NELSON, B.C. — A group of nearby skiers came to the aid of two Nelson, B.C., police officers swept up in a deadly avalanche Monday, while dozens of trained search and rescue volunteers scrambled to get them off the mountain before dark, a rescue official said.
The avalanche near Goat Range Provincial Park just north of Kaslo, B.C., killed Const. Wade Tittemore, 43, and seriously injured his co-worker Const. Mathieu Nolet, 28, who remains in critical condition in hospital, Nelson police Chief Donovan Fisher said during a news conference on Tuesday. Both men were off duty at the time.
Fisher said Nolet is in critical condition with multiple broken bones and many other internal injuries and his fiancée and parents are coming from Ontario to be with him.
"We're a small police force with a true family dynamic and this tragedy is devastating to us here in Nelson," he said.
"These are fine men and fine officers and the whole community is hurting."
Mark Jennings-Bates, a manager with Kaslo Search and Rescue, said they got the call around lunchtime on Monday and were immediately concerned about the amount of light they had left.
He said they were told the surviving officer was able to flag down a group of nearby skiers who used avalanche beacons to find Tittemore.
Multiple helicopters loaded with rescuers, including the longline team out of Nelson, were sent to the mountain. The first helicopter landed within about 45 minutes of the call, he said.
When they arrived, the officer who had been buried had no vital signs and the second was suffering from "very serious thoracic and abdominal trauma," he said.
The surviving officer was airlifted to the Nelson airport and then taken to hospital, B.C. Emergency Health Services said in a statement.
Jennings-Bates estimates about 30 rescue volunteers were involved in the operation either on the mountain or in behind-the-scenes logistics.
The RCMP said in a news release that the two men appeared to have entered the range on snowmobile and hiked to ski an alpine bowl.
“Thanks to the bystanders for their quick action in recovering and providing care for the skiers," said Cpl. Harland Venema of the Kaslo RCMP.
A statement from Nelson police said Tittemore had been with the force for four years and before that was with Calgary police for 11 years. Tittemore was an avid backcountry enthusiast who loved skiing, hiking and backpacking, the statement said.
He leaves behind a wife and two sons.
Nolet also started his career with the Calgary Police Service and transferred to Nelson after roughly a year "to take advantage of the many outdoor activities and the beautiful scenery," Fisher said.
He has been an officer in Nelson for about a year.
Janice Morrison, Nelson's mayor and chair of the police board, said a tragedy like this deeply affects the community.
“Officers in a city the size of Nelson are part of the community and make connections with people, both on and off the job," she said.
Avalanche Canada said in a post on its website that some professionals are comparing this year's snowpack to 2003, "which was one of the worst years on record for avalanche fatalities."
Simon Horton, a senior forecaster with Avalanche Canada, said details of what triggered the deadly avalanche are still emerging, but the region has a "tricky snowpack" with weak areas deeply buried by large storms over the holidays.
"That goes back to the cold weather we had in the early winter, which has created weak snow at the bottom of the snowpack, and there are signs that that avalanche did involve these deeper weak layers," he said in an interview on Tuesday.
He said many parts of the backcountry in Western Canada are seeing similar weak snowpack structures with the potential to trigger large avalanches.
It's important, he said, that people who go out to the backcountry have taken an avalanche safety training course, carry rescue equipment and check the forecast to identify the avalanche terrain and hazardous slopes.
The Avalanche Canada website rated the avalanche risk in that area in southeastern B.C. at a three on its five-point scale, meaning the danger was "considerable."
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement Tuesday that the death of the officer is a tremendous loss for Nelson and for policing in B.C.
"Our hearts go out to the family, friends and colleagues of the off-duty Nelson police officer killed yesterday in an avalanche while snowmobiling near Kaslo," Farnworth said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted a message of support to the surviving officer and to family, friends and colleagues of both officers, saying he was "incredibly saddened" to hear the news and wishing the survivor a "fast and full recovery."
Trudeau's youngest brother, Michel, was 23 years old when he died in an avalanche in B.C. in 1998.
The RCMP statement said the coroner is also investigating the death.
— By Ashley Joannou in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2023.
The Canadian Press