'Bigger than thou': Awestruck snowmobilers won't stop after five avalanche deaths

Thea Pelletier, of Edmonton, Alta., pauses while being interviewed after snowmobiling with her husband at Mount Renshaw near McBride, B.C., on Saturday January 30, 2016. Five snowmobilers died Friday in a major avalanche in the Renshaw area east of McBride.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

MCBRIDE, B.C. - The day after a colossal avalanche killed five snowmobilers in eastern British Columbia, Thea Pelletier climbed aboard her machine and returned to the backcounty wilderness.

She unfastened a yellow plastic lily from her backpack and planted the flower in pristine snow to pay her respects.

"I had a moment. It was intense. It was bigger than thou," Pelletier said. "You feel the insignificance of what you are when you're up against mountains like this. I can't imagine someone calling my mom to say, 'Your daughter is not coming home.'"

The B.C. Coroners Service revealed Saturday that the five men who died during a recreational outing on Mount Renshaw, near the small community of McBride, B.C., were all from Alberta.

The victims were identified as Vincent Eugene Loewen, 52, of Vegreville; Tony Christopher Greenwood, 41, of Grand Prairie County; Ricky Robinson, 55, of Spruce Grove; Todd William Chisholm, 47, of St. Albert; and John Harold Garley, 49, of Stony Plain.

RCMP said an early investigation determined the five were in four separate groups that had converged just before the slide came roaring down upon them.

And as the sun set Saturday evening, four trucks with Alberta licence plates and snowmobile trailers attached sat silent in the darkness at the foot of the Rocky Mountain range, west of the provincial boundary.

Inside one was a pack of cigarettes and ring of faux Hawaiian flowers, hanging from the rear-view mirror. There were Tim Hortons coffee cups in another, and a an Edmonton Oilers cap sat on the dash of the vehicle next to it.

Yet as dusk turned the horizon a glowing orange, exhilarated teams of sledders — including Pelletier and her husband — returned to the parking lot after another day ripping around in the backcountry.

The 31 year old from Edmonton said she'd first heard of the deaths when a news alert flashed on her smartphone the day prior, while they were riding on a nearby mountain.

Her first reaction was "total shock," she said. When she and her husband returned to McBride, they went to dinner at the town's only restaurant and found it packed with a sombre crowd.

"It was pretty heavy in there," she said, after listening to rescuers describe pulling bodies and 12 survivors from the snow. "They were just debriefing over a beer."

But the couple still chose to head out the next morning on the mountain where the tragedy occurred, despite noticing that other sledders were switching to other venues.

Pelletier admitted feeling trepidation, but was confident they were taking proper precautions. She checked an app that showed the avalanche danger rating, hung an SOS beacon from her neck, and carried a probe and shovel.

"I guess I'm a risk-taker. But you have to take calculated risks," she said, adding that weather conditions were about the same as the previous day.

Though she and her husband steered well clear of the avalanche site, from one vista they could still see vast cracks where snow bowls had been disturbed.

"You've got to go through a lot of sketchy areas to where those guys ended up," she said.

During a news conference earlier in the day, RCMP Cpl. Jay Grierson described the victims as "very experienced and prepared."

Pelletier was nowhere near the victims the day they died, but said she had often witnessed "showboating and a lot of testosterone" displayed in the male-dominated sport.

"When you go in big groups, I think there's a mentality of one-upping each other," she said. "We saw (the avalanche area) and said, 'Why would you ever go up there?'"

Search and rescue manager Rod Whelpton, who helped in the response, noted the snow was deep — making for an unpredictable situation. But the death-toll would not necessarily be a future deterrent, he said.

"I believe some people will be changed and other people will continue on," he said. "Have fun. Be safe."

A warning sign posted at the parking lot declared the hazard level was "considerable," falling mid-way on the risk scale. And a spokesman for Avalanche Canada said an assessment of the slide determined it was human-triggered.

On the outskirts of town, a bed-and-breakfast owner said the community was not surprised by occasional fatalities.

"That sort of stuff comes with the territory. It happens," said the owner, who declined to be named.

"It's like, you go out on the highway right now and you get hit by a semi-truck. It's very sad, but it's just reality."

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