Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2003-05-25
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Meadow Mountain area about 35 miles north of Kaslo
State: BC
Country: CANADA
Summary: 14 snowmobilers caught, carried, 5 buried, 3 injured

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'There is no reason why I should be alive'

Avalanche survivor counts blessings that all were spared

Bob Keating

Special to The Province

NELSON -- When the avalanche came roaring down Meadow Mountain, Craig Borash grabbed a tree and rode it like a toboggan.

"There is no reason why I should be alive," Borash said yesterday, fighting back tears. "God wanted me to be with my family."

The 33-year-old West Yellowstone, Mont., man was among 14 extreme snowmobilers -- 12 Americans, two from B.C. -- who were swept away by a massive wall of snow Sunday in the remote backcountry north of Kaslo.

The avalanche snapped trees like twigs and pulverized their snowmobiles.

Miraculously, all 14 survived.

The slide hit just before 5 p.m. Sunday in the Meadow Mountain area in the Selkirk range as the snowmobilers were getting in a few runs before darkness fell.

Two riders were on a ridge high in the alpine. A third was making her ascent.

Without warning, a huge layer of snow up to 20 metres high and nearly a kilometre long sliced away from the ridge and barrelled down the slope.

"I ran for the biggest tree I could find and jumped on to it just as the wall of snow hit," recalled Borash. "It snapped the tree and down we went."

"I just kept bouncing around and went through some other trees with the wall of snow behind me. By some miracle, the biggest wall of snow snow stopped 20 yards behind me.

"I've been on Yellowstone [Park] search and rescue for 10 years and I've witnessed a lot of slides and dug a lot of people out, but I've never seen anything like this."

Borash was buried up to his shoulders in snow so densely packed it took an hour to dig him out.

James Phelan, 33, an optometrist and veteran rider from Helena, Mont., was in a separate party when the snow came cascading down. His machine was running and he tried to out-run the avalanche, dragging a fellow rider behind who hung on to the back for his life.

"I was dragging a man hanging on to my bumper," Phelan said yesterday. "I kept looking back and the snow kept coming. I had no choice but to go off a cliff.

Phelan seriously strained his knee jumping off the cliff, and it took him three hours to crawl back to rest of the riders. He couldn't believe he was still alive.

"It is a miracle of no one was hurt or seriously hurt or killed," he said. "I mean, everyone was involved in this. How no one died I have no idea."

Phelan's wife, 28-year-old Melisse, also survived by hanging on to a tree as the snow spun her like a rag doll. She was buried to her head but could breathe and yell for help.

"I heard people yelling and screaming to get shovels and start looking," she said. "People just ran and dug and did what they had to." She suffered a broken leg.

Although half of the party was buried, only one person was completely covered -- an unidentified teenage girl who is believed to have triggered the avalanche when she began her ascent of the steep slope. She was quickly dug out by her frantic father.

Everyone in the group had beacons and most had shovels, Phelan said.

Some riders started a fire to keep warm, while others located the few snow machines that were not buried or crushed, and sped off to get help.

A Meadow Creek guide and lodge owner, Allan Drury, helped with the rescue and said it was incredible they all came out alive. He said some of the machines were buried in up to 20 metres of snow.

"It was pure luck, first of all," Drury said. "But the slide was so heavy, water saturated, that it floated them up on top. They stayed on top. [The slide] squeezed 'em up."

The Meadow Mountain area, he added, "has been red [the highest avalanche-danger rating] all season . . . they shouldn't have been on it."

Only when the rescued snowmobilers were taken to a back-country cabin did it dawn on them how lucky they were to be alive, said Melisse Phelan.

"We all sat there, said a prayer and cried," she said.

Borash said he doesn't care that his snowmobile was buried by the avalanche.

"I'm never riding it again," he vowed.

This has been the worst season in B.C. history for avalanches. More then two dozen people have killed.

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Snowmobilers escape B.C. avalanche

05/27/2003

From KING, NWCN and Wire Reports

SEATTLE - Two people were hurt when a group of fourteen snowmobilers was caught in an avalanche in a backcountry area of British Columbia about 90 miles north of the United States border.

The avalanche hit in the Meadow Mountain area about 35 miles north of Kaslo around 4 p.m. Sunday and buried five of the snowmobilers.

The 14-member group, which included six people from Washington, six from Montana and two from Idaho, had been riding 10 snowmobiles in the backcountry area when the slide occurred.

The riders managed to dig themselves out before rescue crews arrived quickly to their aid. A man and woman from Montana each suffered a broken leg and were taken to Kootenay Lake Regional Hospital in Nelson

For those involved, it was experience they will never forget.

"The snow was so heavy and so thick and it happened so fast,? said Craig Borash of Yellowstone, Montana. ?I don't think you could physically dig fast enough."

Jade Sessions of Ashton, Idaho, said he was buried under 10 to 20 feet of snow.

?My brother was up above on the mountain,? said Session. ?I didn't know if he was okay or what. And then my fiance - getting married here in a month - it's hard to describe. You can't say what you feel in words."

Kirstin Screibner of Newport, Wash., was swallowed up by a wall of snow.

?We turned around and the whole entire mountain was gone,? said Screibner.

"It?s the scariest thing I've ever experienced in my life,? said another snowmobiler. ?And I pray to God I don't have to go through that again or wish it on anybody else."

The avalanche left a 4-ft. breakline and ran for 200-300 feet - a substantial amount of snow, according to Corporal Wayne Harrison of Kaslo Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

"The possibility of causing major injury, if not death, in the individuals involved was extremely likely," said Harrison. "They were lucky, given the nature of their injuries and what they escaped with."

Harrison didn't advise anyone to venture through the back country this time of year.

"Even I wouldn't even go into the backcountry this time of year," said Harrison. "It's extremely volatile. We've had lots of rain, lots of warm weather. Whatever we have up there, it's going to come down."

27 people have already been killed this year in avalanches in British Columbia.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.