Five snowmobilers were killed Friday in a "very large" avalanche that struck several groups in a popular sledding spot in British Columbia's backcountry.
At least 11 snowmobilers in three separate groups were in an area near McBride, a village about 210 kilometres southeast of Prince George not far from the B.C.-Alberta boundary, said the RCMP. The avalanche happened at around 1:30 p.m.
"I've managed probably every avalanche incident in this region for the last 30 years and we've never had one of five people before," said Dale Mason of the Robson Valley Search and Rescue unit, which co-ordinated the operation from McBride.
Avalanche Canada said the slide appeared to be triggered by the snowmobilers. At least six others survived, including two who were injured.
Mr. Mason said he saw the survivors, all men, as they were flown by helicopter back into McBride's airport.
"The ones I saw had just survived an avalanche burial," he said. "They looked like they had just beat death."
He said the group had little to say as he saw them. He did not know where they were from.
Mr. Mason described the area of the avalanche as a wilderness area with no in-bounds or out-of-bounds areas.
The RCMP were first notified when two separate GPS beacons were activated, prompting the force to notify the search-and-rescue group.
Two search-and-rescue technicians were on scene almost immediately as they were snowmobiling in the area just prior to the slide, police said. A helicopter also headed to the scene.
The survivors assisted with the rescue effort and helped search for people believed to have been buried, RCMP said.
Donita Kuzma, the regional coroner, said emergency officials initially believed there were four people killed, but the death toll rose to five as the RCMP on the scene spoke to survivors about who was missing from their group. Two coroners were dispatched to the area.
Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada said the "very large, significant" avalanche appeared to be human-triggered, but he did not elaborate.
"There are layers of concern in the snowpack in many parts of this region (and others) and a fairly significant weather event added rain and snow to the snowpack over the last few days followed by clearing and cooling today," he said in a statement.
"This may have produced stresses in the snowpack capable of producing large avalanches and this condition could take several days to settle and bond."
He warned people to be cautious this weekend.
Rick Thompson, a councillor with the Village of McBride, described the area on Mount Renshaw as a popular sledding spot about 15 kilometres from town. He said the news came as a shock.
"It's devastating. As soon as you hear about something this tragic, you immediately begin to think about all your friends and family that you know, and the acquaintances you do know who may be out there sledding," said Mr. Thompson, who was out for dinner when he heard the news.
"It was like, 'Oh my God, who was out there?'"
Thompson said the weather was "not terrific."
"We had a great amount of rain down in the valley early in the week, which meant there was a lot of fresh snow, about three feet I heard, up on the mountain. It's been hot and cold, which creates poor conditions, so avalanche conditions are high."
MLA Shirley Bond, who represents the area, offered her condolences in a statement and thanked emergency workers.
"This avalanche and the resulting loss of life is devastating news and our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost a loved one," the statement said.
Bob Zimmer, the local MP, posted a message on Twitter: "Thoughts and prayers go out for the families of the 5 who lost their lives today in the avalanche outside of McBride. So sad."
McBride Mayor Loraine Martin said she was thinking of the victims.
"Our heartfelt condolences go out to their families and loved ones," she said in an e-mail.
RCMP said no further information would be released pending the completion of the search effort and completion of notification of next of kin.
With files from James Keller and The Canadian Press