Last winter, a couple skied beyond the boundaries of a B.C. ski resort into a life-and-death ordeal. And though their SOS signals were reported, no searchers came looking. What went wrong?It was a crisp, clear morning February 15, 2009, when Gilles Blackburn and his wife Marie-Josée Fortin woke in their room at the Mountaineer Lodge.
As the sun crested the Rockies to the east, brilliant winter light flowed into the Columbia River Valley around the small town of Golden, British Columbia. It was, by any measure, a perfect day to hit the slopes at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, cold enough-at around —10°C-to keep the snow feather-light, but not the kind of mid-winter Rockies freeze that sears the nostrils and makes the snow crystals bite the ski bases like tiny knife blades. Blackburn and Fortin checked out of their room, loaded their luggage into a rental car parked in the underground lot, then walked across the squeaky morning snow to the base of the Golden Eagle Express gondola. (Mountaineer Lodge is part of the resort's village complex.) The couple had come west from their hometown of LaSalle, Quebec, for a dream Valentine's ski vacation. After an initial stop at Lake Louise, Alberta, they were looking forward to a day on the slopes at Kicking Horse.
The gondola carried the couple right to the top of the mountain, an extension of the Dogtooth Range. For first-time visitors to Kicking Horse Resort-such as Blackburn and Fortin-the view from up here is breathtaking. Far below to the east sits the downtown area of Golden, a logging and railway town turned adrenalin mecca. To the southwest lies row after row of wild peaks.
Kicking Horse has a well-earned reputation as a serious skier's resort, much better known for its advanced runs than for its family fare. Steep glades, bowls and mogul-studded faces-punctuated by cliff bands-leave much for the beginner and intermediate to contemplate. Even for avid and experienced downhill skiers like Blackburn, a 51-year-old construction contractor, and Fortin, a 44-year-old nurse, it would have been challenging terrain.
Some time that February day, the Quebecois couple boarded the Stairway to Heaven chairlift, which whisks people almost to the resort's highest point-My Blue Heaven. Standing near the top, Blackburn and Fortin decided to duck under the rope and follow an alluring track in the powder that beckoned beyond the ski-area boundary down the southwest side of the mountain.
It was a fateful decision that would lead to a tragic series of events.
It would also spawn a vigorous debate over personal responsibility and the public's duty to help when things go wrong. For some people, the events that followed seem like the anatomy of a rescue gone awry; for others they add up to a grim cautionary tale of inexperience, ill-preparedness and bad choices in the backcountry. The truth, most likely, lies somewhere in the middle.
To be fair, when Gilles Blackburn and Marie-Josée Fortin slipped past the out-of-bounds signs at Kicking Horse, they weren't the first to venture beyond the resort's boundary. The southwest flank of the peak is popular terrain for "slack-country" touring. There, thinly treed avalanche glades funnel steeply into thick timber, and once you point the boards downhill you're committed to several hours of skinning back up to the resort.
Gravity and topography dictated Blackburn and Fortin's trajectory, and an epic run it must have been. Almost 2,600 feet of precipitous tree skiing later, the couple slid to a stop at the bottom of the Canyon Creek valley. Except for the sound of an occasional helicopter flying high overhead, they were alone with the fathomless silence of winter. Between them they had only two granola bars and the clothes on their bodies. They had no water, no matches, and no survival gear, and-other than realizing that the resort was up above them-they were lost. They had no way of knowing just how lost they would soon become.
At about the time that Blackburn and Fortin were pondering their next move at the bottom of the valley, an off-duty ski guide named Jeff Gertsch was backcountry skiing with some buddies approximately 10 kilometres to the northwest at the head of Canyon Creek. Jeff and his friends were staying at the Serenity Cabin, which belongs to Rudi Gertsch-Jeff 's father, boss and the owner of Purcell Heliskiing. The Canyon Creek valley runs through the northern end of Gertsch's primo 200,000—hectare heliskiing tenure.
Rather than face the daunting prospect of boot-packing uphill and retracing their tracks to the resort, Blackburn and Fortin decided to follow Canyon Creek. But instead of going downstream-toward the Columbia River Valley, with its roads and major highway-they headed upstream, assuming the headwaters would lead them back to Kicking Horse. They couldn't have been more wrong. From where the couple first encountered Canyon Creek, the upper valley meanders northwest away from the resort, to the height of land at Grizzly Col astride the eastern border of rugged Glacier National Park.
