LIONS BAY, B.C. – Five hikers crossing an unstable ledge of snow in the mountains north of Vancouver fell 500 metres to their deaths, a search manager said on Sunday.
Distraught family members of five hikers missing on Mount Harvey gathered at Lions Bay community school on Sunday, where a soccer field had been turned into a helipad for North Shore Search and rescue crews.
By noon, four bodies had been recovered from the foot of Mount Harvey. The body of the fifth hiker was found later in the afternoon. None of the recovered bodies had yet been identified.
The group, all experienced hikers, had been traversing a snowy overhang at the summit of the mountain before they plummeted approximately 500 metres.
Susan Choi wept as a helicopter landed in the soccer field.
Choi said she received a call at 1 a.m. from her brother-in-law telling her there was no hope her sister would be found alive. But on Sunday, Choi was still clinging to hope. “I stayed up all night praying for her,” said Choi, her voice barely audible. Choi said her sister, Iris Choi, 50, was a hospital caregiver in Langley.
Choi and other family members had been sequestered at the local library, where, she said, they were unable to get any information on the rescue or recovery efforts.
Choi described her sister as a very experienced hiker who had been hiking since she was in university, and had joined the group of hikers for regular weekend outings as of last year.
“I want to see her,” said Choi as she wiped away tears.
Martin Colwell, manager for Lions Bay Search and Rescue, said the snowpack was very hard, making it difficult for rescuers and search dogs.
Two helicopters and several ground crews responded Saturday afternoon after five hikers on snowshoes were caught by a collapsing snow overhang known as a cornice at around 4 p.m. The search was called off Saturday night because of the unstable terrain in the area.
Colwell said the group had followed an established hiking trail up Mount Harvey. Colwell described the trail as somewhat steep, and made more dangerous due to the winter conditions. “One of group held back a little bit, he was lower. By the time he got to the summit of Mount Harvey, the five members in front of him he was expecting to see where not there.”
The hiker saw tracks leading to a sheer break in the snow over the north face of the mountain where there had been a cornice. “It appears these people stepped onto that cornice, which is unsupported snow, especially with the heavy snow and wind we’ve had, and it broke, sheered off and they fell to the base of Mount Harvey.”
Colwell said rescuers saw snowshoes and personal effects scattered about at the foot of the mountain, but they were not able to get to the location before nightfall on Saturday.
Family members who made their way to Lions Bay on Sunday faced an agonizing wait, as officials were unable to confirm the victims’ identities. “That has not happened yet,” said Colwell.
Although an avalanche warning had been issued for Howe Sound on Friday night, and conditions were poor with high winds, and heavy, wet snow, this accident was not caused by an avalanche, said Colwell. “This was caused by the wind-related cornice that broke off,” said Colwell.
Colwell said a sixth member of the group had fallen behind the others on Saturday, and came to a point in the trail where a cornice appeared to have broken away, possibly sweeping the other hikers down the mountain.
Colwell said the hikers were probably traversing the cornice, a buildup of snow and ice that creates an overhang that is extremely dangerous to traverse or pass beneath.
He said high winds and heavy snow can form a snow ledge, or cornice, along the edge of the trail. The ledges can easily collapse and are difficult to spot.
“The trouble with a cornice is it looks like a smooth sweep of snow on a mountain, but you can’t see where the edge is, so you can go over it, or it can collapse beneath you and break away from the edge.”
Colwell said it’s a risky time on the mountains, with a lot of fresh snow.
It is believed the hikers were members of two hiking clubs. The hikers appeared to have be well equipped with whistles, GPS beacons, and a snow shovel.
Kisun Yoon of the Vancouver Korean Hiking Club said he believes two members of his club joined another club, MJM Hiking Club, on Saturday’s hike. Yoon said he was deeply saddened by the news.
Rescue teams from Lions Bay, the North Shore and Squamish joined the search, which involved some 40 volunteers, search dogs and two chartered helicopters.
No information about the identities of the snowshoers was being released until all the family members had been notified.