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Frostbitten survivor shares blame, but seeks answers

With his swollen, frostbitten feet jammed into oversized black snow boots, Gilles Blackburn gingerly steps up to his front stoop to take his share of the blame for his wife's death.

But responsibility for the week that he and Marie-Josée Fortin spent lost in the mountains of British Columbia, and the three days he spent alone after she died of hypothermia, is a burden to be shared, Mr. Blackburn says.

The fit 51-year-old regrets hitting the backcountry without the simplest precautions.

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"I didn't have my cellphone, and I didn't have matches, either," he said yesterday, joined by his adult son, William, their eyes dark-rimmed with fatigue.

"If I had to do it again, I would have brought my cell and matches."

Mr. Blackburn accepts that he and Ms. Fortin should have left an itinerary before crossing the boundary at the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden, B.C., on Feb. 15.

But local authorities, including the RCMP who dismissed a series of SOS signs he carved in the snow over the following nine days, deserve a share of the blame, he said.

"I'm responsible for the 15th and the 16th. I'm not for the 17th or any time afterward. That's not my fault," Mr. Blackburn said in an interview.

"An SOS should be an SOS."

After leaving the ski area, the couple followed ski tracks far down the mountain before they realized they were lost.

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Mr. Blackburn said he carved a total of five SOS signs, three of which were spotted by skiers or pilots.

There were in fact four reports of SOS signs before he was found, but there could have been repeat sightings.

On Feb. 17 and again on Feb. 21, his signs were spotted and alerts relayed by Purcell Helicopter Skiing Ltd. The first report was checked by the Kicking Horse resort, where the couple had stayed, and the second by the RCMP.

Because there were no reports of missing skiers, no full-scale search was launched. The RCMP later admitted it made a mistake in not investigating the SOS signs more thoroughly.

Ms. Fortin died the day after the second SOS was seen. The couple had trekked 27 kilometres through deep snow, moving from high open ground to wooded areas where they found shelter but were stalked by wolves.

Mr. Blackburn, who ate nothing while his wife had two granola bars, said he had to leave his first SOS signs.

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"I didn't stay with the first three [signs]because I saw helicopters passing repeatedly [in the distance] So I went there," he said.

Mr. Blackburn was spotted on Feb. 24 by an airborne Purcell Helicopter Skiing crew checking another SOS.

At his home in the Montreal borough of LaSalle, Mr. Blackburn is getting a nightly physician's house call for his feet, which are improving.

He said he has not contacted a lawyer or decided if he will sue.

"I will take care of my wife first," he said. "I will start by taking care of my family and my feet. I'll get answers to my questions later."

He has not heard a personal apology from the RCMP. "I guess they're taking their time," he said.

Mr. Blackburn was a ski racer and lived in Alberta and British Columbia for 6½ years in his 20s. He knows the mountains of Western Canada but this was his first outing in the Kicking Horse area. Ms. Fortin was also an experienced skier.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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