REVELSTOKE, B.C. — What many feared would be one of the worst death tolls ever in the B.C. backcountry appears to be an almost miraculous story of survival.
But with the relief at a major catastrophe averted came anger from some in the snowmobiling community who say the two killed — and the real potential there could have been dozens more — should never have happened.
“That was sheer stupidity,” said Brandyn Mears, who works at Powder Petes snowmobile rental shop in Revelstoke.
He was referring to witnesses who reported watching the avalanche trigger when a few people attending the annual Big Iron Shoot-Out began high-marking, racing their snowmobiles up the side of the mountain to see who can leave the highest mark and get down safely.
Dozens of sledders stopped to watch from what they thought was a safe distance. It wasn’t.
A towering wall of snow with the force of concrete came tumbling down the mountainside near where a group of 200 was gathered, sweeping spectators and their snowmobiles with it.
RCMP confirmed late Sunday that the names of the two dead men were Kurtis Reynolds, 33, of Strathmore, and Shay Snortland, also 33, of Lacombe. The men were business partners in an oilfield hauling company based in Strathmore.
Police wouldn’t directly say it was the high-markers who caused the avalanche.
But those in the snowmobiling community had little doubt.
“It’s guys with the most expensive sleds out to prove who’s best, not to prove who’s the safest,” said Mears, who noted the first mistake was being out on a snowmobile in avalanche conditions deemed dangerous in the first place.
When “a lot of people were ignoring the avalanche risk … something like this happens,” he said. “It’s the few bad apples who ruin it for the rest.”
The massive slide sent 31 to the hospital, one in critical condition. The death toll could easily have risen beyond two but for the quick rescue efforts of fellow snowmobilers.
RCMP say they have accounted for all those known to have been on remote Boulder Mountain, in the Monashee Mountains, when the deadly avalanche tumbled down Saturday afternoon.
After searching for abandoned vehicles and canvassing hotels in the Revelstoke area, Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said there was nobody that RCMP know of left unaccounted for, and no new reports of missing people.
“All the persons we had on these lists of names have been accounted for and have been checked off the lists,” Moskaluk told reporters.
“We’re in a far different situation than we were just over 24 hours ago with a report of over 200 people being possibly affected by this slide. We’re very fortunate, albeit though we do have two fatalities as a result of this incident.”
B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed, who flew to Revelstoke on Sunday, said because of the search volunteers, “we are fortunate that there weren’t many more lives lost in this unfortunate incident.”
Survivors have described a scene of chaos after the slide.
Moskaluk said RCMP believe the slide was triggered by high-marking, but he declined to directly blame the riders, who have not been identified, or say whether they are among the dead. Nor would he say whether they could face charges.
Rather, he said only that RCMP and the coroner’s service are investigating.
The annual event — “big iron” sometimes refers to a snowmobile — is a gathering not sanctioned by any snowmobile club and involves different kinds of skills contests. High-marking isn’t uncommon.
Some of those gathered on the mountain, possibly including children, were watching as what one witness called “those crazy guys” raced up the mountain.
Ben Bassaraba of Fernie, B.C., was recovering in hospital in nearby Kamloops on Sunday. He described being tossed 200 metres by the snow.
“I was eating a lunch with a buddy of mine, and I could hear — it sounded like thunder, pretty much, it was really loud. So I looked up and there it was coming and it was probably 30 feet high,” he told Kamloops radio station CHNL.
He saw others being dragged under by the snow, just as he was eventually overtaken.
“Everybody I could see went under. It was so massive, there was nowhere you could go, anyways,” Bassaraba said. “I should have been way down deep, I don’t know how I ended up on top. I was lucky, but there’s people less lucky, that’s for sure.”
Moskaluk said 19 of the 31 injured were released from hospital. Four were transferred to hospitals in Calgary, Kelowna, Kamloops and Vernon, B.C., for treatment of more serious injuries.
Two men who witnessed the avalanche said it hit so many people in part because a crowd stopped to watch the high-marking.
Steve Langevin, 38, said he thought the crowd was safe from the people he called “those crazy guys” because they were what seemed like kilometres away, but the wave of snow was so massive it easily reached them.
His friend, Pierre Beaudoin, 48, said the accident could have been prevented.
“We were watching, a whole bunch of people were parking there and then they were watching the high-mark. That’s why everybody was stopped there.”
He said it was irresponsible for the few snowmobilers to run up the mountainside in those conditions, especially with a number of them going up at the same time.
“The minute one makes it to the top, oh, the next guy, I could do it, and then it becomes stupid. And it was stupid, they were starting to come from the side, one’s coming down and one’s going up.
“Then everything started going crazy.”
Despite previous backcountry tragedies, this latest slide shook the town and the entire backcountry community.
The Canadian Avalanche Centre had a warning out for the area this weekend that the risk of avalanche was “considerable.”
Greg Johnson, of the Canadian Avalanche Association that runs the centre based in Revelstoke, said conditions in the B.C. backcountry have been “tricky” for the past six weeks, and got worse after a storm in recent days dumped a heavy load of snow on weak layers underneath.
The snow pack was stabilizing but was still “highly unstable” when the slide occurred.
“We continue to receive reports of avalanches being triggered this morning, so, the snowpack is still very unstable on a certain part of the terrain where avalanches have not run in the cycle,” Johnson told reporters in Revelstoke.
Johnson avoided comment on whether the snowmobilers should have been there at all.
“We issue our bulletins daily, we update our bulletins daily from the avalanche centre. We also make efforts to send out special information, special avalanche warnings when conditions are conducive to higher risk. We did that the way we normally do,” he said. “Whether these people had that information when they went into the mountains, I can’t tell.
So far this year, there have been far fewer avalanche deaths compared to last winter when there were two dozen. One slide claimed the lives of eight snowmobilers near Fernie, B.C., in December 2008. There were 13 avalanche deaths the previous winter.