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Helicopter search crew uncovers avalanche victim

Dec. 30, 2010, Coquihalia Lake, B.C. - A helicopter crew removed the body of a Maple Ridge snowmobiler from a remote area near Coquihalla Lake earlier this week. Mike Buckles, 43, was the latest person — the third this week — to die while snowmobiling in B.C. The Vancouver Province reports.


December 30, 2010
By Carey Fredericks

Buckles was with 11 others riding a network of trails in the backcountry 60 kilometres north of Hope when an avalanche struck around noon Tuesday.

Buckles was the only one of the group hit by the avalanche, which swept him down the mountainside and buried him in debris for about 15 minutes.

The man’s fellow snowmobilers began searching for him as one person went to the old Coquihalla toll booth area to get cellphone coverage and call for help.

Search and rescue teams from Hope and Chilliwack arrived, but it was too dangerous for rescuers to go in by snowmobile.

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The Chilliwack helicopter longline rescue team was instead flown into the area where Buckles was last seen, approximately 10 km off the highway.

By that time, the snowmobilers had located Buckles and dug him out of the snow. He could not be resuscitated.

The group included the victim’s father, Ken Buckles. Other friends and relatives were along for the Christmastime trip in the backcountry.

Snow and weather conditions hampered efforts to remove the body until Wednesday.

RCMP spokesman Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said the group was well prepared. Buckles’s snowmobile was partially buried and the group used a beacon locator to find him.

Moskaluk said it was deeply painful for the family members who were on sleds with Buckles.

When reached by telephone in Maple Ridge, Buckles’s aunt said she didn’t want to comment and added that it was not the best time to try to get a hold of the victim’s father.

Shawn Taylor, sales manager at Greater Vancouver Powersports in Surrey, said he has known Buckles for 25 years. He said Buckles was out riding a new Skidoo 800 Freestyle when the avalanche struck.

“It has been very difficult,” he said of the tragedy up near the Coquihalla summit. “He was a great guy. He died doing what he liked to do.”

Taylor was snowmobiling two weeks ago in the area where the avalanche happened.

“The area they were riding in is a pretty common area to go,” he said. “It is kind of a bowl and we have had little avalanches up there but nothing like this. Our hearts go out to the family.”

Coquihalla Summit Snowmobile Club treasurer John Lejeune said the area where the tragedy happened had a moderate avalanche rating.

The club posts the avalanche conditions in the parking lot below and Lejeune said the area of the accident is well up the mountain and has had a lot of snow.

“The group was going mountain to mountain. You can work your way through the alpine bowls up there,” he said. “It was a bowl that slid down on him and buried him about six feet under.”

Avalanche forecaster Ilya Storm said Tuesday’s avalanche tragedy is the first of the season for snowmobilers.

He said they are rating the snowpack in the South Coast region as “dangerous” and warning people using the backcountry to monitor the snowpack.

“The wind really blew and it loaded up the downwind side of the ridges,” he said. “Right now that is the problem.”

Nelson Bastien, secretary of the B.C. Snowmobile Federation, said they work continually trying to get the message out about the risk avalanches pose. Snowmobilers often get out in the backcountry and fail to do the precautionary tests he points out.

“If you want to ride in a valley that has slopes, go and find a safe spot and do a snowpack test,” he said.

B.C. NDP public safety critic Mike Farnworth said the provincial government last winter began talking about mandatory licensing after a high number of avalanche tragedies involving snowmobilers in the backcountry.

“We haven’t seen anything,” he said. “It has fallen off the government’s radar.”

Bastien said licensing snowmobilers would maybe help control things, but many would not take the time to get licensed.

“The government is dreaming about licensing,” he said. “How do you think you will stop a guy from going into a dangerous area?”

On Boxing Day a 44-year-old Prince George man died in a snowmobile collision on Eena Lake, northwest of the city.

The next day a snowmobiler while he was out sledding near Elko, in the East Kootenays.

Last year 11 people — including skiers and snowmobilers — were killed in avalanche-related tragedies in B.C.


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