Two men injured when their helicopter slammed into a mountain northwest of Grande Cache were stranded in the wilderness for 16 hours before they were rescued Saturday morning.

The Robinson R44 helicopter, which belongs to British Colubmia-based Sarvair Aviation, took off from Grande Prairie and crashed around 6 p.m. Friday, about 50 km before reaching its destination of Grande Cache. “It looked like the helicopter flipped on its side and plowed into the side of the mountain,” said Phil Evans, of the local search and rescue team, which was called in around 10 p.m. Friday.

The rescue team had to fight through blowing snow and steep terrain in the middle of the night – as temperatures dipped to -3 C – before they could get to the downed aircraft. “It was a lot of debris everywhere. The helicopter was all smashed up,” Evans said of the scene that greeted them. “It wasn’t as messy as some of the other ones we’ve seen. It almost looked like he got into it slow-motion.” Evans said it looked like the helicopter hit the trees before slamming into the side of the mountain and then sliding down the treacherous terrain.

Of the two people in the helicopter, the 47-year-old pilot suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries – a punctured lung and a fractured rib. He was taken by STARS air ambulance to a hospital in Grande Prairie around 10 a.m. yesterday. “It took a long time,” STARS spokesman Leanne Rekiel said of the rescue. “We got the initial call at 9 (p.m. Friday), and we couldn’t get in (due to) terrain and weather. We landed as close as we could, but we couldn’t get to the patient.” Paramedics reached the two men sometime yesterday morning and treated them while they waited for STARS.

The passenger suffered minor injuries and was taken to Grande Cache hospital. “The passenger was doing alright. He was more bruised up and shocked than anything else,” Evans recalled, adding he was surprised to see the men alive. The weather did not appear to be severe at the time of the crash, said both Evans and officials from the CFB Trenton-based Joint Rescue Coordination Centre. A spokesman for Sarvair Aviation said the men “were just flying around looking at work,” and declined to comment further.

So far, no cause for the crash has been determined. But the Transportation Safety Board of Canada has confirmed that it is investigating. “Before we proceed with anything else, we’re waiting to have a chat with that pilot,” board spokesman John Cottreau said yesterday. “In the event of an injury, we have to wait until they’re ready to talk to us.”