by LAURA KEIL
Five people were killed in an avalanche in the Renshaw area near McBride Friday afternoon, the area’s largest fatal avalanche in recent memory according to Dale Mason, Robson Valley Search and Rescue Manager.
On Friday at around 1:30 pm, the McBride RCMP was notified of two separate GPS beacon calls in the Renshaw area north east of McBride, BC. RCMP dispatched the Robson Valley Search and Rescue Team via helicopter and ground teams.
SAR member Rod Whelpton and another SAR member happened to be snowmobiling in the area and came across the avalanche shortly after it slid.
Whelpton said everyone was “very prepared.”
“Everybody did the right thing,” he said of the snowmobilers’ response following the slide.
Four separate groups of snowmobilers and a total of 17 people were caught in the avalanche which was approx. 700m in length by 800m in width. Those caught were either buried to some degree or caught in the avalanche path.
Whelpton said he hadn’t seen any avalanche activity in the areas where he was recreating in the Renshaw that day. The posted avalanche rating was 3/5.
All snowmobilers buried in the slide were wearing avalanche transceivers, police say.
Police say four of the deceased had been dug out prior to SAR’s arrival. SAR technicians helped dig out the fifth man and rescue several others. RCMP say one person suffered a dislocated knee. Six to eight other snowmobilers lost snowmobiles in the avalanche and were shuttled off of the mountain.
The BC Coroners Service released the names of the victims on the weekend. They are:
Vincent Eugene Loewen, 52, of Vegreville, AB
Tony Christopher Greenwood, 41, of Grand Prairie County, AB
Ricky Robinson, 55, of Spruce Grove, AB
Todd William Chisholm, 47, of St. Albert, AB
John Harold Garley, 49, of Stony Plain, AB
Prince George Peace River MP Bob Zimmer tweeted “Thoughts and prayers go out for the families of the 5 who lost their lives today in the avalanche outside of McBride. So sad.”
Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond tweeted “Tragic, so very sad about the loss of 5 lives. Thank you to our first responders, RCMP, search and rescue teams.”
A member of the off-road vehicle forum Snowandmud.com said the accident occurred “on the big drop” “when you’re heading towards Spirit lake.”
Another snowmobile forum member wrote: “Very sad news lost a buddy. Would never think him or his group would be in one, very safe riders and have the training very sad, my best goes to his family.”
Following the tragedy, McBride community members rallied together to donate money to local restaurants in order to cover the meals of SAR members and members of the families who lost a loved one in the avalanche. Others dropped off food to first responders who had responded to the crisis.
Bryce Glionna was snowmobiling the weekend before in the Renshaw area, one of his favourite areas to ride. He said conditions seemed OK in the lower alpine areas.
“I did however see a couple steep slopes where the snow had let go,” he told the Goat on Saturday. “Mostly higher areas where the sun shines on the hill most of the day.”
A week before the slide, his riding group planned to go where the slide occurred on Friday – but one person had sled problems, so they didn’t.
He says the area is popular with sledders due to the vast area.
“It allows for everyone to ride and not usually have to worry about other groups or the problem that the snow is all tracked out. Usually with some exploring you can find snow.”
Avalanche Canada reports the avalanche risk for the Cariboos as considerable at alpine elevations. They also recommended caution in the Northern Rockies region (Mt. Renshaw is located north of McBride in the Northern Rockies region). They said they received a report of “what is described as a very large, significant avalanche” near McBride which “appears to have been human triggered.”
Both McBride and Valemount have had rain over the past two weeks. Mild temperatures over the past couple weeks may have contributed to poor snow conditions.
In a separate incident Jan. 23rd, an avalanche took the life of a snowmobiler in the Trophy Mountain range, northeast of Prince George. A group of five snowmobilers were riding in the remote mountain area when one of them was swept away in an avalanche.
The B.C. Coroner’s Office released a report summarizing avalanche deaths in the province between Jan. 1, 1996, and March 17, 2014. During that time, there were 192 avalanche-related deaths, for an average of 10 deaths a year. The average age of the victims was 35.9 years old, and 90 per cent were male. The highest percentage of deaths, 41 per cent, came through snowmobiling, followed by skiing at 33 per cent, and heliskiing at 13 per cent.