The decision to leave eight friends buried under a series of avalanches in western Canada’s backcountry was gut-wrenching, one of the three survivors said on Wednesday, through his tears. All eight died.
Three days after the accident, Jeff Adams described for reporters how the survivors, choking, dug themselves from the snow with their bare hands and were forced to hurry from the area by the threat of another slide.
The men were snowmobiling Sunday afternoon near Fernie, about 885km east of Vancouver. They knew the Canadian Avalanche Center had issued an avalanche warning more than 60cm of new snow, so they decided not to ride up the mountain walls.
One snowmobile got stuck in the snow. As they tried to free it, the first avalanche buried seven of the men, including Adams. The four others rushed over to help.
Daniel Bjarnason helped claw Adams out, but within minutes another avalanche swallowed everyone.
“I managed to pull to the surface. When I opened my eyes, I managed to see daylight,” Adams said. “I was already choking. I took a few breaths, after a few minutes of struggling, I got myself out. I looked around and realized there wasn’t anyone else. I couldn’t see any sleds so I yelled, someone yelled back and that’s when I went and found Jeremy [Rusnak].”
Without gloves or equipment, which were lost in the snow, Adams dug out Rusnak. After a third avalanche missed them, the two friends dug out James Drake.
The three decided they had to leave the rest behind or risk their own lives again, Adams said.
“We started walking down the mountain,” Adams said. “After we walked for 10 minutes or so, I contemplated going back. As I turned to look at the mountain, the whole thing came burying down, breaking again, so we decided our best bet was to keep walking.”
The three were rescued by helicopter.
The dead were found after a three-day search, scattered over an area the size of a football field.
Adams went back with the search team as they looked for bodies, to see the site again.
“It was very tough to look at the scene, to see how deep some of my friends were buried, to realize how close they were to the spot that I was,” he said.
The loss of the eight men, all lifelong friends and experienced outdoorsmen, devastated their nearby town of Sparwood, population 4,000.
“This is a sorrow that flows like the Elk River. We all feel it,” said Pastor Shawn Barden of Fernie Baptist Church during a memorial service.