Local search and rescue volunteers spent 7½ hours Sunday rescuing a local woman seriously injured in an avalanche on the Kootenay Pass that killed one of her ski companions.
The victims were part of a party of four, all from around Nelson, who were backcountry skiing in the Lightning Strike area, southwest of the highways yard at the top of the pass.
Nelson Search and Rescue’s Chris Armstrong said they were called out around 1 p.m. and dispatched a helicopter with two technicians to assess the avalanche risk.
The class two to three slide pulled the man through a heavily treed area and down a cliff.
“The man went right to the mid-slope and travelled a great distance through a lot of timber,” Armstrong said. “The woman was hung up on a tree near the top and it’s probably what saved her.”
Although neither was buried in the slide, the 27-year-old man died at the scene. The woman, also 27, is recovering in hospital in Trail with unknown injuries that may include broken ribs.
The other two skiers in their party were not injured. Another party of six in the area witnessed the slide, and four joined in the rescue effort.
One person went to the highways yard to call for help. The first search and rescue personnel arrived between 2:30 and 3 p.m.
Armstrong said the weather, diminishing daylight, and difficult access prevented a helicopter rescue, but they didn’t think they could wait overnight to bring the woman out.
“With her injuries, we decided if we hunkered down we may not be able to get her out if it snowed. So we deemed it best to get her out, and brought in all the manpower we could.”
Teams from South Columbia, Rossland, and Castlegar were called and 26 volunteers ultimately flew or hiked into the area. The woman was packaged on a stretcher, dragged down a creek valley, and back up to the highway. It was between 10:30 and 11 p.m. when she was transferred to BC Ambulance personnel.
“We basically did it by sheer manpower,” Armstrong said. “Hours of grueling slogging, pulling a stretcher through the snow.”
Following the rescue, the operation was shut down until morning, when technicians triggered controlled avalanches to make the area safe. Three search members then skied in to recover the man’s body.
His name has not been released, but in a Facebook comment his aunt called him a “great young man.”
“The family is devastated,” she wrote. “Our thanks to the crew and everyone who has helped in our time of need.”
Armstrong also paid tribute to the volunteers: “Twenty-six people who had to go to work Monday morning went out and completely busted their humps. We have a great system of volunteers and they need to be appreciated for their hard work.”
The Canadian Avalanche Centre issued a special warning for BC last week, as a result of an extended dry period in late January and early February.
“That long drought left the surface of the snowpack in very bad shape,” said the centre’s Karl Klassen. “Now the new snow is sitting on one of the worst weak layers we’ve seen in a few years.”
The weakness is one to two meters deep, resulting in very large avalanches when triggered, Klassen said.