Avalanche death toll this year climbs to 5 as pair of U.S. business leaders killed in B.C. backcountry

Brothers Jon Kinsley, left, and Tim Kinsley, right, of York, Pa., have been identified as the victims of an avalanche in the Columbia region of B.C. on Monday. (Submitted by Kinsley Enterprises - image credit)
Brothers Jon Kinsley, left, and Tim Kinsley, right, of York, Pa., have been identified as the victims of an avalanche in the Columbia region of B.C. on Monday. (Submitted by Kinsley Enterprises - image credit)

Two brothers from York, Pa., have been identified as the latest victims in a deadly B.C. avalanche season that has already claimed five lives this year.

The news comes as officials warn persistent, once-in-a-decade conditions are elevating the risk for backcountry goers for weeks to come.

Jon and Tim Kinsley, 59 and 57, were killed after being caught in a slide near Revelstoke, B.C., about 200 kilometres northeast of Kelowna Monday while on a guided heli-skiing tour.

Their identities were confirmed by Kinsley Enterprises, the parent company of Kinsley Properties and Kinsley Construction, over which the brothers presided.

"Our entire Kinsley family is still processing this heartbreaking news of their deaths and respectfully ask for privacy at this time," family spokesperson Patrick Kinsley said in an emailed statement.

According to news outlet Fox43, the pair were two of Central Pennsylvania's most prominent business leaders.

'It is impossible to put into words the sorrow that we feel'

The pair were on a backcountry heli-skiing trip with the Banff, Alberta-based company CMH Heli-Skiing when they died.

According to a statement from the company, three people were caught in the avalanche around 2:46 p.m. MT Monday — two clients who were fully buried and one guide who was partially buried.

The two clients — now identified as the Kinsley brothers — were dug out and flown to Kelowna General Hospital, where they were pronounced dead, the company said.

The guide is in stable condition.

"The thousands of guests who ski with us each winter are like our family," CMH president Rob Rohn said in a written statement.

"It is impossible to put into words the sorrow that we feel and the sadness that is shared by our guests, their families and all of our staff."

RCMP say the avalanche happened in the Mount McCrae area, near the Alkolkolex tenure southeast of Revelstoke near an area known as "Chocolate Bunnies."

The B.C. Coroners Service has taken over the investigation.

Once-in-a-decade dangers

Avalanche Canada has warned the snowpack this season is unusually weak and highly susceptible to avalanches, with conditions usually seen once every one or two decades.

In addition to the two fatalities Monday, three other people have died in B.C.'s backcountry this year.

Two off-duty Nelson police officers died after being caught in an avalanche near Kaslo two weeks ago and over the weekend a snowmobiler from Grande Prairie, Alta., was killed in an avalanche near Valemount, east of Prince George.

Another person was taken to hospital Monday after being caught in an avalanche near the community of Cherryville, about 80 kilometres northeast of Kelowna.

Forecasters have told CBC that dangerous conditions are likely to persist for some time in the province, particularly in the Interior and northwest B.C.

Avalanche Canada
Avalanche Canada

"Professionals with decades of experience suggest that this weak of a snowpack is only seen every 10 or 20 years," said Avalanche Canada forecaster Zoe Ryan.

She said extended drought late in 2022 has created "numerous weak, problematic" layers of snowpack that's more prone to slides.

She also said there is a higher likelihood of remote-triggered slides from people who aren't near avalanche terrain.

"Recreators really need to be aware of slopes that are above and adjacent to them," she said.

Avalanche Canada forecaster Simon Horton said the Interior and North of the province are particularly problematic, as mountain ranges have a below-average snow depth that is 60 to 70 per cent of what is typical for this time of year — with forecasted cold conditions coming next week prolonging the problem.

"Typically it's weather changes such as precipitation, wind or warming that cause avalanche danger to go up," he said.

"However, a cold period like what we're seeing coming up in the next week tends to keep things the same. So in the areas where we currently have a dangerous snowpack structure, we're expecting that to stay the same for some time."

Stormy weather on the northwest coast is also creating treacherous conditions.

"If you are going out, it's a time to pick very conservative terrain," Horton said.

Backcountry won't be closed

Dale Mason, a search manager with Robson Valley Search and Rescue whose team responded to the death in Valemount, says the snowpack base is very weak this year, with nothing holding it to the ground.

"It's basically a layer of marbles up there," he said.

Mason said the team was not able to land its helicopter on Saturday due to the ongoing avalanche risk.

Nelson Police Department
Nelson Police Department

They recovered the body Sunday after Parks Canada performed avalanche control measures.

"I'm recommending that people make informed decisions on where they choose to ride," Mason said.

Ryan said Avalanche Canada cannot close backcountry access, nor would they seek to do so, but strongly urged people to avoid avalanche terrain — even if they are experienced in assessing avalanche conditions.

She also urged people to take safety training and be sure to carry safety gear including transceivers, probes and shovels.

75 per cent of Canadian avalanche deaths happen in B.C.

In a news release issued by the B.C. government, Avalanche Canada forecast supervisor Ryan Buhler said the snowpack was "highly unusual and unpredictable.''

"The complication with this snowpack setup is that the layers are deep enough that we are less likely to see clues of instability, like nearby avalanche activity, 'whumpfing' or cracking snow,'' Buhler said.

"However, despite the lack of obvious clues, there is serious potential for large, human-triggered avalanches. We urge backcountry users to exercise caution and make conservative, low-consequence choices if they decide to travel in avalanche terrain.''

The statement says that in the past 10 years, about three-quarters of all Canadian avalanche fatalities occurred in B.C.

Avalanche Canada has said the dangerous conditions this year are similar to those of 2003, when 29 people died in avalanches in Western Canada.

A timeline of avalanche events this season

Here is a timeline of avalanche events this season:

Dec. 31: A skier suffers life-threatening injuries in a slide near Emerald Lake in southeast B.C., near the Alberta border, Avalanche Canada says in a report.

Jan. 5: Avalanche Canada warns of a touchy snowpack, with various weak layers created by long periods of drought and cold weather.

"Riders have triggered large, scary avalanches with high consequences,'' the advisory says.

Jan. 9: Two off-duty police officers are caught up in an avalanche near Kaslo, B.C., while backcountry skiing. Nelson Police Service Const. Wade Tittemore, 43, dies and Const. Mathieu Nolet, 28, sustains severe internal injuries.

Jan. 21: Nolet dies of his injuries in hospital.

Jan. 21: Two snowmobilers riding at the base of a slope near Valemount, B.C., accidentally trigger an avalanche from above, sending a slab of snow onto one rider while the other escapes. The buried rider is found unresponsive and dies.

Jan. 23: Heli-skiers and their guide are caught in an avalanche near Revelstoke, B.C. The two guests, brothers and American businessmen Jon and Tim Kinsley, are dug out of the snow unresponsive and are both declared dead in hospital. The guide is taken to hospital in stable condition.

Jan. 23: A slide comes down on one person near Cherryville, B.C. Emergency health services says the person is taken to hospital with undetermined injuries.