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Rescued snowmobiler dies in hospital

Despite a heroic and miraculous recovery of a snowmobiler buried 15-feet in an avalanche on Saturday, RCMP confirm the Vernon man has succumbed to his injuries in hospital.

Castanet has learned that it was 34-year-old AJ Cleary who died Sunday after being rescued Saturday, spending nearly two-hours buried beneath the snow.  

Cleary was a new dad to be and leaves behind his wife who is carrying their first child. 

Bob Horkoff, owner of Keefer Lake Wilderness Resort, chatted with Castanet Sunday morning sharing the story of the miraculous rescue before it was announced that AJ had passed.

Saturday afternoon at around 3 p.m. a snowmobile pulled up in front of the Keefer Lake Wilderness Resort that Horkoff owns.  He says it was a survivor of the slide requesting their help.

“One of the fellows pulled in, we know him, he is a regular guest here, and he informed us that there had been a major avalanche and one of their party was still buried,” said Horkoff.

There was a group of five experienced men sledding in the hills that day. Three of them stopped to wait for the other two to catch up when they were hit suddenly by the slide.

Horkoff says two of them managed to stay upright and self-rescue because they were able to deploy their air bags. The third disappeared underneath the snow.

His team immediately radioed for help from the local heliski company, Kingfisher, who sent their guide and a helicopter with a full trauma kit to the site for rescue.  

Horkoff says the slide was about 10 kilometers east of the resort.

“We flew over the scene and it looked like a clear cut. What looked like 150 - 250 meters in height had released along about a 500-foot plane,” explained Horkoff.

“We immediately got to probing the area. Some of the group had been there for an hour already and thought they had a faint beacon signal. They had already dug down six feet at one location at the tree line.”

With that information and the new assistance on scene they were able to locate AJ buried 15-feet below the surface, at the deepest point a beacon signal could reach.

“He was just at the very extreme range of the beacon’s ability to detect and was out of the range of some of the actual probes we were using, but we managed to get him.”

After over an hour locating him it took about 45-minutes to get him out of the slide, Horkoff says at first he appeared deceased when they pulled him from the snow.

“The medi-ski guide and one of the other fellows there was a emergency room nurse from Vernon so between the two of the them they worked on him the whole time,” said Horkoff.

AJ was then transported via helicopter to waiting ambulance personnel who were able to revive him on route and take him to Kelowna General Hospital in serious condition.

“It was quite a scene, you know everyone remained calm, this a group of experienced guys that have been here for quite a few years doing the same thing.”

Horkoff says the group had no idea the avalanche would happen. He says they were at the valley bottom on a logging road waiting for the rest of their group to catch up when all of the sudden it released from above unexpectedly.

“Fortunately everybody knew what they were doing, everyone was equipped with the right equipment, and had beacons, so it happened as good as it could have happened under the situation. It is a testament to being prepared,” added Horkoff.

Vernon Search and Rescue were called for assistance but due to their response time Horkoff does not believe they would have been able to get there in time.

“Luckily we had the resources here and we were able to contact and get everybody together in time to get out there.”

Horkoff adds that the heliski company had been out that day in the area but had shut down because of adverse weather conditions.

“It was a pretty amazing and almost miraculous event that we were able to get him out and get him back. AJ was still buried when we got there,” said Horkoff, not yet knowing that AJ had passed away.

RCMP say the case has been turned over to the B.C. Coroners Service.

Snowmobiling in the backcountry can be a risky sport, even for those that were prepared like this group.

For those heading into the backcountry the rating across the southern portion of the province remains between ‘3- Considerable (Dangerous avalanche conditions. Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route finding and conservative decision making essential)’ and 4 -  High (Very dangerous avalanche conditions. Travel in avalanche terrain not recommended). You can check current conditions at www.avalanche.ca

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