WSAR sees early season rescues

Officials urge backcountry users to be prepared following two rescues last week

Winter might not have officially arrived, but already Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) has been called to the backcountry for two serious injuries.

Last week, the volunteer team carried out two separate rescues at the Metal Dome near Powder Mountain in the Callaghan Valley. On Friday (Oct. 28), rescuers attended the scene where a female snowboarder had suffered a spinal injury. Then on Sunday (Oct. 30), they rescued a male skier who was suffering from a lower leg spiral fracture.

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WSAR manager Brad Sills said both accidents were a result of the shallow snowpack. “There are numerous hazards prevalent everywhere, including open crevasses, open creek beds, exposed or barely submerged rock,” he said. “There’s a whole host of ways people could fall victim to nature.”

And while both injuries were severe, Sills said it could have been even worse. The majority of the 40 people who were on the slope when SAR arrived were unprepared when it came to necessary equipment, he said.

“In both instances, there was no extra clothing available for the subjects, there was no food, there was nothing there that would see them through a night,” he explained. “We were able in both cases — and in Sunday’s event, just barely able — to get a helicopter in there. People have to understand that if we can’t get to you in a timely fashion, or we can’t find you, you’re spending the night there. If you don’t have equipment that will see you through the night, you’re talking about significant risk.”

This lack of preparedness can quickly become a big problem in the backcountry’s unforgiving terrain. Avalanche Canada public warning service manager Karl Klassen echoes the importance of being properly educated.   

From consulting avalanche forecasts and planning a trip to purchasing and maintaining the necessary equipment and learning how to read terrain and snow, there are numerous aspects of avalanche safety that Klassen strongly recommends everyone receive proper training in before venturing into the backcountry.

“Even if you just take a weekend course, it’s a relatively small investment of time and money to learn how to dip your toes into (backcountry touring) safely,” he said.

In addition to a shovel, probe and beacon, Sills urges all backcountry users to travel with a 24-hour pack. “It’s winter now and avalanches will occur,” he said.

That pack should include basics like extra clothes, water, food and communications tools like a charged cell phone or radio, added Klassen.

“You need something to rescue yourself if an avalanche occurs, and (even) if an avalanche doesn’t occur you need to be prepared to spend the night out,” he said.  

And for those who are wondering how this preparation and requisite safety knowledge would play out in a real-life emergency, Avalanche Canada recently released an interactive website called Rescue at Cherry Bowl.

It offers insight into a real-life rescue that took place in Northwestern B.C. in 2013 that could have turned into a much bigger tragedy had those present not taken an Avalanche Canada-approved rescue course.

When a large avalanche hit three skiers, four others who witnessed the accident jumped into action and successfully rescued them in about 20 minutes.

“They credit that course with giving them the skills to be able to pull off that rescue,” said Klassen. “It’s almost certain that if people hadn’t come that quickly and hadn’t known what they were doing, there would have been fatalities.”

For more information about Avalanche Canada-certified training courses, go to avalanche.ca.

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