CANMORE – Four men are lucky to be alive after spending a frigid night on Heart Mountain during a major snowstorm Saturday (May 4).
With conditions too dangerous for a helicopter rescue, and unsuccessful attempts by rescuers to get to the hikers on foot, the four Calgarians spent the night huddled together as up to 15 centimetres of wet snow dumped on them.
Kananaskis Public Safety rescuers say the four were unprepared to spend a night on the mountain, noting they mostly wore cotton clothing, only one had a toque, only two had gloves and one had no jacket other than a cotton hoody.
“They are very lucky they are still with us given the weather they experienced … they were soaked and very cold,” said Jeremy Mackenzie, a Kananaskis public safety specialist, noting one had frostbitten toes and another had mild hyperthermia.
“What would have normally been an easy heli-evacuation turned into an 18-hour epic of difficult conditions.”
The four hikers, believed to be in their 20s, raised the alarm about 5:30 p.m. after they went off route and ended up stuck in a cliff band on Heart Mountain, about 18 kilometres east of Canmore.
Mackenzie said the men were attempting the Heart Mountain Horseshoe, but went off route on the western side of the loop near one of the sub summits, partly because of inexperience and partly because of the snow covered trails.
“They continued to the east and went into steeper terrain and eventually became cliffed out,” he said.
“They didn’t feel they could re-ascend the route, partly because of the route itself and partly because of waist deep snow.”
With darkness setting in, rescuers tried to hike in to escort the four men out because a helicopter rescue wasn’t an option with the heavy snowfall.
“As it became dark and with the continued heavy snowfall, we were not able to find a safe route at this time of the day,” said Mackenzie, noting it was about 9:30 p.m. at this stage.
A second rescue team was called in.
“The second team started up in the dark and still in bad weather, and were able to get up to within 500 metres of the party, but could not continue because of overhanging cliff bands,” said Mackenzie.
At first light, Alpine Helicopters was called, but fog hampered rescue efforts.
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, the helicopter flew rescuers to the top of the ridge, who were able to hike down to the stranded hikers.
“We took a bunch of hot drinks and food and warm clothing,” said Mackenzie.
“We were still in the fog, so we couldn’t evacuate, but we were able to get them into dry clothes and warm them up.”
Two rescuers began escorting the four men down the mountain, requiring a rappel over a small cliff band. Eventually the fog lifted and the helicopter flew the four men off the mountain to a staging based at Lac Des Arc.
Mackenzie said this incident serves as a timely reminder to make good decisions during the hiking season, noting there is still a lot of snow higher up in the mountains.
“Be prepared,” he said.