The head of Alberta's largest snowmobiling association says the five men killed in an avalanche in B.C. on Friday were experienced riders prepared for hazardous backcountry conditions.
Chris Brookes, executive director of the Alberta Snowmobile Association, said the victims were well-known to some of the 6,000 members of the club.
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Their loss is a blow to the "tight-knit" community of Alberta snowmobilers, he said.
'We're a tight-knit community here in Alberta, and it's truly felt deeply across our community.' - Chris Brookes
"Everything I've heard speaks to the fact that all these riders were well experienced and well prepared for the conditions," Brookes said.
"It just goes to show there are a lot of unknowns in the backcountry but you have to do your best to be prepared for anything.
"It's truly a tragic incident . We haven't seen something of this scale in a long time. We're a tight-knit community here in Alberta, and it's truly felt deeply across our community."
Vincent Eugene Loewen, 52, Tony Greenwood, 41, Ricky Robinson, 55, Todd Chisholm, 47, and John Garley, 49, were snowmobiling east of McBride, B.C., on Friday when they were swept up in a large, human-triggered avalanche at around 1:30 p.m.
All five died at the scene.
Renshaw area popular for snowmobiling
Brookes said the Renshaw area near McBride is popular with Albertan sledders looking for deep snow and good terrain.
"Especially with the low snowpack that we've seen in Alberta this year, more and more of our members have been heading into the higher B.C. areas and elevations to get to that snow. The Renshaw area in particular is very popular… very easy to get to. Definitely a lot of Albertans heading there every snowy weekend."
While Brookes said he's never snowmobiled in the area, he said he's been told the ride into the Redshaw area is "spectacular," with many low-lying valleys that offer access to steep terrain.
The B.C. coroner's office said the Renshaw area was closed immediately after the avalanche on Friday. The mountain was reopened Saturday morning except for the area where the avalanche occurred, to allow technicians to investigate.
On Sunday, the entire area was "released," allowing the public access again.
Snowmobilers have continued riding in the Renshaw area throughout the weekend.
Avalanche training important
Brookes said the Alberta Snowmobile Association encourages its members to get proper safety gear and training before accessing challenging and potentially dangerous backcountry terrain. Every rider should have a transceiver, a probe and a shovel.
As snowmobile technology improves, creating machines with more horsepower that take riders farther into the backcountry, knowing how to use these tools is essential in case of an avalanche, he said.
"A snowmobile can exert pressures on the snowpack for sure, as can a skier or snowshoer. Any sort of human element at a right trigger point on a slope at the right conditions at the right time can trigger an avalanche. It's not something related strictly to snowmobiles, but human activity, for sure," Brookes said.
"I just hope that this will be a reminder to everyone heading into the areas to make sure that you get your avalanche training and have the proper gear and know how to use it. Peer pressure is really the way to get people motivated to get their training and to get their gear. If more people recognize that you need to know the conditions and you need to know how to deal with them, the better."
Families in mourning
As condolences poured in on social media, the families of the victims requested privacy.
Dale Monaghan, a long time friend of John Garley, said the family is devastated by the loss of "a great man respected by many."
"John was an absolute terrific man, his nickname was 'Big John,' he was about 6-3, 260 pounds," Monaghan told CBC News. "He was just the biggest, most fun-loving individual you could imagine.
"A very caring father, a wonderful family man. He lived life to the fullest. He worked hard, played hard and loved hard."
Cam Ambrose played in the five-piece rock band Exit 303 with Todd Chisholm for 16 years. Chisholm was a drummer, and they recorded two albums before transitioning to a cover band in more recent years, Ambrose said.
They played their last show together in November in Canmore, he said, and it was one for the books.
"On the Saturday night we had a full crowd, the place was absolutely packed," Ambrose said.
"And we had people just belting out at the top of their lungs for a lot of songs. It was just a really fantastic show. After 16 years, I would put it in the top five that we've played. I'm really glad we had that."
Ambrose said he's not sure when a funeral will be held for his bandmate, and said the band would get together soon to talk about how they'll move forward.
'The most fun person in the world'
"Todd was a huge personality, he was the most fun person in the world," Ambrose said. "He was our driver, he was our rock, he was just a lot of fun to be around.
"I always said that if Todd left that would be the end (of the band) for me. After this long together, I just don't know. I cant imagine moving forward without him."
Chisholm's family released a statement saying snowmobiling in the mountains was his passion.
"He died too young doing what he enjoyed with his sledding buddies. Thanks to the four friends who were with Todd for their efforts. Todd will be sadly missed by his wife of 18 years, children, mother and father, brothers and sister, extended family, friends and community," the statement read.
"Todd enjoyed fishing, hunting, camping and playing games with his children and wife. He also enjoyed music, quading (sic) and playing drums with the band."