The five friends from Alberta were in high spirits Friday as they enjoyed a warm and bright day snowmobiling on Mount Renshaw. Before they could stop for lunch, they had to traverse one obstacle: an avalanche-prone pass.
The first four snowmobilers had made it through the pass when they looked back and saw that John Garley had fallen off his snowmobile. The seasoned 49-year-old outdoorsman, from Stony Plain, Alta., was standing up and straightening his goggles as the rumbling started and a wall of snow descended.
In total, 17 people were in the path of the avalanche. Mr. Garley and four other Albertans died on the slopes of Mount Renshaw that day. His four friends survived and helped with rescue efforts.
Ian Park was only 250 metres away from Mr. Garley when the whooshing sound of at least 10,000 cubic metres of snow and debris began rushing down the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Within moments, his friend disappeared in a white cloud.
"I was in shock, I was thinking 'Oh no,' I was in awe," he said. "It was unfortunate, had he not fallen, he would have made it."
As snow was falling around their idling snowmobiles, Mr. Park and his three friends ran toward where Mr. Garley had been standing. They turned their personal beacons to receive, creating a chorus of chirping noises as they neared where their friend's beacon was buried in the snow.
Equipped with snow shovels and probes, they dug through the fresh snow, quickly hardening to the consistency of concrete. Within five minutes, the burly heavy-duty mechanic was dragged free.
"It was only five minutes. We instantly got on CPR," said Mr. Park. "It didn't work." He remained with Mr. Garley, performing CPR, as the other three moved on to help with the search effort unfolding in front of them.
The mountain is an alpine playground, a jewel in an area that markets itself as the mecca for Canadian snowmobiling. With 5,200 hectares of groomed trails, snowmobilers can power up 2,200 metres of Rocky Mountain slope in the largest snowmobiling area in the Robson Valley, a well-known spot for snowmobilers near the Alberta border and about 20 kilometres northeast of the village of McBride, B.C.
On Saturday, B.C.'s Coroners Service released the identities of those who died, including Vincent Eugene Loewen, 52; Tony Christopher Greenwood, 41; Ricky Robinson, 55; and Todd William Chisholm, 47.
Dale Monaghan is a friend of Mr. Garley's group. He was riding on a nearby mountain when the avalanche happened. He says that hundreds of riders pass through the spot each day where the snow gave way around 1:30 p.m. on Friday.
"It's not like you go through that area crossing your fingers, and trying to get through fast like Russian Roulette," Mr. Monaghan said Sunday afternoon.
According to local search and rescue, 142 snowmobilers were on Mount Renshaw at the time. The avalanche, which left a debris field of half a square kilometre, has been classified as a level 3.5 in intensity, strong enough to destroy an automobile.
Mr. Garley was part of one of four different groups that were caught in the avalanche. In all, five were killed and 12 were impacted. While the pass is a bottleneck on the mountain, Mr. Park has been snowmobiling on the mountain for 35 years and says he's never seen so many groups stop at once.
"I was surprised that they stopped at that spot, a bad spot," he said. "It's unusual that so many people stopped in a place like that. The training that you're supposed to have says you don't concentrate people in that kind of avalanche area because it increases the risk," he said.
Authorities do not yet know whether the avalanche was caused by human activity, but Mr. Monaghan, whose daughters grew up with Mr. Garley's two children, said his group of friends were hit by "a freak situation, because they would never put themselves in harm's way."
"They're not 30-year-old high-risk, high-altitude snowmobilers," said Mr. Monaghan, who had passed up an invitation for the annual guys' trip to the region for the second year in a row so he could take one of his daughters sledding nearby. "They love the mountains, are extremely well-prepared and all have the latest state-of-the-art equipment."
Mr. Park returned to the avalanche area on Sunday with another survivor to help recover Mr. Garley's snowmobile. Four more machines were slung under a helicopter and flown off the mountain on Sunday. Most showed signs of damage.
Mr. Garley's wife and two daughters released a statement on the weekend, saying that he died, "enjoying the majestic Canadian outdoors with friends. John cared for and valued friendships dearly and for this he had many close friends, many of whom enjoyed with John and his family the incredible Canadian outdoors."
Dale Mason has been a member of the Robson Valley Search and Rescue team for more than 30 years. While the local avalanche danger was marked as considerable on the day of the slide, he cautions that considerable is the "normal" level for McBride.
"That's where the sign is most of the winter, it's a measured risk," he said.
Mr. Mason credited the training and preparedness of the men caught in the avalanche for the large number who survived.
"It was hard work for them. They were shovelling, finding one body, and then another body, your heart really goes out for them," Mr. Mason said.
From the first helicopter taking off until the end of the recovery operation, the process took only two hours and 40 minutes, he said.
Loranne Martin, McBride's mayor, said the region had experienced a "strange" weather year, which had created instability on the slopes. "Sledding on the mountains can be very rewarding, but it can also be very dangerous," she said.
With more than half the people riding machines in the hills around the village of 600 visiting from Alberta, McBride's locals vow that snowmobiling will go on. "It's what helped build us as a town. It's what helps keep our businesses open, and our school and hospital. We don't have mills, we have snowmobiling," said Clint Traquair.
Avalanche investigation unfinished
Climate change will bring warmer winter nights and a more stable snowpack to many parts of Western Canada's backcountry, which will reduce the overall risk of avalanches, one of the country's leading hydrologists says.
John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in water resources and climate change, said less frigid winters will mean less blowing snow, which means smaller cornices – a major factor in avalanches.
"The snow's whipped around by the wind, especially when it's dry and cold; so if it's warmer and wet, it will be sticky and less likely to blow around," said Dr. Pomeroy, director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan.
"If it can't blow, it can't form these big cornices at the mountaintops and those are where, traditionally, very big avalanches come down."
However, forecasting the dangers of an area will also become much more complex because extreme shifts in weather will likely lead to snowpacks forming in ways that are different, he said.
Dr. Pomeroy, who has been studying glaciers in the Rockies for decades, said it is too early to tell whether this winter in the region will be a repeat of last year's low overall snowfall. However, he said that so far both this year and last have seen heavy precipitation early in the season and then snow drop off to below the historical average in January.
Donita Kuzma, a regional coroner overseeing the investigation of Friday's avalanche, told The Globe on Sunday that her agency still hadn't determined whether the fatal event was caused by human activity. An avalanche technician is expected to release findings Monday after examining the site on Saturday, she said.
There were 192 avalanche-related deaths in B.C. between 1996 and 2014, with an average of 10 deaths a year, according to B.C.'s Coroners Service. Forty-one per cent died while snowmobiling.
The majority of avalanche deaths occurred in B.C.'s Interior region.
A similar tragedy struck McBride, B.C., in March, 2014, when two Alberta men were killed while snowmobiling near the Interior community. The avalanche claimed the lives of 36-year-old Curtis Fries and 29-year-old Thomas Hamilton, who were found under 4.5 metres of snow.
Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly stated Thomas Hamilton was 20 years old. This version has been corrected.