Quiet start to winter for Whistler Search and Rescue

Backcountry users must remain aware of early season hazards, officials say

Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) manager Brad Sills has had a fairly relaxing fall.

Despite the abundance of deep, snowy mountains that have been enticing eager backcountry enthusiasts for weeks, WSAR’s phone lines have remained quiet — a pleasant surprise for the group. Sills estimates WSAR has responded to three calls since mid-September, a number he said is significantly lower than the number of incidents his team attended during the same period last year. “It was a holiday for us,” he said with a laugh. “That’s just perfect; that’s success.”

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Sills chalks up the decrease in calls to proper behaviour in the backcountry, and better snow conditions. “It seems people have learned their lesson about early season,” he said. “I guess a lot of this new snow has covered up a lot of the hazards. It was not a repeat of last year.”

However, just because Whistlerites appear to have been successfully managing the risks doesn’t mean they aren’t still there — whether in or out of bounds, Sills explained, referencing tree wells as “a huge problem” currently.

“That would be my concern with anybody skiing in gladed terrain of any kind,” he said. “The snow is basically bottomless and if you fall into a tree well it’s probably not going to end up well for you.”

He also cautions skiers and snowboarders to keep in mind some early season hazards that might be barely hidden underneath the fresh, unconsolidated and, in some spots, shallow snow. “People forget how much deadfall there is in any natural forest,” Sills said.

“There’s going to be logs down and some of those logs can be more than a metre up in the air. If your skis go under them and you don’t, it’s a lousy way to start your ski season.”

Avalanche Canada warning service manager Karl Klassen also cautions skiers to be aware of these types of hazards, in addition to being mindful of any potential avalanche danger — even this early in the season. However, with Avalanche Canada still in the process of gathering information before making any forecasts (they hope to release some this week), gaining that awareness amidst a rapidly changing snowpack may take some extra effort.

“More caution than normal, especially for people who don’t have advanced training, is in order… Because we don’t have a forecast out yet, people have to do their own homework, so to speak,” Klassen said. “We’re not able to provide them with specific information. You need to do a bit of research on your own, you need to ask locals and people who have been out what the conditions are like; whether people have been seeing avalanches, whether the weather’s been changing rapidly in the past 24 or 48 hours — especially snowfall, wind and warm temperatures.”

“When those conditions exist, those are times to be more cautious,” he continued. “You need the training to be able to recognize avalanche terrain at those times, and just be a bit more self-reliant in terms of your trip planning and decision making, because you don’t have the forecasts to help you do that.”

Klassen also stressed the importance of ensuring all mandatory safety gear, including beacons, shovels and probes, are in good working order before heading out. Early season is also a great time to seek out training, he added, whether that’s a refresher course to brush up on your skills, more advanced training to learn new ones or the beginner avalanche safety courses for those new to the backcountry.

Although WSAR hopes the quiet start to the season continues, they will nonetheless be prepared for any event that comes their way. The group raised $73,000 at their annual fundraiser held last month, breaking records for the 18th year in a row. The funds will go towards training for crew members, as well as replacing and maintaining gear.

That support means everything to the organization, Sills said. “More important than the money is the strength and the backing that this community gives this team,” he explained. “It is 100 per cent volunteer (so the fundraiser) is just so indicative of how much the community values this resource. It says so much to those people who willingly give up their time.”

For more information on avalanche safety visit avalanche.ca.

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