LIONS BAY, B.C. — Five hikers crossing an unstable ledge of snow in the mountains north of Vancouver fell 500 metres to their deaths, a search manager said on Sunday.
Martin Colwell said four bodies were recovered at the bottom of Mount Harvey early Sunday afternoon and a fifth body was located several hours later.
"It's a great tragedy," he told reporters at the search headquarters in Lions Bay, B.C. earlier in the day.
Search and rescue crews were alerted to the accident late Saturday afternoon, Colwell said.
A sixth hiker with the group had fallen behind and when he arrived at the summit, the other five had disappeared, Colwell said.
"The tracks were at the summit and there was an obvious sheer break in the snow over the north face," he said.
He said it appears the group stepped out on the ledge, or cornice, of unsupported snow and it collapsed under them.
"It's very dangerous, it's very deceptive," he said, of the snow ledge.
"It creates a nice gentle curve to the downwind side and it looks like a nice gentle slope in fact to walk on, and tempting to walk on because there is no brush in the way. Unfortunately you can't see the edge of the mountain face below it."
Colwell said the surviving hiker met another person walking up the trail who then alerted police.
Searchers in a helicopter spotted debris from the group left behind in the long track down the mountainside.
Colwell said the five victims were from B.C.'s Lower Mainland and were part of a regular hiking group.
Using the trails up to the top of Mount Harvey isn't dangerous, he said, but there are some very steep cliffs near the summit and getting too close to those with the current winter conditions can be dangerous.
A few of the hikers may have had some winter hiking equipment with them such as shovels, but Colwell said they didn't have full avalanche gear such as beacons and probes.
He added that anyone who hikes in the mountains during such winter conditions should be trained and prepared for an avalanche.
The surviving member of the group was clearly upset about the fate of his fellow hikers but provided valuable information to search teams, Colwell said.
Family members of the victims had gathered at the local library near the search headquarters to hear the sad news of their loved ones and grief counsellors were there to help.
Three loved ones could be seen talking to victims services workers outside the facility not long after crews confirmed four bodies were recovered. The three, a woman and two men, appeared visibly distraught.
A reverend who was in an adjacent room in the building when the families were notified about the recovery said he could hear people scream and sob.
Colwell said, "It's obviously been very difficult for them."
He said the coroner still needed to officially identify the victims and an announcement wasn't expected until at least Monday.
Dozens of volunteers from Lions Bay to Chilliwack, 130 kilometres away, helped in the search effort on Sunday.
The snow conditions were hard for digging and Colwell said by midday search crews, including rescue dogs, were tiring out and being relieved by fresh volunteers.
He said the phenomenal effort of all those involved in the search meant "we've managed to bring closure within 24 hours."
He added that counselling support would be made available for rescuers.
Squamish RCMP Cpl. Sascha Banks said the end of the search wasn't the outcome they were hoping for.
"Our thoughts are with the families and friends of the hikers and the search and rescue teams in Lions Bay."