Jennifer Cowan (right) and her sister, Mary, at a relative’s wedding in the mid-1990s. Photo submitted

Remembering a little sister

20 years after a devastating avalanche

By Jennifer Cowan

I miss you Mary.

This week marks 20 years since a devastating avalanche took the lives of six people during a back-country ski adventure in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. My 23 year-old sister, Mary, was one of the victims.

It was the first time she had gone on such a trek. When my thoughts drift back to that horrifying time, I cannot think about it without remembering the incredible community support my family and I received. People I didn’t know were sending condolences, hugs, and heartfelt sentiments — and many of them knew those caught in the deadly slide on the Woodbury Glacier near Kaslo on Jan. 2, 1998.

The magnitude of the disaster, combined with two other deaths on a nearby mountain range, prompted an avalanche official to say at the time, “We’ve never seen this many recreational skiers killed by avalanches in a single day.”

I’ll remember the incredible compassion of the Nelson Search and Rescue, the RCMP, the Nelson firefighters and volunteers as they recovered four of the victims and then searched for the other two. Eight days after the tragic slide, they were finally able to recover the last two bodies, including my sister’s. In that time, I had already attended two funerals.

Mary’s funeral was held at the Cathedral of Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in downtown Nelson. As I recall that most difficult day I can’t help but hear the haunting strains of Jimi Hendrix’s The Wind Cried Mary playing to a packed, tearful crowd. It was so appropriate.

Twenty years have passed and somehow we have all kept on living. We survived this terrible grief, the unimaginable sadness and have gone on to live our lives. I remember initially thinking that I couldn’t possibly live without my sister. And yet, here it is, 20 years later. I still find myself wondering what would Mary be doing? How many children would she have? Would she be living here?

So many unanswered questions and so many years not lived. Thankfully, I still remember her vividly. Her laugh, the sound of her voice, her touch. She lives on in my memory and remains always beautiful and young. She had everything to live for.

Always at this time of year I pray that those who venture out into the back country to enjoy the beauty and solace of these mountains do so with great care and wisdom. I can testify that the decisions made are vital and that they matter a great deal to family and friends. The grief softens, but it never goes away.

Those mighty mountains stand as a backdrop and a constant reminder that my little sister, her boyfriend Patrick Von Blumen and the four others — Geoffrey Leidel, Dr. Robert Driscoll, Scott Bradley and Lise Nicola – will never be forgotten. Thank God.

Jennifer Cowan is an ad sales consultant for the Castlegar News

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