Anybody who has sidestepped in powder snow with heels fixed knows that it's an exhausting exercise in inefficiency. Doing so for any distance without food or water requires almost superhuman effort. However that's exactly what Blackburn and Fortin proceeded to do. From what observers could later discern from their tracks, over the next couple of days they sidestepped and shuff led up the valley, ascending as much as 2,000 vertical feet over 10 kilometres. At one point, they may have come within several hundred feet of food, warmth and shelter at Serenity Cabin. They would also have crossed the tracks of Jeff Gertsch and his friends, some of which likely led directly to the cabin's front door. Unfortunately, they neither saw the welcoming glow of a kerosene lantern from the cabin at night nor heard the excited shouts of nearby skiers during the day. Blackburn and Fortin spent two nights outside in the cold, with not a soul in the world knowing that they were missing and in trouble.
On February 17, however, Jeff Gertsch noticed something strange in the snow.
Ski tracks are not uncommon in Canyon Creek, but the ones he spotted traversing the subalpine basin not far from the cabin were conspicuously different. They weren't the purposeful ascending skin tracks left by backcountry skiers looking to bag a summit, but the awkward traces of skiers sidestepping perpendicular to the fall line. Something in these snowy signatures denoted panic.
Later that day Gertsch stumbled upon a large SOS crudely stamped out in a clearing that said all was not well in the Canyon Creek valley. Yet when Gertsch and his friends scanned the upper reaches of the watershed and further investigated the tracks they saw no signs of movement, no trace of the people who left them. That's when he decided to radio his father, Rudi, who was back at Purcell Heliskiing's headquarters on the outskirts of Golden, about 15 kilometres to the east as the crow flies.
It wasn't the first time that skiers from Kicking Horse had wandered out of bounds and ended up in the veteran Swiss guide's adjacent heliskiing tenure. Rudi called the resort to inform management of the distress signal spotted by his son in the Canyon Creek valley.
Rudi Gertsch belongs to the pioneering generation of European mountain guides that launched the heliskiing revolution in British Columbia back in the 1950s and '60s. After emigrating from Switzerland in 1966, he guided in the Bugaboos for the late Hans Gmoser's Canadian Mountain Holidays before starting Purcell Heliskiing in 1974. Short and stocky, with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard, Gertsch is a fit 64-year-old with the hearty weathered complexion of somebody who spends 100 days a year on skis. There's also an intensity to Gertsch that is slightly unsettling. Like most people who have been involved in the ski-guiding profession as long as he has, Gertsch is no stranger to grief. On Valentine's Day in 1978, he lost seven heliskiers in a massive avalanche, among them his brother. Then in a subsequent year, his first wife died in a freak snow slide. And just two years ago, one of his seasoned pilots perished in a sudden hard landing that sheared off the blades of the chopper and also left one of his guides seriously injured. Gertsch still bristles when he thinks about this incident and what he says was a botched recovery mission by police and Golden and District Search and Rescue, which left the pilot's body in the chopper for two nights while his grieving family waited. To say that there is no love lost between Gertsch and the local search-and-rescue unit is an understatement.
Kyle Hale, a search manager for Golden's search-and-rescue, and also an avalanche forecaster for Kicking Horse Resort, has been on the receiving end of Gertsch's criticism more than once. Yet he says that when resort staff, who happen to include search-and-rescue volunteers, got the call from the outspoken guide alerting them to the SOS in the Canyon Creek valley, they took it seriously. Mountain safety personnel toured the resort's parking lot looking for abandoned cars, inquired about unreturned equipment rentals and contacted local hotels to see if any guests hadn't checked out. The search turned up nothing. Blackburn and Fortin had made no plans to keep in touch regularly with either friends or their son and daughter, and, save for a rental car in an underground parking lot, there was scant trace of their brief visit to the resort.
"There was no report of missing people so based on the information available at the time, that's as far as we went," says Hale.
Search-and-rescue volunteers play a vital role in public safety in British Columbia, but it's a role not well understood.
