Hiker fatalities on Mount Joffre 'a reminder' of dangers of backcountry 

Victims identified as Elena Cernicka, Neil Charles Mackenzie and Stephanie Grothe

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WHISTLER RCMP - FATAL FALL  The bodies of three hikers were recovered Monday, Jan. 12 after what police called "a catastrophic slip-and-fall accident" on Mount Joffre, pictured, near Pemberton.
  • Photo courtesy of the whistler rcmp
  • FATAL FALL The bodies of three hikers were recovered Monday, Jan. 12 after what police called "a catastrophic slip-and-fall accident" on Mount Joffre, pictured, near Pemberton.

The death of three Lower Mainland hikers near Pemberton this week was a sharp reminder of the dangers in the backcountry for the Sea to Sky's tightknit mountaineering community.

Whistler RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair said evidence suggests the tragedy was a result of "a catastrophic slip-and-fall accident" that took place near the top of Mount Joffre's central couloir when one of the hikers fell and brought down the others, who were tied together. Members of the group were experienced in the backcountry, well equipped and were wearing harnesses at the time of the accident. It is not known exactly what caused the fall at this time.

"There was no avalanche debris, so it didn't appear the cornice broke off or anything like that," LeClair added.

Initial reports indicated the group was ice climbing the couloir, but police are now saying it appeared they were walking up the steep terrain wearing crampons.

On Tuesday, Jan. 13, the BC Coroners Service identified the victims as 35-year-old Elena Cernicka of North Vancouver, 31-year-old Neil Charles Mackenzie and 30-year-old Stephanie Grothe, who were both residing in Vancouver. Mackenzie is originally from Scotland, while Grothe is from Germany.

Media reports say Cernicka worked as a patient safety coordinator, while Mackenzie worked at University of British Columbia's Centre for Blood Research.

The Province reported that Grothe was working on her physics PhD at UBC, where she also served on the executive board of the Varsity Outdoors Club. She was an avid hiker and lover of the outdoors who regularly explored B.C.'s wilderness, the newspaper reported.

The hikers were part of a group of five who spent Saturday night in Keith's Hut at the base of Anniversary Glacier, and had split up the following day. When the hikers failed to rendezvous at the arranged time Sunday night, the other members of the group went searching for them. The husband of one of the female victims discovered her body Sunday night and trekked four hours to alert police by phone at 1:35 a.m. Monday morning. Police were unable to access the area at that time and initiated the search at first light on Monday, with the two remaining victims' bodies discovered in a crevasse about 600 metres below the mountain's central couloir.

Keith Reid, lead guide with Extremely Canadian, said a steep snow climb like Joffre's central couloir isn't a particularly physically challenging route, but problems can often arise if there is a fall.

"It's very difficult to protect yourself well from large falls because it is snow that varies in integrity and you're limited to the tools you have to protect yourself in that environment," he said.

The fatal fall should serve as a reminder to other mountaineers and backcountry enthusiasts to adequately prepare themselves and assess their risk level appropriately before venturing out on their next outdoor objective, said Altus mountain guide Ross Berg.

"This happens in the mountains all over the world, and you see it a lot in the Rockies, and it's a good reminder to everyone that you have to take this seriously," he said. "At the same rate, in the mountains, sometimes you can just get unlucky, too."

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