GOLDEN, B.C. - RCMP admitted they should have acted sooner when they heard about an SOS marked on a mountainside where two skiers, one of whom died, spent days desperately trying to alert rescuers.
At a news conference in Golden, B.C., RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk explained that RCMP contacted the nearby Kicking Horse ski resort when they first received the report of the international distress signal carved into the snow Feb. 21.
The resort said it didn't know of any missing or overdue skiers, so the Mounties decided not to check out the area around the rescue symbol.
Moskaluk conceded that, in hindsight, that was the wrong call.
"There's an error on the part of the RCMP for not initiating a callout on Feb. 21," he said. "Search and rescue should have been called out on Feb. 21."
Gilles Blackburn, 50, and his wife Marie-Josee Fortin, 44, ended up spending nine days lost on the mountain.
Police finally did begin a search three days after the SOS was reported to them, but only after a man was spotted on the mountain signalling for help.
By that point it was too late for Fortin. She had died on the mountain.
Moskaluk said an independent review will investigate why police didn't search when the SOS was first reported.
"In this case here was limited information but there was good sign, a strong possibility of an overdue skier. We did not initiate a search and rescue effort at that time and this decision is mainly what is being examined at this time," he said.
Back home in Quebec, Yvon Blackburn said his brother and sister-in-law were elite skiers. He said his brother is a former semi-professional skier who spent several years racing on the slopes of the Canadian Rockies.
The trip to Golden was supposed to be a romantic Valentine's Day getaway.
Now everyone is grieving.
"My brother was only able to tell his children yesterday (Wednesday) morning that their mother was dead," he told The Canadian Press in a phone interview from Chicoutimi, Que.
Trouble began for Blackburn and Fortin when they decided to ski out of bounds, past the sign that reads "Ski area boundary. Not Patrolled" on Feb 15.
Dressed for only a day trip with clothing not warm enough for an overnight stay and two granola bars, they found the B.C. backcountry unforgiving.
Battling cold and fatigue, they moved around trying to get a better idea of where they were. Police said they built a lean-to for shelter and ate foliage. At one point, while following a riverbed, Blackburn ended up falling through ice into knee-deep, bone-chilling water.
They were worried about keeping wolves at bay while they were lost in the wilderness.
Moskaluk said police can't confirm what happened in the days between when the couple went out of bounds and when the SOS was reported to them.
But details from the resort, a heli-skiing company and search-and-rescue officials have pieced together the tragic sequence of events that led to the delayed rescue.
On Feb. 17, two days after the couple became lost, an off-duty ski guide touring in the area spotted some tracks and an SOS stamped into the snow.
The ski guide reported the sighting to his employer, Purcell Helicopter Skiing, which told the resort. It in turn informed search-and-rescue officials.
Resort and rescue officials checked for unreturned rental skis, missing persons reports and any vehicles that may have been left in the parking lot.
On Feb. 21, skiers saw two more SOS symbols, and again notified Purcell, which reported it to RCMP at the nearby Golden detachment.
But it wasn't until a heli-skiing tour spotted Blackburn waving his arms for help on Feb. 24 that police acted. Yvon Blackburn said that his brother told him Fortin died two days before he was spotted by the chopper.
"This is a tragic incident that because of a chain of events that led to limited information being received by several community agencies, including the RCMP, led to some confusion as to initiation and callout of a search-and-rescue effort," Moskaluk said.
Ian Foss, manager of Golden and District Search and Rescue, said it was up to the RCMP to actually call for a search.
"The responsibility for missing persons in Canada lies with the police force, and in Golden that responsibility lies with the RCMP," said Foss.
"Here in B.C., as search and rescue members, we can't respond to an incident without the RCMP, B.C. Ambulance, the coroner or the military telling us to do so," he said. "It's been quite frustrating. I'm a volunteer, I don't get paid and my hands are tied. I can't just go out and do rescues."
Foss said he would welcome the introduction of paid search and rescue personnel in the province of British Columbia if the government were to agree to pick up the costs. He said the local personnel are "beating themselves up" because they didn't contact the RCMP after the initial report of the SOS coming in.
"In retrospect it's easy. It's easy to look back and say we could have done things differently."
Officials at Purcell Helicopter Skiing, who spotted the missing skiers and helped with their rescue, still weren't commenting Thursday but it had nothing to do with the backcountry debate.
"We aren't worried about talking about it. Its just that we are too busy. We haven't been able to get out for three days - this is the time of year when we make our money," said owner Rudi Gertsch.
"We have to concentrate on what were doing."
Temperatures in Golden ranged from a high of 5C one day to a low of -18C overnight while the couple was missing.
Blackburn has been released from hospital after being treated for frostbite and is on his way back to Quebec.
An autopsy on his wife is to be performed in the coming days.
Moskaluk said police would prefer to wait until then before saying how or when she died, even though they have a pretty good idea from Blackburn.
"Given that he was on the hill and suffering from exposure ... it's a little early to pinpoint ... if his account is 100 per cent accurate as to what day of the week it actually was when she passed away."