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British Columbia sees spike in deadly backcountry falls this summer

A Sicamous park has been closed pending a safety assessment after two fatal falls there this year.
A Sicamous park has been closed pending a safety assessment after two fatal falls there this year. Courtesy: Columbia Shuswap Regional District

It has been an unusually deadly year in British Columbia when it comes to falls in the backcountry.

An Edmonton elementary school principal, who fell to his death in a Sicamous park on Monday, was the seventh person to die in a fatal fall in B.C.’s backcountry this summer.

Two days earlier, a 72-year-old man was killed when he fell from a cliff into the water while hiking in Kalamalka Provincial Park near Coldstream.

READ MORE: Edmonton principal identified as man killed in Sicamous Creek fall

In June, the BC Coroners Service said four people died after falling in separate incidents: at Yak Peak near the Coquihalla Summit; in a climbing incident in Squamish; at Mountain Robson Provincial Park; and at Mount Conner.

The deadly season started in May when a 27-year-old man fell at the same Sicamous park where the Alberta educator was later killed.

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The park has since been closed pending a safety review.

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The summer is far from over, but the seven deaths already this season far outstrip average number of fatal falls that B.C.’s backcountry would normally see in a typical summer.

According to stats over the past decade from the BC Coroners Service, an average of 3.5 people are killed each summer after falling during recreational activities in the backcountry.

The BC Coroner Service won’t speculate on what’s behind the rise. Their investigations into the seven fatal falls this summer are still ongoing.

However, cases from 2018 show every incident is different.

In June 2018, a 21-year-old Kamloops woman died after an approximate 120-metre fall near Spahats Falls in Wells Grey Provincial Park.

The coroner’s report said she had been visiting the area with friends.

The report said one friend was sitting on a wooden railing that acted as a barrier between a viewing area and a cliff.

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According to the coroner, the young woman jumped onto the friend’s lap and the pair fell backwards.

The coroner said the woman tumbled over the cliff, but the friend was saved by grabbing onto foliage.

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The report said a toxicological examination found alcohol, MDMA and cocaine in her system.

The coroner said the drugs were present at levels that are known to increase risk taking behaviour, and ruled the drugs and alcohol as a contributing factor.

Later that summer, a Calgary man was lucky to survive after a 150-foot ball down a waterfall in Fintry Provincial Park after dropping his phone while trying to take a picture.

Belal Ajami later told Global News he walked closer to the edge above the falls, looking for his phone. But after finding it, he slipped and fell.

READ MORE: Calgary man recounts ‘miraculous’ 40-metre tumble down B.C. waterfall

Still, amount of the falls, including a number involving waterfalls, has AdventureSmart — an organization that promotes outdoor safety — focusing on waterfall safety this summer.

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Executive director Sandra Riches said there is a lot of easy access to beautiful waterfalls in British Columbia and that can give outdoor enthusiasts a false sense of security.

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“Land managers put in a lot of precautions and signage and fencing in and around those waterfalls to make it safe for you, but the primary responsibility is you,” Riches said.

Riches said people need to obey the boundaries and signage in place and be aware of their surroundings, including unstable, slippery ground at the edges of many waterfalls.

She also emphasizes that when taking pictures, people need to factor in safety and ask themselves “is it worth the picture?”

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“What everyone seems to be attracted to is to post that arms up at the top of the peak . . . being near the waterfall. What they may not be sharing is what it took to get there or the conditions that took to get there,” Riches said.

“We really want you to think before you take that picture.”

– With files from Shelby Thom and Blake Lough