The skier who died overnight Thursday after a backcountry avalanche has been identified as a ski patroller from the Whistler Blackcomb resort.
Duncan MacKenzie, 30, died after being injured in an avalanche and trapped in the mountains for much of the night near Pemberton, B.C. Rescue efforts were hampered by weather and darkness.
RCMP Sgt. Peter Thiessen confirmed the skier was dead when rescuers reached him early Friday morning.
Officials at the Whistler Blackcomb resort said MacKenzie had been an employee since October 2000 and was a keen athlete and outdoor enthusiast. The expert skier was also featured in professional videos and photographs shot in the Whistler area.
MacKenzie was injured when an avalanche swept through a group of four skiers on Thursday at about 3 p.m. PT near Caspar Creek, about 25 kilometres east of Pemberton and about 120 kilometres north of Vancouver.
"It was going to be their last run down the hill of the day," Thiessen said. "At that particular point this avalanche hit, taking this young man with the slide. There were two skiers above him that were not impacted and another skier at the bottom of the hill that chose not to take that last run of the day."
The skiers, whom police described as experienced and from the Whistler-Pemberton area, were travelling in the backcountry, despite the high avalanche danger ratings for alpine areas in recent days. They were not skiing at a resort.
Dangerous rescue effort
When the avalanche hit, MacKenzie was swept down the mountain about 1,800 metres, police say.
"When the other three skiers found the male, he was severely injured and unconscious," Thiessen said. "One skier stayed with him, while the other two went to seek help, administering CPR until help arrived many hours later."
The skiers managed to notify police about the incident just as darkness fell around 4:30 p.m., but the injured skier and his companion remained on the mountain as rescuers attempted to reach the remote site.
"I think everybody can imagine what it would be like to be left on a mountain with your ski buddy while hoping that he is going to survive while they wait for help to come back," said Thiessen.
The first rescue attempt using a helicopter by the Whistler/Pemberton search and rescue team was turned back by darkness.
A second attempt was made by a search and rescue helicopter from CFB Comox, but it had to turn back because of poor weather conditions, John Millman, from the Canadian Forces Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Victoria, told CBC News.
The RCMP then organized a ground-based search and rescue team, but darkness and weather hampered the team's efforts overnight.
Finally, after several hours of difficult travel by snowmobile and then by skis in the dark, the rescue team reached the pair about 12 kilometres from the nearest road early Friday morning.
MacKenzie's body was finally removed from the site Friday afternoon.
"Unfortunately, this is an example of the extreme, extreme risk in the backcountry area of British Columbia," Thiessen said. "The avalanche risk is high. The warnings have gone out. Unfortunately this gentleman paid with his life."
CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe said overnight temperatures in Pemberton dipped to –3 C and roughly 10 centimetres of snow fell. The temperature at the higher elevation where the skier was injured would likely have been a few degrees cooler.
A town in mourning
In Whistler and Pemberton on Friday friends and co-workers were in mourning after learning of MacKenzie's death. His love and knowledge of the Whistler-area mountains were well known, along with his skill on skis, many said.
Eric Berger is an outdoor photographer who's spent many years on local hills, shooting pictures of skiers, including MacKenzie.
"He was a great guy, super positive, energetic, you know always smiling, really friendly, always really keen and a hard worker," he said.
"It's a small community and I think that he was well respected for what he did … the ski patrol," Berger said. "And I'm sure he had a large circle of friends. A lot of people are going to be touched by it."
Regardless of a skier's skills, backcountry skiing remains a sport with unavoidable risks, said Berger.
"It's just a reminder that with Mother Nature there's so many variables out there. … You just can't control it. You can just do the best you can."
Avalanche danger high
The avalanche hazard has remained high in most areas of British Columbia for several days, thanks to unusually mild temperatures, and numerous warnings have been issued to snowmobilers and skiers to exercise extreme caution in the province's backcountry.
Provincial officials have closed several major highway passes in recent days in order to clear the avalanche risk.
Two avalanches have also been reported at B.C. ski resorts in recent days.
On Thursday a skier triggered an avalanche near the Revelstoke Mountain Resort in the Greely Bowl area of Mt. Mackenzie. The avalanche started outside the controlled boundary area, but part of the debris field ended up inside the controlled boundaries of the resort. Nobody was injured in the incident.
On Wednesday there was an avalanche at the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden. RCMP said the slide came down on a ski run, but no one was trapped or injured.
The death of the Pemberton skier is the second avalanche fatality this season in B.C. In November a snowmobiler died in an avalanche in the Torpy Mountain recreation area near Prince George.