There are 85 search-and-rescue associations in the province, staffed by roughly 4,700 volunteers. However, these groups can only launch a rescue mission after they are enlisted by an agency such as the police, the Coast Guard or the military, and then receive a task number from the Provincial Emergency Program. Regulations prohibit them from self-deploying. The Golden search-and-rescue team is a well-trained unit. Composed of roughly 40 volunteers, it conducts mountain and swift-water rescues, and is one of only six search-and-rescue associations in the province that also does highway vehicle extractions, an additional role that keeps members busy on the treacherous stretch of the Trans-Canada snaking through the Kicking Horse River canyon. Hale estimates that each year his team receives around 90 tasks, many of them involving wilderness missions coordinated among rescue volunteers, police and mountain professionals. But in the case of Blackburn and Fortin, that coordination started going haywire the moment the first report of strange tracks and a distress signal was made.
Hale claims that, after Kicking Horse Mountain Resort staff had checked for any indications of missing skiers, Rudi Gertsch was told to notify the local RCMP detachment about the SOS sighting. Gertsch denies this, saying he left it with the mountain safety people at Kicking Horse, assuming they would follow up on his report. What is known for certain is that for some reason, the RCMP were left in the dark.
While life went on as normal in Golden, Blackburn and Fortin were focused on survival in the Canyon Creek valley, so close to the comforts of civilization but still so far away. It was February 18, three days after they'd ducked under the rope, and despite their best hopes, the rescue cavalry wasn't about to crest the hill-not even close. The one positive was the weather, which had remained sunny and clear. But the negatives were mounting. Without food they were forced to munch on whatever leaves or barely palatable foliage they could gather from the forest for sustenance. At night they struggled against —15°C temperatures to keep their extremities from freezing into wooden blocks. Eventually they trudged in their clunky downhill skis all the way to the head of Canyon Creek. The view over Grizzly Col must have been a crushing disappointment-a scene of utter winter desolation without people, roads, buildings or any glimmer of imminent rescue. Realizing that this was a dead end, they began inching their way back down the other side of the Canyon Creek valley, in the direction of the resort. Reports suggest the couple stamped out at least three more SOS signals in a desperate attempt to attract attention to their plight.
It's hard to imagine the psychological torment that Blackburn and Fortin must have endured hearing six or more helicopters flying high overheard every day shuttling guests from the warmth of their hotels at Golden or Kicking Horse Resort to the Purcells for a day of powder. As Rudi Gertsch notes, the weather was clear and visibility virtually limitless so the choppers were flying at mountaintop elevation. The chances of spotting movement far below in the glades, forests and meadows of Canyon Creek, let alone signals in the snow, would have been similar to spying a sailboat from the seat of a trans-Atlantic flight.
On February 21, six days after the couple had ventured out of bounds, Jeff Gertsch and his ski buddies were cleaning up the cabin, stuffing their packs and waiting for a return flight to Golden, following a blissful week in the mountains. After loading their gear into the chopper, they clambered aboard and as they flew above Canyon Creek, they glimpsed another faint SOS in the snow. Again a sign of distress, but no signs of people.
Once back in Golden, Jeff told his father about the sighting and this time the senior Gertsch called police.
The RCMP then contacted Golden and District Search and Rescue and were told that the report had already been investigated, meaning no other corroborating evidence could be found to support the notion that people were lost in the Canyon Creek valley. Based on this discussion, the police took no further action, and Gertsch continued managing his busy heliskiing operation, thinking that a search was being organized. It wasn't.
On the same day that Jeff Gertsch spotted and then reported his second SOS, the situation was turning increasingly desperate for the couple from Quebec. The two had retraced their route back down Canyon Creek coming to rest a few kilometres downstream from where their tracks had first intersected the valley. Fortin was weak and cold, and fading fast. They managed to build a makeshift shelter in the woods, and it was here-on February 22-that Fortin would take her last breath, succumbing to hypothermia. She died agonizingly close to Kicking Horse Resort, virtually within view of the Stairway to Heaven chairlift that they had happily ridden a week previous. Now Blackburn was alone and cold, crippled with grief and fear. He was suffering from frostbite and exposure. For the next two days he stayed with his wife's body, hoping for a rescue.
