British Columbia

Lost skiers more scared by prowling wolves than cold: brother

A Montreal couple lost in the B.C. backcountry ate leaves, built shelters, and fearing an attack by nearby wolves, turned a ski pole into a weapon, all in a bid to stay alive, the brother of the man who survived told CBC News.

RCMP admit failure to search for missing skiers was mistake

Marie-Josée Fortin, left, and Gilles Blackburn, right, are shown in this family photo with their son William Blackburn, middle, and their daughter, Laurence Blackburn, second right, and their son's girlfriend, Amélie Jeanneau, second left. ((Family photo))

A Montreal couple lost in the B.C. backcountry ate leaves, built shelters, and fearing an attack by nearby wolves, turned a ski pole into a weapon, all in a bid to stay alive, the brother of the man who survived told CBC News.

Marie-Josée Fortin, 44, died before help arrived on Feb. 24. Her husband, Gilles Blackburn, 51, was treated for frostbite and exposure and released from hospital on Wednesday, just 24 hours after flagging down the helicopter that rescued him.

Wilderness survival tips:

When travelling into Canada's expansive backcountry in winter, a few precautions can help keep you safe.

  • Before leaving, make sure to tell someone where you're going and when you will return.
  • Bring a basic survival kit that includes waterproof matches, a candle, a pocket knife, a whistle, a map, flashlight and food.
  • Carry a satellite-linked rescue beacon.
  • If you get lost, place large markers such as tree limbs on the ground in the shape of an arrow as you move along in order to guide searchers.
  • Try to conserve your energy and don't wander aimlessly. Don't wear yourself out yelling. Instead, periodically blow your whistle. Three blasts means help. Also, listen for highway sounds or other indications of people. Climb a tree to look for landmarks.
 (Source: Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation)

The couple got lost while skiing out of bounds at the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden on Feb. 15.

Yvon Blackburn told CBC News his brother had gone to B.C. with his wife for a romantic Valentine's getaway and ended up lost in the snowy mountains with no food or shelter.

He described the couple as experienced skiers who loved going off trail into the backcountry.

"We are all skiers," he said, noting that some members of his family have been on Canada's national ski team.

Couple entered survival mode: brother

Blackburn said his brother told him some details of what happened before he was finally rescued.

When he and his wife got lost, they followed the tracks of another skier. With no sign of civilization in sight, Gilles, an avid hunter, went into survival mode.

"They thought they'd wait it out for the night and make it back the next day. They didn't realize it would last that long," said Blackburn.

"He knew how to sleep under the snow, cut wood, said he'd cut branches. The cold never got to them."

Blackburn said the couple ate leaves and snow to survive, and said his brother was more afraid of wolves than the temperature.

"What was more dangerous were the wolves, who at night frightened him the most," Blackburn said his brother told him.

"They were very close. So much so that he cut the basket off the bottom of his ski pole so if they approached too closely he could defend himself."

Blackburn said his brother and sister-in-law eventually decided to stop trying to make their way to safety.

"His wife couldn't go any further, so he stayed with her and said, 'Well, now they have to find us.'"

RCMP have said they will not release the cause of Fortin's death until an autopsy is performed on Friday, but in an earlier statement police said she probably died from exposure.

RCMP admit mistake over lack of search

Meanwhile, the RCMP said Thursday that failing to start a search for the pair was a mistake.

Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said the RCMP made a mistake in not initiating a search on Feb 21. after an SOS was spotted in the snow. ((CBC))

"There was an error on behalf of the RCMP in not initiating a call-out on Feb. 21," Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said on Thursday morning in Golden, B.C.

Even though the couple got lost on Sunday, Feb. 15, a search for them didn't begin until nine days after they disappeared, despite sightings of SOS signs scratched into the snow. SOS signs were noticed on Feb. 17, and again on Feb. 21, which is when the RCMP were first informed.

The RCMP said an internal investigation would be conducted into why a search was not initiated.

"In similar instances we do call out a search. In this instance we did not," said Moskaluk, who said normal procedure would have been to schedule a flyover of the area or a ground search.

Police track couple's whereabouts

Police said their preliminary investigation suggests the couple rented a vehicle in Calgary and were planning to travel to Banff, then on to B.C. to visit Golden and Revelstoke on a skiing holiday.

The first night they stayed in Lake Louise. They then drove to the Mountaineer Lodge near Golden at the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, where they spent the night of Feb. 14, police said in statement issued Wednesday afternoon.

The couple checked out of the Mountaineer Lodge on Feb. 15 and went skiing at the resort. Sometime that day they went out of bounds and got lost, police said.

They had left their belongings in the rented vehicle, which was parked in an underground parkade at the Mountaineer Lodge.

Decision not to search disputed

The RCMP released a statement on Wednesday afternoon with details about why there had been no search.

The Montreal couple was lost in the backcountry near the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort for 10 days, according to RCMP. ((CBC))

On Feb. 17, a local heli-skiing company received a call from an off-duty ski guide touring the area saying he had spotted an SOS sign and strange tracks west of the Kicking Horse resort, the statement said.

The Kicking Horse Mountain Resort was contacted to check if they had any reports of missing skiers. It appears at this time that the Provincial Emergency Preparedness and the local RCMP detachment were not contacted, said police.

On Feb. 21, a group returning from a ski trip saw two more SOS signs and notified officials at the heli-skiing company who in turn reported it to Golden RCMP, said police.

Staff at the resort were contacted and advised that they had previously investigated this incident with no result, said police.

Police have said previously that the Golden and District Search and Rescue Association of British Columbia then decided not to conduct a ground search of the area. But the search and rescue team has disputed that, saying only the RCMP can authorize a search for a missing person.

Family was active, say Montreal neighbours

Meanwhile in Montreal, the couple's 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter remain secluded with their grandmother at the family home on a quiet street in LaSalle.

On Wednesday, the curtains were drawn on the home and Gilles Blackburn's work truck, used for his contracting business, sat outside the family duplex.

The children talked to their father after he was rescued, police said.

Neighbours described the family as sporty, always heading off somewhere with their skis or mountain bikes. 

Neighbour Louise Cedilot said the daughter came over to borrow something a few days ago and mentioned her parents were on vacation and that she and her brother thought it was strange they hadn't heard from them. 

Montreal police said the children reported the couple missing when the two failed to return from their ski trip on Feb. 23.

Cedilot said Fortin, a former nurse, used to come over to help her with cancer injections. Now she can hardly believe what's befallen the couple.

"It's unreal," said Cedilot. "She was so young. She was beautiful." 

Cedilot's husband Michel said: "It's terrible. They're the best neighbours you could have."

Corrections

  • The lost skiers did not actually use skis to fight off wolves, as originally reported. However, the man who survived, Gilles Blackburn, was more frightened of wolves than anything else while lost and cut the basket off the bottom of his ski pole so he could defend himself if the wolves approached too closely, his brother said. Wolves came "very close" to the skiers, according to his brother, Yvon Blackburn.
    Feb 27, 2009 12:05 PM PT

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