How a group of CEGEP students rescued skiers swept away by a Gaspé avalanche

A typical day outing on the mountain quickly turned into a real-life rescue effort for five friends, who are all adventure tourism students at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles.

On Jan. 28, Alexis Bruneau, Jérôme Côté-Jacob, Lucas Garceau-Bédard, Zachary Quintal-Duchesne et Gabriel-Félix Rondeau were spending the day on Mont-Albert, in Gaspé's Chic-Chocs mountain range.

Rondeau said the group was going to test some of the skills they have been learning for the past two years in school.

"We were planning on taking our skis off to play with ropes and do some mountaineering," Rondeau said.

When they reached the only part of the mountain that can be skied on, they evaluated that the snow cover looked potentially unstable and decided to stay on lower ground.

In the distance they could see a group of four skiers. Fearing they could provoke an avalanche, Rondeau and his friends moved in the other direction.

At around 12:30 p.m., they saw the group again just as the snow started moving under their feet.

"I remember screams, turning and I saw a big slab of snow break and slide with skiers in it," said Rondeau.

Right time, right place

Within minutes the group reached the skiers on the slope, who hadn't been buried by the snow. Three had escaped with minor cuts and bruises but Rondeau said one woman was in great amount of pain and could not move her left leg.

All five students had first-aid kits and immobilized the woman's leg.

"Everything we learned in our courses became very real, very concrete," Rondeau said.

The injured skiier also happened to be a doctor and was able to direct their efforts in treating her broken femur.

"She was a great victim in a way," Rondeau said with a laugh.

The woman was strapped into a sled found in an emergency supplies cache nearby.

"We all took our coats off, I had a space blanket in my bag, so we put it over her to keep her warm."

Within two hours the group had returned to the base camp, climbing over the heavy snow the avalanche had left in its path.

School proud of its students

Gabriel said his friends feel their training and preparedness were instrumental in the success of the rescue mission.

The CEGEP's Board of Directors voted a motion recognizing their students intervention on Feb. 6.

"They showed a lot of courage and professionalism," said the CEGEP director Yves Galipeau.

The co-ordinator for the adventure tourism department said the students were well prepared to face any scenario and had brought the proper equipment, even though they were going out for fun.

"We prepare our students to always be prepared and assess risks," said Charles Préfontaine.

As for Rondeau, he hopes people who go out on dangerous terrain like the Chic-Chocs will be prepared.

"You have to go with someone who has a basic knowledge of the region with an avalanche certification," he said, stressing that avalanches are a very real threat even in Quebec.

The skiers did not have avalanche beacons, probes or shovels — three essential pieces of equipment, according to Rondeau.

Beacons emit signals rescuers can receive to locate a person under the snow.

"If they had been buried, we may not have found them," said Rondeau.

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