Mountains kill again

Two professional mountain guides, who accompanied skiers on a B.C. backcountry heli-tour that turned deadly when it triggered the third killer avalanche in a week, could have called it off if they thought it was unsafe, a spokesman for the tour company said Sunday.

VALEMONT, B.C. — Two professional mountain guides, who accompanied skiers on a B.C. backcountry heli-tour that turned deadly when it triggered the third killer avalanche in a week, could have called it off if they thought it was unsafe, a spokesman for the tour company said Sunday.

But operators of Canadian Mountain Holidays say there’s no comparison between the Saturday slide that smothered two French nationals, and two others where three snowmobilers died on mountains near Revelstoke where warnings had been in effect.

The CMH guides had skied the Cariboo Mountain range run where the latest tragedy occurred three times a couple of days earlier, finding no problems with the conditions.

“The question is, ‘Did the team of professional guides believe that that slope was going to slide, that there was a risk that that slope was going to slide? The answer is no,” said spokesman Martin Von Neudegg, with Canadian Mountain Holidays.

When they disembarked Saturday afternoon in Wells Gray provincial park, near MacAndrew Lake, there was no hesitation to hit the powder.

“The guides would have … made the decision based on the information they had, including that they had just been there,” Neudegg said.

“They wouldn’t have skied it if they thought anything other than it was safe to ski.”

Not long after the group of 10 began their descent, an avalanche 300 to 400 metres wide, stretching another nearly 800 metres rumbled down the mountain.

Two French nationals, aged 65 and 19, were smothered to death, according to Valemount RCMP.

While their company found them with locator beacons, they weren’t able to revive the pair upon finding them unconscious after digging them out. A third man who was buried survived.

The men’s families have requested their names not be released.

The B.C. Coroners service is investigating the deaths with help from the RCMP.

Heli-ski tours offer enthusiasts the opportunity to ski downhill in a natural setting, with the use of helicopters to take them to terrain difficult to reach by other means.

Professional mountain guides must have at least five years training before they go out on the slopes, Neudegg said. The pair who took the ten out had more than 35 years experience between them.

The CMH guides discuss several hundred runs that are available to their clients every morning before flying out, Neudegg said. Each run is given either the red or green light, but guides can still veto and head to another if they don’t like the look of it when they arrive.

Those who book tours with the company sign an extensive contract waiving liability from them and the province around personal injury, death, property damage or other loss.

Neudegg says the deaths Saturday were the first in a decade of the company’s 46-year history, though 10 people have died on tours in total.

Elsewhere in the province, an avalanche on Eagle Pass Mountain west of Revelstoke, B.C., killed a 30-year Calgary man who was among about 10 people at the base of the mountain on Friday.

The Western Hockey League identified the man as Kelly Reitenbach, a former linesman, and said he died while snowmobiling. Another man, from Saskatchewan, suffered minor injuries.

Last weekend’s avalanche on nearby Boulder Mountain killed two Alberta men and injured 31 people at a snowmobiling event called the Big Iron Shoot-Out.

About 200 sledders, including children, were gathered on the mountain when the slide hit, also on a Saturday.

Before the latest fatalities were reported, RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk told a news conference in Revelstoke, B.C., that police hope the recent slides will serve as a warning for sledders and outdoor enthusiasts to check for warnings before heading to the backcountry.

“We are hopeful that people will weigh out the risk factors, educate themselves and minimize, as much as possible, the risk to themselves,” he said Saturday.

“If the conditions are such that they shouldn’t be out there please heed the warnings and stay out of the backcountry when it’s appropriate to stay out,” he said.

However, that wouldn’t have been much help in the latest avalanche. That’s because it’s backcountry operators who are actually out in the wild that provide information on conditions to the body that issues bulletins, Neudegg said.

“The knowledge that we gain about any particular ski run is gathered not just in a day or in a moment, it’s gathered over an entire season,” he said.

The company says it has no plans to halt operation while the investigation continues.

— By Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver