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Squamish sledder killed in backcountry avalanche

Rescuers unable to revive man buried in Grizzly Lake area slide

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A Squamish man is dead after he was caught in an avalanche while snowmobiling in the backcountry on Tuesday, Mar. 6.

The victim has been identified by friends as 44-year-old Dennis Leski of Squamish.

The avalanche occurred at roughly 3:30 p.m in the popular Grizzly Lake area of Powder Mountain. According to reports, two members of a group of five were high-marking on a steep slope above Grizzly Lake when the slide was triggered. One snowmobile turned right at the top and the other left, with the rider on the left getting caught up in the slide.

The man's companions called 911 and commenced the search for their friend. They were joined by three or four other members of the public in the area, but the slide area was large — hundreds of metres from top to bottom and hundreds of metres wide. It was 20 minutes before the victim was located near the toe of the avalanche under a metre of snow. He was not breathing and had no pulse, at which point his rescuers began to perform CPR.

The RCMP, Whistler Search and Rescue and members of the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol attended with rescue dogs by 4:15 p.m. and were joined just over half an hour later by a doctor working ski patrol. Soon after the victim was transported by helicopter to the heliport and then transported by ambulance to the Whistler Health Care Centre, where he was pronounced dead just after 5 p.m.

The cause of death is not known at this time.

The avalanche was rated on site as a Size 3 on a 1 to 5 scale, which means it was large enough to "bury a car, destroy a small building, or break trees." That assessment could be revised during the investigation, which in ongoing.

Brad Sills, the manager of Whistler Search and Rescue, called it a "sad day," and urged members of the public to use caution and read the signs. At the time of the accident the avalanche hazard was rated Considerable for the area, and there were natural slides in the area to warn backcountry users.

"There was a Class 4 in the area from 8 a.m. and there were naturals everywhere this morning," said Sills.

"Today, Mother Nature gave every indication, every early indication, that she was not going to be favourable to high risk sports. People need to be able to read the signs. They were absolutely evident to anyone who has an understanding of avalanche phenomena."

The original call suggested that the accident occurred in the Chocolate Bowl area, said Sills, but rescuers who attended the scene quickly determined that it occurred in a different area.

The RCMP issued the following warning after the slide: "People travelling in the backcountry must ensure that they exercise sound judgement when selecting their routes of travel and are properly trained and equipped for companion rescue."

The victim was wearing an avalanche tranceiver at the time of the accident. It's unknown what level of experience or training he may have had.

That wasn't the only avalanche reported in the region this week. On Mar. 3 at 12:28 p.m. the Pemberton RCMP received a report of an avalanche in the Vantage Peak area near Joffre Lakes. Backcountry skiers had been touring in the area when the slide occurred, catching one of the skiers. The man was not buried and was quickly extricated by his friends.

The group managed to get to the highway under their own power and drive the man to the medical clinic in Pemberton where he was treated for minor head and shoulder injuries.

A small in-bounds slide was reported in Diamond Bowl on Blackcomb Mountain on Mar. 4, but the only impact was a lost ski that was found with the help of ski patrol.

Avalanches were a global story this week with two avalanche deaths in Utah, slides in California, an in-bounds slide that destroyed an occupied chairlift in France and, most serious, a series of avalanches in Afghanistan that killed over 160 people.

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