposure. He was out there for a very, very long time."
Responsibility for searches disputed
Both the RCMP and the Golden & District Search and Rescue gave differing accounts of who was responsible for deciding not to launch a ground search when the reports of the SOS tracks came in.
The RCMP said it was not notified when the SOS sign was first spotted, which the search-and-rescue team did not dispute.
"I believe there was reports throughout the previous week of strange tracks in the area from the local heli-ski operator," Golden Search and Rescue manager Kyle Hale told CBC News on Wednesday morning. "Whether that was reported to the RCMP or not, I am unaware."
The RCMP has confirmed it was notified about the SOS signs the second time they were spotted, but said it was the search-and-rescue team that decided once again not to mount a search.
"We again contacted search and rescue, and there was no information that anyone was missing. Search and rescue made the determination to not launch a ground search," Linteau told the CBC.
But the search-and-rescue team told CBC News only the RCMP can dispatch them on a missing person search.
The BC Coroners Service will conduct an autopsy on the woman's body on Friday.
Investigators are trying to track the couple's activities from the time they arrived in Western Canada on Feb. 13.