Riders who take on the tough terrain on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains know they do so at their own risk, but some may be surprised to hear that they can be charged for their rescue even if they stay within the ski area's boundaries.
"Within the ski area boundary, if we have an after-hours event and we have to put groomers out and Ski-Doos and personnel, then I do put a bill together for people. That would also include if we have to do a long-line rescue within the ski area. When it's outside of the ski area boundaries, it falls under the Provincial Emergency Program and that's funded by the taxpayer," said Whistler Blackcomb's ski patrol manager Bernie Protsch.
Once a missing person's report is filed with the RCMP after a rider goes out of bounds, Whistler Search and Rescue will take over. In these instances, Whistler Blackcomb may charge individuals if their staff has to work after-hours with search and rescue teams to locate and assist a missing person, said Protsch.
Search and rescue efforts can involve snowmobiles, groomers and helicopters, the latter costing upwards of $3,000 an hour to operate, said Whistler Blackcomb's public relations manager Michelle Leroux. There are roughly 35 incidents per season of riders requiring rescue once they've gone out of the ski boundaries, added Protsch.
A heavily publicized incident before Christmas on Cypress Mountain sparked debate over whether it was fair to charge skiers and snowboarders for their own rescue. Thirty-three-year-old snowboarder Sebastian Boucher was stranded two days on Cypress after deliberately going out of bounds. The mountain sent him a $10,000 bill for the rescue that involved more than 50 staff members. It was the first fee for service that resort has ever imposed on a boundary-jumping rider.
Whistler RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair said in certain cases reckless riders could be convicted with mischief endangering life after going out of bounds.
"We look at everything on a case-by-case basis. If somebody does something that puts others at risk, they can be charged with mischief endangering life, and we have recommended to Crown counsel in the past where people have gone into permanently closed areas, and that's something we'd certainly look at doing in the future," said LeClair. "In one particular case that comes to mind, somebody was killed in an avalanche when they went into a permanently closed area to a skier and a snowboarder and were swept off a cliff. We did recommend charges; they were not ultimately approved, but that certainly won't stop us from doing it again if we're faced with a similar situation."
If skiers and snowboarders do decide to go outside of Whistler Blackcomb's demarcated boundaries, LeClair said they should be adequately prepared in the event they become lost.
"If you're going to go beyond the boundary then you have to have a beacon, shovel, probe, navigational equipment and you have to go into those areas with people that know where they're going, have similar experience and are prepared for a companion rescue," said LeClair, who suggested backcountry riders take an avalanche training course before heading out of bounds. "We've seen numerous fatalities resulting from people not being equipped, whether it be from an avalanche or succumbing to the elements. You have to have the proper self-rescue equipment and also navigational equipment."
Leroux said people can often assume that an out-of-bounds area is safe to ride because there are visible tracks, but she said this could lead to trouble.
"There's so much terrain and so many people that know what they're doing and you might see tracks, but those tracks could be people who have all their gear, they know what they're doing and they're with people that know where to go," said Leroux. "The backcountry around Whistler is amazing and we know that people are going to go back there but we just want them to be responsible and also get educated."