On February 24, after a week of bluebird weather, a ceiling of clouds dropped depressingly on the surrounding mountains, but it was this deteriorating weather that would prove to be Blackburn's salvation. The dense cloud cover forced the Purcell Heliskiing pilot to take a much lower flight path. With Rudi Gertsch sitting in the front passenger seat of the Bell 205 and a full complement of heliskiers on board, the pilot hovered slowly over Canyon Creek. Suddenly Gertsch spotted a solitary figure standing in the snow, waving his arms, clearly in distress. Gertsch instructed the pilot to fly overhead, so as to indicate to the person that he had been seen, before beelining back to Golden with his guests. Gertsch immediately called the 911 dispatch in Kelowna, which then relayed the report to the Golden RCMP detachment, which in turn tasked search-and-rescue to mount a mission. Strangely enough, at almost the same time, the RCMP detachment in Banff was notified by its counterpart in Montreal that Blackburn and Fortin had failed to disembark from their scheduled f light into Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport.
Later that day, Don McTighe, a pilot for Alpine Helicopters, flew into Canyon Creek with a small search-and-rescue team that would pluck Gilles Blackburn from his nightmare and also recover the body of his wife. The rescue was painlessly quick and easy, almost as if to emphasize the tragedy of the couple's nine-day misadventure so close to civilization.
McTighe has been a mountain pilot for almost 30 years and has flown many rescue missions. He has vivid memories of that day. "We picked him up three kilometres from the resort. [Blackburn] just got in the helicopter and sat down. Considering everything, he seemed calm and in amazingly good health," McTighe says.
Blackburn didn't remain calm for long.
When details of the ordeal and the delayed rescue began to emerge, the press had a field day. Fiction quickly blurred with fact. In an interview, Blackburn mentioned that he and his wife had feared wolves at night as much as the cold, and several news reports erroneously stated that he had defended their encampments from wolf packs with the sharp end of a ski pole. Blackburn was quick to acknowledge that he and his wife had made a crucial error by skiing out of bounds, but as questions began to surface around the rescue, the implication in the media was that pleas for help in the form of SOS signals had essentially been ignored.
Later last spring, this tragic story ended up where many people feared it would-in court. On May 7, Blackburn launched a lawsuit against Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, the RCMP and Golden and District Search and Rescue. The lawsuit claims that "as a result of the negligence of the defendants, the plaintiff has sustained physical and psychological injuries, loss and damages…" Blackburn is asking for monetary compensation and answers, and taken as a whole, the litigation reads like a bruising indictment of search-and-rescue incompetence.
Immediately after the rescue, Blackburn participated in a number of interviews with national media. Since the lawsuit was announced, however, both he and his Whistlerbased legal team have been quiet, and they did not return calls from explore. Given the sensitivity of the issue, the case is bound to get ugly as the lawyers representing the different defendants argue their cases, and also examine the personal role Blackburn played in this sad story. Almost eight months later,
Gertsch still shakes his head wondering what went wrong. The fact that repeated sightings of SOS signals resulted in what he believes was very little response from either the police or search-and-rescue upsets him. "It's unacceptable that the authorities didn't respond to a report from a reliable source. Look, I've been skiing out there for 35 years. When you see an SOS anywhere in the world, it doesn't matter if it's in the desert or the snow, an SOS is an SOS," Gertsch says.
Gertsch has heard some people suggest that those who go out of bounds are somehow less deserving of a rescue.
For him, that's tantamount to saying police shouldn't assist people in a crumpled car on the roadside simply because they were speeding. "When people need help, we help them. It doesn't matter what
the causes are," Gertsch says.
Alison Dakin is a longtime Golden resident and a former owner of Golden Alpine Holidays, a backcountry skiing operation. For the past two winters, she has guided part-time for Purcell Heliskiing. She says not many people in the community are happy with Blackburn's decision to sue, but she believes the town is split on the question of whether or not the police and search-and-rescue acted appropriately. In her mind, however, they obviously did some things wrong. "I'm all about personal responsibility in the backcountry but sometimes we fuck up," Dakin says. "I sure hope that people will be there to help if I make a mistake.That woman didn't need to die."
When Gilles Blackburn filed his statement of claim in B.C. Supreme Court in May, a chill descended on the entire provincial search-and-rescue community. It marks the first time that a volunteer search-and-rescue organization is being sued for, in effect, something it didn't do. Rescue volunteers were subsequently dismayed to learn that the province wasn't going to cover the costs of defence against a civil lawsuit. They felt that the government had hung them out to dry. Shortly afterwards, Golden and District Search and Rescue decided to suspend its operations. Several other rescue groups threatened to follow suit, and only when the province committed to coming up with a solution to liability coverage did the Golden unit resume operations. (In August, the B.C. government delivered on its promise, bucking up $180,000 for liability insurance covering all 85 of the province's search-and-rescue organizations.)
