Squamish Search and Rescue is feeling the effects of the new Sea to Sky Gondola.
"We've had a significant number of calls that would be classified as gondola related," said John Howe, president of Squamish Search and Rescue, speaking after the weekend fatality of a Vancouver man who accessed challenging terrain using the gondola. Although the callout number is not high, the increase is still a concern for Howe.
"People are not appreciating the difficulty of what they're undertaking."
Howe is not alone in his concerns.
The head of Whistler's Search and Rescue, Brad Sills, is growing more concerned that easy access beyond the boundaries is putting growing pressure on volunteer search and rescue organizations.
"In the past 20 to 30 years the trend has been rapid mechanization and commercial ventures that have proceeded without adequate safety plans," said Sills. "And this is putting an extraordinary new amount of work on search and rescue teams, over and above what we had already been experiencing.
On Saturday, July 5, 26-year-old Owen Phillip James Hosford of Vancouver fell to his death on Sky Pilot Mountain after getting into the advanced climbing area via the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish, which officially opened May 16.
The accident serves to reinforce Sills' concerns closer to home, specifically about the approved plans for the Spearhead Huts project that will bring more people, some of them likely inadequately prepared, into Whistler's backcountry in the coming years.
Saturday's deadly accident happened six kilometres outside of the Sea to Sky Gondola's tenure.
"It's well away from where we do patrol and have responsibility," said Trevor Dunn, general manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola. "It's Crown land."
That put search and recovery efforts in the hands of the RCMP and Squamish Search and Rescue, the busiest search and rescue organization in the province last summer. This year is busier than the 10-year average, but not yet as busy as the record-breaking 2013.
Speaking on Tuesday night, Howe was on his way home from another gondola call-out — a woman who became exhausted on the descent from the top of the gondola.SSAR worked with the gondola excavation team to bring the woman to safety.
Saturday's outcome, however, was far different.
The BC Coroners Service said Hosford and two friends took the gondola up on the morning of Saturday, July 5. They hiked to Sky Pilot Mountain with the aim of "scrambling" to the summit of the 2,025-metre peak (6,645-foot), the highest in the coast range south of Garibaldi. The trio made the peak, but the weather turned and the descent became extremely slippery.
"He was in technical mountaineering terrain," said Howe, describing the area above the treeline with snowfields, rock pitches and exposed terrain.
Hosford slipped while going down a snow chute and fell a "considerable distance." He died at the scene.
Hosford's climbing ability is not clear at this point. Sky Pilot Mountain, however, is advanced. And, on a rainy, overcast day, like July 5, it would have been treacherous.Though it's an area that has been climbed for 100 years, only expert climbers could get there. Until now.
"It's a beautiful place but it's very extreme," said Dunn. "The weather can change in an instant and with poor visibility, it goes from extreme to treacherous."
The gondola's 68-hectare (170 acre) tenured area at the top has boundary signposts, like Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, cautioning hikers on the risks of backcountry travel.
Tenure holders, said Sills, must be able to evacuate people from the backcountry and not rely on the local SAR as the first responder.
"It's not that the SAR groups don't want to do any more work, they just want to be sure that they'll come in to assist somebody, but they're not intended to be a first responder," he said.
This drives home his concerns about the Spearhead Huts project, a series of three huts and an alpine trail in a 40-kilometre horseshoe route beyond Whistler Blackcomb's boundary. It would likely draw people uninitiated in the backcountry and Sills is concerned about the pressure that backcountry volume will be on WSAR.
"We have been on record with BC Parks about the Spearhead Huts proposal since its inception about what we need to see in order for us to support it. We have not had that meeting," said Sills.
"(It's a) very serious concern. We have the model right down the street of what's going to happen, and more, because the terrain (here) is way more difficult."