British Columbia

B.C. avalanche: Snowmobilers killed were all from Alberta

Five snowmobilers who died Friday in a major avalanche near the B.C. Interior community of McBride have been identified, as the "heartbreaking news" ripples through the snowmobiling community.

'It's unfortunate that this happened, but what do you do?' asks fellow snowmobiler

An aerial photo, taken on Saturday Jan. 30, of the mountain range where five snowmobilers died in a 'very large' avalanche near the Interior community of McBride, B.C., on Friday. (CBC)

The five snowmobilers who died Friday in a major avalanche near the B.C. Interior community of McBride were all men from Alberta, ranging in age from 41 to 55.

The slide happened in the Renshaw area east of McBride, about 210 kilometres southeast of Prince George. RCMP say it was reported at 1:30 p.m. after two personal emergency GPS beacons were activated.

The five men killed were:

  • Vincent Eugene Loewen, 52, of Vegreville, Alta.
  • Tony Christopher Greenwood, 41, of Grande Prairie County, Alta.
  • Ricky Robinson, 55, of Spruce Grove, Alta.
  • Todd William Chisholm, 47, of St. Albert, Alta.
  • John Harold Garley, 49, of Stony Plain, Alta.

RCMP said four separate groups of snowmobilers totalling 17 people were caught in the avalanche path or buried to some degree, but they have all been accounted for.

At least one person suffered a non-life-threatening injury and 11 people were flown out at the time of the rescue efforts.

This aerial photo, taken on Saturday Jan. 30, is believed to show the area where the avalanche happened, killing the five snowmobilers. (CBC)

'Everybody did the right thing'

Search and rescue manager Rod Whelpton had been snowmobiling in the area at the time. His snowmobile broke down and he called for a helicopter, Cpl. John Grierson said. 

Other members of Whelpton's group went to a ridge nearby and saw that an avalanche had just occurred. A satellite phone was used to call Dale Mason, manager of Robson Valley Search and Rescue.

Mason had just received notification from RCMP of two activations of GPS beacons, which are carried by backcountry enthusiasts in case of emergency, Grierson said.

Another helicopter was called and Whelpton and his group responded to the scene.

"Many of the individuals involved had self-rescued and four of the deceased had already been dug from the snow," said Grierson. "The fifth was located and removed as well."

Whelpton said the avalanche was 700 metres across and about 700 metres long.

"There were people in different groups digging people out," he said. "It was fast, simple. Everybody did the right thing."

Whelpton said the snowmobilers appeared "very prepared." He rejected the idea that they went out that day despite the
considerable avalanche risk, pointing out that he also believed it was safe for snowmobiling.

"It was a very normal day, a nice day," he said. 

Popular sledding area

Grierson offered his condolences to the families and said the small village on the Alberta-B.C. boundary was deeply affected by the deaths.

"This community is very supportive and welcoming of snowmobilers. We rely on these people to enjoy our community," he said.

"People attend the area from all over the world. We develop relationships with them. We see the same people repeatedly because it's a beautiful spot."

Rick Thompson, a councillor with the Village of McBride, described the area on Mount Renshaw as a popular sledding area about 15 kilometres from the townsite.

An aerial photo, taken on Saturday Jan. 30, of the mountains where the five snowmobilers died. (CBC)

Thompson said the news came as a shock.

"It's devastating. As soon as you hear about something this tragic, you immediately begin to think about all your friends and family that you know, and the acquaintances you do know who may be out there sledding," he said.

Shaken by accident

Snowmobiler Russ Lingden said the region was packed Friday with more than 100 snowmobiles on the ridge. Lingden, of Smith, Alta., was shaken by the accident.

"It's not anything you want to see," he said. "Everybody around here … we're all in shock.

"This is like stuff that you don't want to see or talk about," he added. "It's unfortunate that this happened..., but what do you do?"

At least three groups of snowmobilers were caught in the avalanche near McBride, RCMP say. (Canadian Press)

McBride Mayor Loranne Martin said the news is a blow to the small community, which has a population of about 600.

"It's very difficult because it could easily be your next door neighbour, your son, your daughter," Martin said.

The news prompted an outpouring of condolences from avid snowmobilers.

"This is truly heartbreaking news," a member of a snowmobiling community forum wrote. "It feels, when hearing news of other snowmobilers passing, like losing a family member. Never met these folks, but I am sad to have lost them."

Jobs and Tourism Minister Shirley Bond, who has been the MLA for Prince George-Valemount for 15 years, issued a statement on behalf of the B.C. government.

"This avalanche and the resulting loss of life is devastating news and our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost a loved one," she said.

RCMP say all the deceased men's families have been notified. The B.C. Coroners Service has taken over the investigation and RCMP will continue to assist.

The Coroners Service has ordered the Renshaw snowmobiling area closed to allow a certified avalanche technician to complete an investigation of the scene.

Rain, snow over past few days

Avalanche Canada had issued a warning for the region a day before the slide.

Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada said the "very large, significant" avalanche appears to be human-triggered, but he did not elaborate.

He said rain and snow over the last few days followed by clearing and cooling on Friday may have produced stresses in the snowpack.

Pascal Haegli, Simon Fraser University's research chair in avalanche risk management, said the window to rescue someone who has been buried is about 10 minutes.

"Once the avalanche comes to a stop, it sets like concrete, very quickly," he said. "It's not the fluffy powder snow you have in mind."

Two men were also killed in the McBride area in March 2015. They were part of a group of four Albertans who had been snowmobiling in the Dore River Basin near the community.

Curtis Fries, 36, of Sherwood Park, Alta., was dug out of the snow and his fellow riders tried to perform CPR on him but he died at the scene. Thomas Hamilton, 29, of Ponoka, Alta., was later found under 4.5 metres of snow.

Map showing area of Mt. Renshaw avalanche

With files from CBC News


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