With the insurance issue resolved, fears that the province would be left without a search-and-rescue safety net have been allayed. Now it's up to the lawyers to sort out the messy case in Golden. The three defendants-Golden and District Search and Rescue, the RCMP and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort-have circled the wagons. In its statement of defence, search-and-rescue denies all allegations of negligence and says any "injury, loss or damage was caused wholly or in part by the negligence of the Plaintiff…" Kicking Horse Resort is leaning on the exclusion of liability waiver that adorns the back of every lift ticket, which has proven robust in past court cases. The RCMP also denies negligence, despite the fact that two days after Blackburn's rescue, Corporal Dan Moskaluk stood before a Golden news conference and admitted the RCMP made an error by not conducting a search on February 21, the day they first received reports of an SOS in Canyon Creek.
Don Blakely, a lawyer and veteran manager of the search-and-rescue team in Vernon, B.C., has watched the Blackburn case closely. He says it's important to remember that searches are expensive, meaning you can't simply dispatch a helicopter and an army of volunteers without doing some basic homework. Though he admits a distress signal seen in the bush makes for a pretty persuasive argument for some sort of response, he believes Golden's search-and-rescue will avoid liability simply because it had not been given a task number, a requirement that is clearly described in policy governing how search-and-rescue organizations operate. However, Blakely says that as this lawsuit grinds through the courts, there will be lessons to be learned.
"In events like this that prove to be tragic, there tends to be a series of compounding errors by the victims. On the response side of the equation, there seems to have been a breakdown in communication, misunderstanding and a lack of precise information," Blakely says. "But you can't minimize the personal negligence of the plaintiff. Just think how different this might have turned out if [Blackburn and Fortin] had simply had a pack of matches."
Kyle Hale, of Golden and District Search and Rescue, gets visibly agitated at suggestions that the group willfully ignored the SOS. "Sure it's gut wrenching to think that we could have done this or we could have done that, but hindsight is 20/20. We acted on the best available information we had at the time," he says.
He believes the avalanche of media reports following the incident failed to emphasize the fact that Blackburn and Fortin broke pretty much every rule of backcountry travel.
Nobody knew their itinerary that day, they had no survival gear, they made distress signals in the snow but failed to remain at the spot, and, perhaps most important, they knowingly skied out of bounds. "You can't walk six feet along that boundary without hitting your head on a sign that says ski-area boundary," Hale says.
The morale of Golden's search-and-rescue team may have taken a body blow as a result of the lawsuit, but one thing is certain: team members can count on general public support. In Golden, mountain sports are a religion and there's no doubt the court case has struck a nerve. The initial sympathy many people had for Blackburn started to evaporate the moment he enlisted a lawyer and pointed the finger of blame at search-and-rescue volunteers, who often forgo work and family obligations to help people in distress. The following response to a CBC online story on the lawsuit was typical: "I feel for him that he lost his wife, I really do, it's never pleasant when someone passes, especially under circumstances such as this when it could have clearly been avoided by taking common sense precautions. Even my six-year-old brother knows to tell someone when he's going out of the yard. He also knows not to cross boundary lines he's not supposed to."
Tunde Vertesi, a resident of Golden who moved to the town five years ago for the mountain lifestyle, agrees with the sentiment. "I think most people share the same feeling, that they shouldn't have been out there in the first place." Vertesi worries that the court action may result in further regulation of outdoor pursuits that attract people partly because they are relatively free of regulation in the first place. Or even worse, it could damage the volunteer search-and-rescue system and therefore endanger people who might need assistance in the future.
As for Blackburn, he has said that he launched the lawsuit for exactly the opposite reason: to fix a faulty system and ensure that someone doesn't needlessly die in the future.
Like a lot of other wilderness tragedies, this one started with a single poor decision-to duck under the rope at Kicking Horse Resort. When that decision was compounded by more errors, Gilles Blackburn and Marie-Josée Fortin hoped, as most of us would, that somebody would be there to save them. Often that hope is rewarded, but occasionally it's not. In this case, says veteran heli-pilot Don McTighe, "Everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong."
No matter what the outcome of his lawsuit, Gilles Blackburn will have to live with the tragic consequences of that poor decision forever.