More avalanche fatalities snowmobilers near Golden
This from Saturday's Calgary Sun:
Chris Oler ended up vomiting in the snow, the adrenaline and exhaustion leaving him sick and spent.
The result of his efforts — frantic minutes of digging through a metre of icy avalanche debris — was a survivor.
The snowmobiling community is calling Oler a hero for saving the life of Travis Mueller, after Mueller’s party was hit by a freak slide near Golden, B.C. Saturday, resulting in three deaths.
Oler, a Calgarian, says he was just one of dozens who rushed to the bowl moments after the avalanche — and though he helped save Mueller, he denies doing anything special.
“I’d only hope and imagine someone would do the same for me if it was me in that hole,” said Oler.
The clock starting ticking the moment Oler heard there’d been an slide in the area he’d just sledded through with his family, around 5 p.m.
“We were on our way out and a guy came over the top of the mountain and said, ‘hey, we’ve got a Class 4 on the other side,’” said Oler.
“I didn’t hear the rest of what he said, I just drove over the mountain and started helping out.”
Class 4 is avalanche parlance for a medium-sized slide, and in this case the wall of snow was about one metre deep and 500 metres across.
Oler’s group, armed with a locater, immediately picked up a signal from an electronic beacon buried in the snow.
“We used an avalanche beacon — within seconds we had a signal, and within minutes there was a probe in the ground and we knew where he was,” said Oler.
“We just started shovelling.”
In 15 years of snowmobiling this was the first time Oler used the rescue techniques he has long trained for.
With every extra second under the snow a potential killer, Oler says the rescuers put every ounce of energy they had into shifting the deep snow.
“I shovelled my guts out — I mean, I was puking from going as hard as I could,” said Oler.
“It was the same with everybody else — there was sweat pouring off them.
“People were bleeding through their noses from going so hard.”
Within minutes, the diggers found their target. Travis Mueller was out cold at first, but soon opened his eyes.
“He was a younger guy and he was unconscious at first,” said Oler.
“He was shaken up really bad — he was awake, but was still in shock and he had nothing to say.”
The celebration was short-lived. Though rescuers located the other men through their beacons, it was too late.
The victims were Andy Gebhardt and his son Jarrett Gebhardt, as well as the survivor’s father, Norbert Mueller.
The two dads were close friends growing up and all four came from small towns east and northeast of Red Deer.
To have saved one man, only to find out three others in the same group had died, was difficult to deal with, says Oler.
“It puts you in your place. There’s no word to describe it,” he said.
“I can’t imagine the pain that kid is going through.”
Though RCMP are crediting both victims and rescuers with being properly prepared for the backcountry, with survival training and rescue gear, Oler knows there’s fallout to come.
Fatal avalanches invariably result in criticism against those who snowmobile in the backcountry, especially those trying to ride as high up the pristine snow as possible.
Oler doesn’t deny that his sport has its dangers, but he takes exception to the notion that snowmobilers are oblivious to the danger.
Preparation and awareness are the key and Oler said he felt the backcountry was safe on Saturday.
“I like to think I’m a bit knowledgeable and snow conditions were fine that day,” said Oler.
“There was very strong snowpack underneath and maybe six inches of fresh powder.”
He trusted the snow enough to have sledded on the very spot where the three men died only minutes before.
“The hill where it happened — we were just on it,” he said.
“We left ten minutes before it fell, and were sitting right were those guys were.”