Three rescued after avalanche kills companion

Survivors shaken but unhurt after Cumberland Sound ordeal


In the early hours of Sunday morning, two avalanches tumbled down a slope along Cumberland Sound, claiming the life of a Pangnirtung man and leaving his three fishing companions shaken, but alive.

Around 10:30 a.m., officials from Pangnirtung called Nunavut’s Emergency Services in Iqaluit to report that they had heard from a group of men who had been struck by an avalanche.

The men were camping at Cape Mercy, about 140 km southeast of Pangnirtung, in the mouth of Cumberland Sound, and a six- to eight-hour journey from the community by snowmobile.

“We decided on a course of action. We knew we had to get in there as quick as possible … the only available helicopter was a Canadian helicopter, a Sikorski 61,” said Eric Doig, manager of Nunavut’s emergency measures operations.

But the 12-passenger helicopter couldn’t leave for the avalanche site right away.

“Sunday, we couldn’t go. The weather was out in that area. We were getting information from an unmanned weather station at Cape Mercy. So, we were able to get weather pretty much from site,” Doig said.

There, the wind was blowing at a stiff 50 to 60 km/hour.

“On Sunday, there was basically nothing that could be done.”

In Iqaluit, the Emergency Services centre monitored the situation and kept the helicopter on standby.

“We knew we were going to go out Monday. It was a matter of time and weather…. By 9:30 or 10 a.m., there was a window that showed the weather was improving,” Doig said.

Doig was also in communication with the men via bush radio. They reported the weather on site had improved.

“The only information we were asking was weather,” Doig said. “They were cautious about the information they were putting out on the public airwaves. We went in to deal with any situation we might find.”

After a flight of about one hour and 40 minutes from Iqaluit, the rescue team arrived at Cape Mercy, where they were greeted by the three survivors.

“They were walking. They definitely weren’t comfortable. They had experienced quite a traumatic event and their clothing was soaked and they’d lost some articles that made it difficult to be in that situation,” Doig said.

One man had no boots.

As of Nunatsiaq News’ press-time, neither the names of the avalanche victim nor the survivors were being released, because the search of the site was still ongoing.

“There were four [snow] machines and three were buried by the snow along with all their gear. They were able to salvage a komatik and some tarps, and that’s what they made as an emergency shelter. They dug out one machine so they had something to get around in and the gas to melt water with,” Doig said.

“They were in pretty good shape. These are experienced hunters. They know how to look after themselves. They had their heavy travel gear.”

Details about the timing of the avalanches are still sketchy.

“I assume it happened at night because they were all in one tent,” Doig said. “The site didn’t suggest that this was an avalanche area. It was a fairly gradual slope but you could see where there had been a build-up around some upcrops and that was probably due to the heavy winds that pushed it to accumulate.”

The men were camped in a spot often used for overnight stays.

“There wasn’t anything that suggested any kind of danger,” Doig said.

Fortunately, the outdoor temperature wasn’t too low on Sunday. During the night of the avalanche, the temperatures were unseasonably warm, around -7 C. By Sunday, temperatures had fallen to -17 C and down to -22 C, when the helicopter arrived.

Limited by the amount of time they could spend on the ground because the aircraft had to leave by dark, the rescue team, which included four men from Iqaluit with both knowledge of the terrain and search and rescue techniques, spent two and a half hours digging and searching for the body of the missing man.

The man had apparently been killed when the first avalanche slammed into the campsite, and was buried when the second one hit.

Although the search team was not able to locate the body, they did manage to eliminate many areas for future searches.

“That’s a big part of searching, to eliminate areas,” Doig said

The snow carried down by the avalanches varied from three to four feet deep.

“We brought them [the survivors] back to town and we had the ambulance crew in town pick them up and take them for a checkup by the health staff in town…. Friends and family took them in for the evening. Physically, they were in pretty good shape.”

This was the first avalanche rescue for Nunavut’s emergency measures operations.

Due to their rarity and the fact that no community in Nunavut lies in a known avalanche risk zone, avalanches are not part of the regular emergency measures plan.

Doig said around the Cape Mercy area there’s open water with active ice movement, and unpredictable weather.

“At the best of times it’s unstable,” he said.

Avalanche risks can rise when there are dramatic temperature changes accompanied by snowfall.

Nine people died in an avalanche in Kangiqsualujjuaq on Jan. 1, 1999, when falling snow crashed into the local school.

In March, 1997 a 24-year-old Arctic Bay man, Peter Barnabas, died in an avalanche as he was travelling on his snowmobile outside the community.

Avalanche safety publications suggest traveling routes that avoid steep slopes.

Slopes with a sun crust or south-facing slopes are particularly dangerous, because loose layers underneath can move, unleashing an avalanche. Snowmobilers are advised to travel in pairs, to carry a shovel and a collapsible probe that can be used to search for people buried in snow.

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