Record calls to search and rescue over holiday

Province examines BC Search and Rescue Association’s funding model proposal

Whistler Search and Rescue rung in the New Year with a record-setting number of call outs over the holidays.

“Here in Whistler we have had a really, really busy Christmas,” said Brad Sills, the volunteer organization’s manager. “It’s the busiest on record.”

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Over the winter break rescuers’ phones rang for 19 people in need of aid, compared to a mere three the year before, he noted. Approximately 75 per cent of the calls were for skiers south of Whistler Mountain in the Cheakamus River Valley, an area accessed off the backside of the resort.

Unlike the past two winters, this holiday had many of the ingredients to make it the perfect storm for search and rescue (SAR). Bluebird skies enticed big crowds up the mountain, as well as good snow, Sills said. Visits to the resort also seem to be on a continuous climb, he noted. But there’s another growing factor that added to it all.

“Backcountry skiing is the growth part of the (entire) ski industry,” Sills said, noting in Colorado one in three skis sold are designed for the backcountry.

With this knowledge in hand, Whistler Search and Rescue is seeking funding to improve communication levels in the backcountry surrounding Whistler. The first phase involved replacing a repeater tower atop Whistler Mountain and now in the second phase, search and rescue is aiming to place a tower at Wedge Peak. It would provide searchers with communication coverage of popular ski-touring routes on the area’s glaciers. The total project is estimated to cost $300,000.

“We had hoped we would have something for this calendar year,” Sills said, noting cellphones can’t be relied on in those areas.

Unfortunately, the occurrence of backcountry fatalities is not uncommon in the region, Sills said. SAR is a numbers game, he continued, the more people that explore the wilderness the more chances there are that SAR will get a call.

“Certainly the popularity of backcountry skiing is growing,” Sills said. “We’re the safety net.”

Whistler Blackcomb’s (WB) backcountry tickets — which allow skiers to get a single ride up the lifts — are being snatched up, WB’s safety manager Kira Cailes said.

“We are seeing an increase in that traffic,” she said, noting it’s usually not the people geared up for a backcountry trip who end up spending the night on the mountain.

“It’s the skiers that are enticed from the slopes and are unprepared. Distances are very deceiving as well.”

However, the backcountry has lost some of its mystique as the activity becomes more normalized, Cailes said.

“People aren’t afraid of it,” she said, adding WB offers a multitude of training and resources for skiers interested in safely entering the activity. “I think this is growing pains in terms of the sport expanding.”

In the last five years, Brian Jones said he’s seen a steady increase in the popularity of backcountry skiing and in the last two years it’s exploded.

“Nowadays it has definitely become a mainstream activity,” said the owner of Canada West Mountain School, which teaches avalanche courses.

Gear manufacturers place backcountry equipment in their shops next to downhill skis, making the activity seem accessible to more people, he said. The gear itself has improved, allowing skiers to use their backcountry skis on downhill slopes, Jones added.

“It’s no longer a specialized item. It also makes the activity more normalized,” he said.

Attitudes are also changing, Jones said. There seems to be an expectation among skiers that people don’t go into the backcountry before they have taken avalanche training, he noted. His school also targets talented skiers who may not have taken training.

“There are a lot of talented skiers in Whistler whose skiing ability far exceeds their awareness of assessing hazards,” Jones said. “We need to have a two-pronged approach.”

As more people access the backcountry it is inevitable that Whistler Search and Rescue will receive more calls. The government, which uses B.C.’s wilderness in its tourism campaigns, needs to revisit funding and training for SAR, Jones said.

“The problem is there are not a lot of answers that don’t take money,” he said, noting he believes the backcountry should be open to everybody and veers away from a backcountry licensing system like some European countries follow.

Last year, the B.C. Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) started exploring the idea of establishing stable public funding for search teams. Their money is currently sought through various streams including donations. The organization proposed a centralized annual fund that could potentially be fed by gaming proceeds.

This past fiscal year, the Emergency Management BC (EMBC) handed SAR groups across the province a total of $6.3 million for operational expenditures, training and equipment, department officials stated in an email to The Question. The $3.4 million in support of operational tasks is provided annually, EMBC noted.

The province is working with BCSARA to provide sustainable and effective search and rescue services across the province, EMBC stated. Initial feedback on BCSARA’s proposal is scheduled for the end of March.

“We’ve had a number of positive discussions with the association (during the) last meeting in December, and we are currently reviewing the proposal for further consideration by provincial government,” EMBC stated.

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