By Steve Hubrecht

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Last week a large avalanche in the Purcells, near, but not right at Panorama Mountain Resort, caught a group of heli-skiers and prompted a flurry of response from emergency personnel. 

The ripples of the incident spread through the Columbia Valley as dozens of residents became involved with efforts to help. 

The avalanche was likely skier-triggered and occurred on Wednesday, March 1. By the early morning on Thursday, Mar. 2 RCMP confirmed that 10 people were caught in the avalanche —  three of them were killed and four were injured, some of them seriously. 

Local residents heard the distinct and ominous sounds of helicopters and sirens of emergency vehicles starting about mid-day on Wednesday, Mar. 1, and lasting several hours. The sheer number of helicopters and vehicles involved, and the number of personnel bustling around outside the local hospital gave clear indication that the incident was very serious indeed, long before any reports of the fatalities and injuries became public.

By that evening national media outlets were carrying news stories outlining that a group with local heli-ski company, RK Heliski, had been involved in the accident. Panorama Mountain Resort reportedly closed their upper lifts to help make rescue efforts smoother.

On Mar. 2 the Columbia Valley RCMP detachment issued a press release with details about the incident, confirming the numbers and outlining that one of the seriously injured people was the group’s guide. The other nine were non-Canadians, and their identities are not being released until authorities notify their next of kin.

The avalanche occurred around noon on Mar. 1, and Columbia Valley Search and Rescue and Parks Canada began to join the rescue efforts, but stood down when all the buried skiers were accounted for. BC Emergency Health Services was also involved, taking care of the deceased and injured skiers, who were flown to the Invermere hospital.

“It’s (the incident) heartbreaking, quite honestly,” Invermere mayor, Al Miller, told the Pioneer. “It’s not something we are used to in our small town. We have very good quality (tourism) operators who operate to a very high standard of safety. We just don’t see this kind of thing. Unfortunately Mother Nature is sometimes just unpredictable…It’s hard on everybody involved. It’s hard on the community.”

Miller said that Invermere is “a tight-knit community. We came together in hard times. That’s what’s happening now, but that doesn’t make it easy”.

His sentiments were echoed by Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) Area F director, Susan Clovechok. It was in Area F that that the avalanche occurred.

“This is a small valley and we all care deeply for one another. There are no words that adequately can convey our sorrow for the lives lost and all of the lives affected by this tragedy,” said Clovechok in a press release, extending her thoughts and prayers to all impacted and thanking all those involved in the response.

On the afternoon of Mar. 2, RK Heliski held a news conference and issued a statement: “the guests and the guides who ski with us each season are part of our family. We are heartbroken about the accident that happened yesterday near Invermere, B.C. It is impossible to put into words the sorrow that we feel and the sadness that is shared by our guests, their families and all of our staff. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved, their loved ones and the community.”

The company outlined that it was grateful to its team and all other groups helped with the incident, saying “we would like to thank the professional ski patrollers from Panorama Mountain Resort, CMH Bugaboos for their dedicated team of professional Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) guides and supporting aircrafts from Coldstream Helicopters, Silver King Helicopters, Glacier Helicopters and CMH helicopters.”

RK Heliski added it has asked the Canada’s national heli-ski industry association,  HeliCat Canada, to activate a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team of peer responders to support its staff.

Avalanche Canada communications co-ordinator, Lisa Perazzoli, said in a statement on Mar. 2 that the avalanche occurred on a southwest aspect, in the alpine at an elevation of about 2,500 metres and said the weak layer deep in the snowpack, which formed across much of B.C. early in the season, was a factor.

By the evening of Mar. 2 German media were reporting that the three dead skiers were Germans from Bavaria, two of them from the small village of Eging am See. The three included a 57-year old management consultant, his 57-year old friend (who was also a municipal councillor for Eging am See), and his 34-year old son in-law. Also caught in the avalanche, but surviving, was the consultant’s 25 year old son. The four were reportedly on the trip to celebrate the 25-year old’s recent completion of his bachelor’s degree. 

Eging am See has a population of 3,900 people, just as Invermere does. Just like Invermere, one of Eging am See’s main attractions is summertime beach and water recreation. 

Eging am See mayor, Walter Bauer, told German media that his small community is stunned and shocked.