FERNIE, British Columbia – Eight snowmobilers buried in avalanches were missing Monday in western Canada's backcountry, and rescuers searching for the men faced "extreme" risk themselves from crashing snow.
Three other men from the group pulled themselves free Sunday and tried to claw through the snow for their companions, but gave up in fear of another slide.
"They had lost their gloves, they had lost everything so they were starting to dig by hand," said David Wilks, mayor of nearby Sparwood, who spoke with one of the men who survived the slides in Fernie, in British Columbia's Elk Valley, about 550 miles east of Vancouver
"They're very distraught that they weren't able to stay and try and find or help their buddies, but ... one of them was injured and they felt there was an imminent risk of another avalanche coming down," he said. All 11 of the young men were from his town, population about 4,000, they all knew each other and some were related, he added.
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With 27 inches of fresh snow in recent days, the risk of a new avalanche was high Monday.
A search-and-rescue helicopter used explosives to shake down loose snow and make the area safer for searchers, said Royal Canadian Mounted Police Staff Sgt. Lorne Craig.
RCMP Cpl. Andy Veltmeyer said a search crew with rescue dogs was on the scene.
"Time is not on our side, but we still have hope," Veltmeyer said during a news conference Monday.
A spokeswoman for the Interior Health Authority said at least some of those still missing were dead. Craig said he could not confirm that, but "chances of survival at this point, if they were buried, are not very good."
Wilks said they all had safety equipment with them, including a device that forms a bubble around a person to provide additional air when a snowmobiler is trapped under snow. However, he said it would not have protected them from the elements.
"The reality is they have been buried in the snow for upward of 24 hours and their oxygen reserves would be, if not depleted, pretty quickly depleted and it would be tough to survive this long," he said.
The first avalanche buried a group of seven snowmobilers on Sunday afternoon, while they were resting at the foot of a hill, Wilks said.
"It appears a cornice let loose — an overhang on the top of the mountain — and buried them," he said.
Another group of four snowmobilers heard their shouts, hurried over and started digging when they were hit by a second avalanche.
Two men dug themselves out and then pulled a third man free. Rescuers found them by their emergency communication devices.
The avalanche warning for the area was raised to "high" on Monday, said James Floyer, a forecaster with the Canadian Avalanche Center.
The avalanche center issued an alert Sunday saying mountain conditions in the region were "very touchy" because of a new snow combined with a weak snowpack, but Craig said some people in the popular backcountry region might not have known how dangerous conditions had become.
Rescuers were proceeding with caution Monday because the risks of another slide remained high and conditions were difficult. "I've been told they're extreme," Craig said.