A group of nearby skiers came to the aid of two Nelson, B.C., police officers swept up in a deadly avalanche Monday, while dozens of trained search and rescue volunteers scrambled to get them off the mountain before dark, a rescue official said.
The avalanche in the Groat Range near Kaslo, B.C., killed Const. Wade Tittemore, 43, and seriously injured co-worker Const. Mathieu Nolet, 28, who remains in critical condition in hospital, Nelson police Chief Donovan Fisher said during a news conference on Tuesday. Both men were off duty at the time.
“Nelson is one of the smallest municipal police forces in Canada, and we are like one big family. The impact of the death of Const. Tittemore has a profound effect on the force and our community.” said Fisher. “Our deepest condolences go out to his family.”
Mark Jennings-Bates, a manager with Kaslo Search and Rescue, said they got the call around lunchtime on Monday and were immediately concerned about the amount of light they had left.
He said they were told the surviving officer was able to flag down a group of nearby skiers who used avalanche beacons to find Tittemore.
Multiple helicopters loaded with rescuers, including the longline team out of Nelson, were sent to the mountain, with the first helicopter arriving in about 45 minutes, he said.
When they arrived, the officer who had been buried had no vital signs and the second was suffering from “very serious thoracic and abdominal trauma,” he said.
The surviving officer was airlifted to the Nelson airport and then taken to hospital, B.C. Emergency Health Services said in a statement.
Jennings-Bates estimates that about 30 rescue volunteers were involved in the operation either on the mountain or in behind-the-scenes logistics.
The RCMP said in a news release that the two men appeared to have entered the range on snowmobile and hiked to ski an alpine bowl.
“Thanks to the bystanders for their quick action in recovering and providing care for the skiers,” said Cpl. Harland Venema of the Kaslo RCMP.
A statement from Nelson police said Tittemore had been with the force for four years and before that was with Calgary police for 11 years.
Tittemore was an avid backcountry enthusiast who loved skiing, hiking and backpacking, the statement said.
He leaves behind a wife and two sons.
Janice Morrison, Nelson’s mayor and chair of the police board, said a tragedy like this deeply affects the community.
“Officers in a city the size of Nelson are part of the community and make connections with people, both on and off the job,” she said.
Avalanche Canada said in a post on its website that some professionals are comparing this year’s snowpack to 2003, “which was one of the worst years on record for avalanche fatalities.”
Simon Horton, a senior forecaster with Avalanche Canada, said details of what triggered the deadly avalanche are still emerging, but the region has a “tricky snowpack” with weak areas deeply buried by large storms over the holidays.
“That goes back to the cold weather we had in the early winter, which has created weak snow at the bottom of the snowpack, and there are signs that that avalanche did involve these deeper weak layers,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.
Horton said the issue with the deep, weak snow has existed for a few weeks and “could take a few more weeks, potentially even months,” before conditions get better.
“It could just be a tricky winter where people heading into that country need to be disciplined and choose conservative terrain,” he said.
Horton said many parts of the backcountry in Western Canada are seeing similar weak snowpack structures with the potential to trigger large avalanches.
It’s important, he said, that people who go out to the backcountry have taken an avalanche safety training course, carry rescue equipment and check the forecast to identify the avalanche terrain and hazardous slopes.
The Avalanche Canada website rated the avalanche risk in that area in southeastern B.C. at a three on its five-point scale, meaning the danger was “considerable.”
“Periods of drought and cold weather created numerous problematic layers in the snowpack,” the website said, generating conditions “seen once every 10 to 20 years.” It called the snowpack “spooky” for much of Western Canada.
“The setup of the snowpack varies across the provinces but there is a similar theme for most areas riders have triggered large, scary avalanches with high consequences,” it said.
The website said a size 2.5 avalanche had been triggered by humans on a slope near Kaslo on Monday, and Avalanche Canada spokeswoman Sarah Taylor confirmed it was the same slide that involved the officers.
Avalanche sizes are classified in a five-point rating that measures destructive potential. A slide with a rating of two is large enough to bury, injure or kill a person, while an avalanche ranked at three can bury a car, destroy a small building or break trees, the Avalanche Canada site said.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement Tuesday that the death of the officer is a tremendous loss for Nelson and for policing in B.C.
“Our hearts go out to the family, friends and colleagues of the off-duty Nelson police officer killed yesterday in an avalanche while snowmobiling near Kaslo,” Farnworth said.
“On behalf of all British Columbians, we send our deepest condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy. Our thoughts are also with the officer who was critically injured, and we wish them well as they begin to recover.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted a message of support to the surviving officer and to family, friends and colleagues of both officers, saying he was “incredibly saddened” to hear the news and wishing the survivor a “fast and full recovery.”
Trudeau’s youngest brother, Michel, was just 23 years old when he died in an avalanche in B.C. in 1998.
Vancouver Police Department Chief Adam Palmer also sent his support, tweeting “our thoughts at VPD are with the officers’ families and our brothers and sisters.”
The RCMP statement said the coroner is also investigating the death.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2023.
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