A Monday afternoon avalanche claimed the life of a 34-year-old skier and swept up three others in its path during a heli-skiing trip in the Purcell Mountains west of Radium Hot Spring on February 19th.
Gotz-Thilo Ries of Karlsehie, Germany, was skiing with a group of friends south of Jumbo Mountain when the avalanche struck sometime after 2 p.m. The deluge was classified as a two out of a possible five on the Canadian Avalanche Scale.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the deceased,” said Rod Gibbons, operations manager at Invermere’s RK Heliski, who took the skiers on the excursion. “It is an absolute tragedy; there is no other way to describe it.”
The 150 metre-wide avalanche occurred on a backcountry run known as Perogie and swept a path 300 metres down the mountain, enveloping the four German friends skiing together.
Two of the skiers were partially buried, with one suffering minor injuries, while another two were fully buried under an estimated 1.2 metres of snow. All skiers were wearing transceiver beacons and were found within 10 metres of each other, Mr. Gibbons added.
“The rescue went just like clockwork, for whatever that is worth,” he said.
Mr. Gibbons arrived on site, along with four members of the Panorama Mountain Village Ski Patrol, within 12 minutes of receiving the distress call.
Three of the skiers were conscious when found and were dug out by ski patrol members and RK Heliski personnel, who used using search transceivers, avalanche probes and snow shovels to help locate and free the men. The fourth man was dug out and found to be unconscious.
Resuscitation efforts undertaken on the scene, in the rescue helicopter and at Invermere and District Hospital proved unsuccessful. Although Mr. Ries’ cause of death hasn’t officially been released, the BC Coroners Service confirmed trauma was not a significant factor.
“We initiated CPR and put the AED [automated external defibrillator] on him and loaded him directly into the helicopter, and they flew directly to the hospital; the hospital worked on him for 45 minutes,” Mr. Gibbons added.
Although two helicopters were on hand to respond to the accident, a Plan Bravo order was executed by RK Heliski, which meant mobilizing a helicopter and two guides from Canadian Mountain Holidays’ Bugaboo base, as well as a helicopter and two guides from CMH’s Bobby Burns base, a Parks Canada dog handler and a rescue specialist responding from Banff.
Since the victims were flown from the scene shortly after the order, the three additional rescue teams were called off before attending the area.
In 43 years of operations RK Heliski has never suffered a fatality and prides themselves on their impeccable safety standards, Mr. Gibbons added.
“It is difficult, there is no question about it, but we also understand that even though our track record has been so good, it is always a possibility,” he said. “We will learn to deal with it and we will move forward.”
Although four skiers were swept up in the avalanche, seven skiers and an RK Heliski guide managed to avoid being engulfed by the avalanche.
The investigation into the fatality is ongoing with an independent team currently performing a review of the location as of Tuesday, February 19th.
“All skiers were trained to properly use a beacon before heading out on the ski adventure,” said Staff Sergeant Marko Shehovac of the Columbia Valley RCMP. “This training and assistance by the guide resulted in the quick recovery of the one person that was buried and survived.”
Friends of the victim killed in the avalanche have contacted the man’s family in Germany.