Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) used helicopters during 31 responses in the past year, highlighting the need for the resort town's health centre to update its heli-pad for the use of single-engine helicopters, an aircraft more suited to high-altitude operations than the twin-engine vessels it currently allows.
"Twin-engine helicopters historically have not proven to be any safer than single-engines," said WSAR manager Brad Sills, noting that the two aircraft share a common gearbox, tail rotor and hydraulic system. "The fact that you have two engines is not necessarily going to prevent you from having a catastrophic failure. What it does do is increase the weight of the helicopter considerably so they're not ideal for high-mountain rescue."
WSAR has access to 16 helicopters, 11 of which are single-engine machines.
According to its annual manager's report, WSAR received 70 calls for assistance in the calendar year leading up to Feb. 19, 2013, of which 34 required team mobilization.
Whistler Health Care Centre's heli-pad is currently not equipped for the landing of single-engine aircraft, resulting in all but three of the 34 cases being flown to the municipal heli-pad north of Emerald Estates before being transported by ground ambulance back to the clinic. During one incident last year, Sills said his rescue team was unable to enter high terrain with a twin-engine aircraft, forcing responders to go back to retrieve a single-engine helicopter to complete the operation.
"Much of what we do is in fading light or in poor weather conditions, so the pilot is already at the upper level of his abilities and now the choice to use a twin-engine (helicopter) to comply with the heli-pad deprives him of yet another capacity and it's not safe," said Sills. "It doesn't increase the safety for the SAR members, for the pilot or for the subjects that were rescuing, so using a twin-engine has a serious effect for us."
Lobbying from local search and rescue groups led to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) officials in December to re-examine heli-pad access at the resort's medical centre. Consultants that were involved in the heli-pad's last upgrade allowing for twin-engine aircraft, completed this summer following two years of repeated delays, were tasked with preparing a report to determine the amount of work required around the site to allow for a clear flight path for single-engine vessels.
Whistler's former council didn't support additional tree cutting in the resort to allow for an effective flight path for single-engine vessels. Traffic lights close to the heli-pad would also have to altered or removed before single-engine aircraft could land there. Several weeks ago, VCH sent a letter to Whistler Search and Rescue indicating they would not be paying for any additional upgrades at the site.
The WSAR report also noted that the "seriousness of SAR calls continues to escalate" with four fatalities and at least seven critical care medical rescues in the past year. Sills attributed the rise to not only improved downhill technologies, but also an increase in backcountry riders.
"The more serious incidents are basically a function of gravity and velocity. People are going much faster than they have previously in the backcountry," he said. "When you put those combinations together and you increase the overall usage, you're going to get more calls."
Of the 34 incidents requiring WSAR mobilization, nearly a quarter of them were attributed to snowmobilers, resulting in one fatality. Ski mountaineering accounted for seven incidents and overdue skiers accounted for five. For the second year in a row, only one incident was attributed to an overdue snowboarder.
Geographically, the Spearhead Range saw the highest number of incidents at nine, nearly double Powder Mountain and Whistler backside, which both saw five incidents. Sills said he expects that number to increase with the installation of a Spearhead hut network proposed in the province's Garibaldi Park Management Plan, expected for approval in April.
"If you're going from the current (usage) and you look at the (increased usage) being proposed for these huts, that increase is in the magnitude of 20 to 30 times, so anytime you do that, you would certainly expect an increase in incidents there," said Sills.
With the growing popularity of backcountry touring, Sills stressed the importance of ensuring riders are adequately prepared to enter more challenging terrain.
"We cannot stress enough that you need to have the knowledge and the equipment to enjoy (the backcountry) safely," he said. "There is no replacement for acquiring the skills before you go out, so take a course."