Avalanche casualties stress SARs
Jan 5, 2012 - It's just not worth the risk right now. Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton Search and Rescue (SAR) Teams are asking backcountry users to think twice before heading out, as volunteers respond to an unprecedented number of incidents.
SAR resources have been pushed to the limit recently with two responses on Monday, Jan 2, just days after a fatal avalanche in the Casper Creek area involving Whistler ski patroller Duncan MacKenzie. Another avalanche rescue also took place Monday near Tyax, though TLH Heli-sking handled it.
"This is definitely stretching the capabilities of search and rescue," said Dave Steers from Pemberton SAR.
"If we are in process of responding to two avalanches and a third call comes in..."
The unusually high number of responses on Monday raises the question of whether some parties heading out into the backcountry are actually assessing the dangers before they go.
"It's of concern to all of us when you get three avalanche responses for four subjects in the space of four hours" said Brad Sills from Whistler SAR.
"This is probably unprecedented. We've never responded to three separate locations in that time frame."
The situation prompted Sills to send out a press release, only the second in more than 35 years with WSAR.
In it he said: "Squamish, Whistler, (and) Pemberton SAR Teams... wish to express their alarm at the level of disregard being displayed by a segment of backcountry recreation user groups who seemingly ignore the hazard levels as published daily by the Canadian Avalanche Association.
"The teams are urging public users of the backcountry to be more prudent in their decision making when travelling in avalanche terrain."
The best source of information for avalanche conditions is the Canadian Avalanche Centre's public bulletins found at avalanche.ca. Sills said it appears that people are either ignoring the warnings or believe they can manage the risks. While there is always an element of luck involved, some backcountry travellers may be overestimating their abilities.
"There seems to be a disregard for the CAC's public bulletin," said Sills.
"For whatever reason (people) are disregarding it and they are disregarding it at their own personal peril. You don't get away with that very long."
Another storm has brought additional snow to the region and while the current weather will keep many ski tourers from going out, when the skies clear the current avalanche danger will persist for a number of days.
"One of my (avalanche) guys said the snow right now more resembles the snow in Rogers Pass that he's used to," said Steers.
"Because the snowpack is different it tends to be fooling people who are used to our relatively more stable coastal snowpack," he said.
At the time of publication the CAC avalanche advisory for the Sea to Sky region was rated "High" trending towards "Considerable" with chances of avalanches "Likely" to "Very Likely". Similarly high dangers were listed for Whistler Blackcomb's avalanche advisory.
Whistler Blackcomb has resources that it will prioritize for SAR responses including avalanche and snow science personnel, trained avalanche dogs, medical doctors, trauma kits and use of heli pads in the alpine. Whistler SAR will turn to those members of the WB Ski Patrol that are SAR members to assist with responses.
"We're very fortunate that we have significant support from Whistler Blackcomb (which is) a partner in avalanche rescue response throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor," said Sills.
While the SAR teams in B.C. have extensive support from both partners and the provincial government, Solicitor-General Shirley Bond said in an email:
"I am saddened that several people have lost their lives and many others have been called to put their lives at risk in rescue efforts.
"Backcountry experts agree — the key to balance in the debate over backcountry regulations is education and ensuring those who venture into B.C.'s wilderness know what the risks are and that they take the necessary precautions to mitigate those risks," stated Bond.
The province has installed avalanche awareness signs at 23 key locations along highways travelled by backcountry enthusiasts, and at all 85 managed snowmobile areas in the province. It also contributes more than $100,000 a year to the Canadian Avalanche Centre.
Added Bond: " I want to be clear that government can't do this alone. There needs to be a shift in thinking and action and it starts with the individual, not only for one's personal safety but for the safety of those around them and for those who may be called on to help in a rescue situation."
The busy Monday (Jan.2) began for SAR shortly before noon when Whistler SAR received a request for assistance from the BC Ambulance Service to extricate two backcountry skiers injured as a result of avalanche involvement in the Steep Creek area, off of the Duffey Lake Road.
SAR members headed in by helicopter to rescue the two skiers. One sustained a back injury and the other suffered critical injuries including a broken leg, broken pelvis, crushed chest and head trauma.
Both were airlifted to Whistler Municipal Heliport and transferred to ambulance for transport to Whistler Medical Clinic prior to being transferred down to Vancouver.
Almost as soon as that rescue helicopter landed in Whistler the same team was alerted to a second avalanche incident, this one involving a backcountry skier on Sunshine Mountain above Bralorne. With limited daylight remaining, the SAR team flew to Bralorne and picked up the witness at the local pub. With his help they located the subject and then airlifted him to Whistler for emergency treatment of his broken legs.
A third avalanche accident in the Eldorado Basin above Gunn Lake earlier that same day resulted in TLH Heliskiing having to extricate an unrelated ski touring party member to medical care following a slide that resulted in a debilitating knee injury.
SAR is urging all backcountry travellers to stay updated on conditions on the CAC website and not travel into avalanche terrain in the current conditions. SAR will respond to every call but the safety of its own personnel is prioritized, meaning if it's too dangerous to come get you at the time you may have to wait until searchers can fly in safely.
"If you're ski touring, you need to be 100 per cent reliamt on same-party rescue," said Sills.
"You should not even consider SAR as a viable means of live recovery," he said.
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