Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Cape Mercy, about 140 km southeast of Pangnirtung
Summary: 4 people hit by avalanche in tent, 1 killed
Please visit: www.nunatsiaq.com
January 30, 2004
Three rescued after avalanche kills
Survivors shaken but unhurt after Cumberland
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,
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
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
"They were in pretty good shape. These are experienced hunters.
They know how to look after themselves. They had their heavy
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
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
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
This was the first avalanche rescue for Nunavut's emergency
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
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.