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Ralph Rosseau Tragedy:
Ice Bridge Collapse Takes Alpinists Life in 1954

From the West Coast Advocate July 8, 1954.

Hundreds Attend Funeral Of Alpinist Ralph Rosseau
Popular School Principal Killed When Snow Bridge Near Mt. Septimus Collapses; Mrs. Rosseau Has Miraculous Escape

Hundreds of valley residents, friends and admirers of elementary school principal and noted mountaineer Ralph Rosseau, were present at his funeral Wednesday afternoon in the Alberni Legion Hall.

Mr. Rosseau was killed Saturday in a mountain-climbing accident that also injured school teacher Alma Currie and all but claimed Mrs. Rosseau as a third victim.

Ulf Bitterlich of Cameron Lake, a fourth member of the little party which branched off for a side trip around the rear of Mount Septimus to Margaret Lake, some 15 miles from the head of Great central Lake, was the only one not directly involved in the mishap.

Funeral services were conducted by Rev. Glen Stevenson at 2:30 p.m. and the body was forwarded to Victoria for cremation. Mr. Rosseau's ashes will be scattered over Mount Arrowsmith, in the rugged country near his permanent camp on the slopes of the mountain he loved so well.

The full story of the Saturday afternoon tragedy, her own miraculous escape from probable death and of Bitterlich's literally amazing feat of endurance in covering some 20 air miles of the most rugged country on Vancouver Island in less than eight hours to summon help, was told to The Advocate by Mrs. Rosseau on Tuesday afternoon.

Left Main Party
"We left out camp at the head of Great Central Lake early Saturday morning," Mrs. Rosseau said. "The main party was going to Della Falls, but about four miles up the trail Mr. Rosseau, Ulf, Miss Currie and myself branched off to go around the back of Mount Septimus to Margaret Lake and join them again later."

The four had reached the Lake at about 1 o'clock, Mrs. Rosseau recalled. Leaving it, they were traversing a broad snow slope, leading up to the snow "bridge" which passed beside a rock wall over which water was falling.

"At the edge of the bridge, the three of us waited for Miss Currie who had lagged behind and changed position for the crossing, with Ulf in the lead, followed by myself, Alma and Ralph.

"Ulf went ahead, testing the bridge with his ice axe. He reached the other side and called to us that it seemed quite solid, so we started across. I had almost reached him when the whole center part broke off, right behind Ulf on one side and behind Ralph on the other.

Narrow Escape
"As Alma and my husband shot through the gap, I started falling too and thought I would follow them. But the piece of ice on which I was standing suddenly broke away from the rest and tossed me, high over their heads, back in the direction we had come.

"I landed with a thump right on the brink of the chasm and was knocked away from it, flat on my back, by the chunk of ice which had followed me through the air."

Mrs. Rosseau then recounted how Bitterlich had worked his way down to where her husband and Miss Currie lay in the narrow crevice some 30 feet below. From her own side of the vanished bridge, she could neither descend to where they were nor see them.

Finally, Bitterlich returned to say he had almost got Miss Currie free but that Mr. Rosseau wouldn't be coming up.

Leaving the two women together with instructions for Mrs. Rosseau to keep a fire going and look after Miss Currie, who was in a state of shock, Bitterlich then left to summon help.

Less than eight hours later, after covering between 20 and 30 miles, he returned at about 11 p.m.

"We cold see his flashlight winking as he came down Septimus," Mrs. Rosseau said. "He was moving so quickly we thought there were two or three people as the tiny light appeared here and there at such rapid intervals."

Amazing Feat
Others in the main party later paid high tribute to Bitterlich's feat. He left the scene of the accident sometime between 3 and 3:45 p.m., traveled the 10 miles to where his party had branched off from the Della Falls trail, where he met Mr. Shelling who was going to Great Central and gave him the message to relay to police; then struck off up the trail to Della Falls where he contacted the main party after another six miles or so of hiking and, because there was no one fast enough to accompany him, started back to the scene alone, after being assured that a party would follow in the morning.

On this last leg of his journey he was traveling unfamiliar country across the front of Septimus and reached the two women at about 11 p.m. after nearly two hours of traversing snowy precipices and gulleys in the dark.

Fall Into Crevasse
Mr. Rosseau was killed as he dropped some 30 feet into a narrow crevice and was crushed by snow, ice and rocks which rained down on him. Miss Currie, falling behind him, escaped the avalanche and although bruised and shaken up was not seriously injured.

W.D. (Bill) Reith of the B.C. Forest Service, who with Cst. Jim Hodgson of the Alberni RCMP and the pilot of an Okanagan Airways helicopter chartered in Vancouver made the trip to the scene Sunday afternoon, described the accident in these words:

"They were crossing a snow bridge which broke and plunged Mr. Rosseau and Miss Currie into a wedge-shaped crevice. Mrs. Rosseau was thrown backward through the air to safe snow where the piece of ice on which she was standing broke off and sprang back. On the other side of the break, Bitterlich also was on safe snow.

"He immediately descended into the crevice and brought Miss Currie out. Mr. Rosseau was dead."

Helicopter Needed
Reith said he had received a call from Alberni RCMP at about midnight Saturday, requesting information as to how to reach the scene. He had hurried down to the police office and assisted in planning a reconnaissance flight into the area.

"A Beaver aircraft chartered by the police took us over the scene on Sunday morning," Reith told the Advocate. "From our observations then, it was decided that a helicopter would be needed in order to reach the party.

"Cst. Hodgson and myself met the 'copter when it set down on Sproat Lake at about 4:30 Sunday afternoon. We flew first to the head of Great Central Lake, leaving the constable there to establish camp since the helicopter could only carry the pilot and one passenger in the higher altitudes."

Party Splits Up
"The original hiking party had been made up of 11 persons and had split up when Mr. Rosseau and his party of three decided to make a short side trip to Margaret Lake around the back of Mount Septimus. The accident occurred at about the 3,400-ft. level just a few hundred yards from the lake.

"As we sighted the party, we circled the spot once and landed. We found Mrs. Rosseau, Miss Currie and Ulf Bitterlich and didn't waste much time talking as they had spent the night with just a small fire for heat and a little clump of trees for shelter.

"As we had to be flown out one at a time, the pilot took Miss Currie first, then Mrs. Rosseau, Bitterlich and finally myself. They were flown to Sproat Lake by Beaver from Great Central Lake."

Miss Currie was taken at once to hospital in Port Alberni for a check-up and later released.

Mr. Reith reported that Bitterlich spent the night with Cst. Hodgson, the pilot and himself at their camp on Great Central Lake and flew in to the scene of the accident to help with taking out Mr. Rosseau's body on Monday afternoon.

Heavy cloud prevented their return to the scene Monday morning, he said, and it was about 2:30 before the first flight could be made.

The final trip out left the scene at about 5:30 p.m., Reith estimated.

Popular Sportsman
One of the best known and most popular sportsmen in the district, Mr. Rosseau had many friends throughout B.C. he was also popular with his pupils at Gill School, where he had been principal since its opening in 1950, and had taught many of the valley's youngsters how to ski.

He was a thoroughly experienced mountaineer and with Mrs. Rosseau had many times in the past gone on hikes through the rugged country surrounding this area.

Always interested in the affairs of young folk, particularly in matters of sport and outdoor life, the Rosseau's frequently were hosts to weekend camping and hiking parties at their permanent camp on the slopes of Mount Arrowmsith.

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