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Michael Shawn Buckles.
Michael Shawn Buckles.

Snowmobilers return to deadly B.C. avalanche site to recover body Add to ...

Mere minutes after they frantically pulled their loved one's lifeless body from the ice, a group of snowmobilers made the gut-wrenching decision to leave him behind so they, too, weren't buried by a fatal avalanche.

Family and friends returned to the scene Wednesday, as the man's body was recovered from an area earlier deemed to be at considerable avalanche risk. The victim was the first B.C. snowmobiler to be killed by a slide this winter, and his death renewed questions about the industry's safety record and raised concerns about the snow pack in the months to come.

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Michael Shawn Buckles, a 43-year-old Maple Ridge resident, was riding with 11 others, including his father, when he was buried by the avalanche Tuesday afternoon near the community of Tulameen.

"The avalanche came down between the group, sweeping the one man down the mountainside," said RCMP Corporal Dan Moskaluk.

The police spokesman said the group was equipped with rescue recovery gear and GPS devices. One person rode off to call for help, while the others searched for the buried man.

"The group utilized a beacon locator to extricate the buried man. Immediate CPR efforts failed to revive the man, who had been buried for approximately 15 minutes," Cpl. Moskaluk said.

He said the group feared another avalanche could strike at any moment and thought it was too dangerous for one of the snowmobilers to try to transport the body. So they marked the area and made the difficult choice to leave Mr. Buckles behind.

Avalanches are nothing new for B.C. snowmobilers. In the winter of 2008/09, 24 avalanche deaths were recorded. Nineteen of those involved recreational snowmobilers; eight sledders were killed by one slide alone near Fernie.

A number of measures have been introduced since that horrific season. A BC Coroners Service review panel made several recommendations this year, including the development of an avalanche awareness program and an avalanche signage policy.

Al Hodgson, president of the Association of B.C. Snowmobile Clubs, said the safety courses have been very well attended and the message of caution well received. However, he conceded change won't happen overnight, or even in a couple of seasons.

"We've been told that it took the backcountry ski community 15 years to get up to speed. We're trying to compress it to five years," he said.

There have been a flurry of snowmobile accidents in B.C. in recent days. On Sunday, a 44-year-old man was killed when his sled collided with another snowmobile near Prince George. On Monday, a 44-year-old man died near Fernie after his sled hit a ramp. The next day, near Nelson, a 53-year-old snowmobiler suffered broken bones when he fell 30 metres down an open mine shaft.

Mr. Hodgson said while the group involved in the fatal avalanche appeared to have the right equipment, that's only half the battle. Snowmobilers must also be aware of the terrain and avalanche conditions.

Ilya Storm, a forecaster with the Canadian Avalanche Centre, said there was considerable avalanche risk in Tulameen's treeline and alpine areas at the time of Tuesday's slide. He said the avalanche was a size two, or about 100 metres long.

In recent years, the avalanche centre has warned of weak snow packs, which increase the likelihood of slides. Mr. Storm said there's no indication this winter will be especially bad for avalanches.

"At this point, it looks like a regular winter," he said. "I'd like to see more snow. Often, a deeper snow pack is a stronger snow pack."

Like Mr. Hodgson, Mr. Storm said the safety message does appear to be resonating with snowmobilers, despite the recent incidents.

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