By David F. Rooney
The avalanche that thundered down an alpine bowl claiming the lives of at least two snowmobilers Saturday “was so powerful it “scrambled the machines and wrapped them around each other,” said two eye-witnesses from Calgary.
“I watched this one guy go up and cut a line at the top of the ridge and the whole ridge just let go from side to side,” Dewinton Blair said in an interview after the 3 pm avalanche on Boulder Mountain, a popular snowmobiling area just a few kilometers west of this small city.
The 23-year-old from the Okotoks area and his older brother Derek rushed to help the 60 or 70 people who were buried by the snow slide, which occurred one day after the Canadian Avalanche Centre issued a Special Avalanche Warning.
“The avalanche scrambled the machines and wrapped them around each other,” Dewinton said. “You could see people’s arms, legs and heads sticking out of the snow. They were yelling for help and trying to get out. There were a lot of broken legs, arms and wrists.”
Derek said survivors immediately formed a probe line and began searching for people buried deeper under the snow.
Mayor David Raven said two people were killed and 26 were injured. The injured were transported by helicopter off the mountain to Queen Victoria Hospital where they were treated and released. (You can see a video-recorded interview with Mayor Raven about the avalanche on the front page of The Current or at www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcsWK2woW_o.)
“Emergency personnel have done an excellent job so far,” he said.
Search and Rescue volunteers, local RCMP, sledders at the scene, two local dog handlers with trained rescue dogs and others were mobilized to search the debris field for survivors and bodies. They searched until long after dark and will be on the scene again Sunday morning.
It is thought that the death toll could rise. RCMP have brought a mobile command post to Revelstoke and access to the mountain will be restricted as the search continues.
The event that drew the Blairs and other sledders to the mountain was the Big Iron Shoot Out. Organized by a man from out of province, possibly Alberta, the Shoot Out is unsanctioned locally and, in fact, widely disliked by the organized snowmobile clubs in town.
Councillor Steve Bender, who is Council’s liaison with the Revelstoke Snowmobile Club and Snowmobile Revelstoke Society, said local sledders have long taken issue with the Big Iron Shoot Out. The events are extreme and dangerous and “it was only a matter of time before something happened.” Past events have been marred by injuries, public drunkeness, thrashed trees and heaps of trash and debris left out on the snow.
Previous Big Iron Shootouts have featured drunken sledders, collisions with trees, injuries and trash strewn across the snow.
Raven said the City bears no responsibility for the event as it was organized privately on Crown land.
More information is available at www.revemergency.com.
Emergency Prorgam Coordinator Gerry Silva said a special phone line is being installed so that people with concerns about the safety or whereabouts of family members and other loved ones can call and receive the latest information. That number will be posted on The Current as soon as it is available. People in town can also go to the Community Centre after 7 am on Sunday to speak with officials.