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An early-season lesson

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It was both an epic opening to the snow-sliding season and a tragic one.

As we celebrated the glory of Mother Nature blanketing our mountain paradise in snow, we were reminded of what a cruel partner she can be by the death of a snowboarder on Blackcomb Mountain this week.

The 27-year-old Slovakian national, who was living and working in Whistler, got separated from his girlfriend while skiing beyond the boundary of a run and ended up in a snow trap. Buried in unconsolidated snow he was unable to escape.

With two metres of snow falling on the mountains in just a few days, the young man, an experienced boarder, was out enjoying the exhilarating conditions just like thousands of others.

But with so much powder all at once, there was little to no time for it to pack down in non-groomed areas. And that fact, for this snowboarder, made the difference between life and death.

We know that as the winter sets in, and the snow continues to beckon to us, others may find themselves injured, lost or paying with their lives to enjoy their adventures.

According to the coroner's office, there were 37 skiers and snowboarders killed on B.C.'s ski hills between 2007 and 2013.

All that can be done to prevent these tragedies is to repeat what we all know — or should know — already. On Whistler and Blackcomb follow the rules and obey the signage, don't ski alone, and in the conditions we have had lately, ski close and keep track of each other, go out prepared to rescue yourself and your friends, tell people where you are going, especially if you are heading into the backcountry.

This is not advice just for the snowboarder and the skier, this is true for all winter recreationists and especially snowmobilers, one of the fastest growing winter sports locally.

Death on our local mountains is always heart-wrenching — and it seems that no winter season passes without it.

What holds it at bay is using knowledge, learned skills, and decision making based on good sense rather than emotion — and the work of our search and rescue teams.

This is especially true for those who head out of bounds or into the backcountry.

In Whistler, our search and rescue responses have been increasing at a rate of five to seven per cent annually since 2010, according to WSAR manager Brad Sills.

"I think a lot of people have lost touch with nature," Sills told Pique recently. "They just don't understand the natural world at all anymore. They put on some gear, read a book, and take a cellphone and go out into the backcountry. Every year, we have people who are well-intentioned but just make one bad error: they're skiing out of bounds, and because it's a great day they're wearing minimal clothes and don't have an extra sweater. Or they see a lovely creek up in the mountains and they get too close and fall. Then they're lost or hurt or don't know where they are or how they got there. And then they're there overnight.

"Ongoing education by SAR teams is our only chance. Prevention really is our only hope."

Whistler Search and Rescue is made up of over 30 volunteers and typically operates on a budget of about $150,000.

Within ground search and rescue groups provincially, there are roughly 100,000 hours of volunteer time donated to searches; to replace these would cost more than $5 million annually in direct salary dollars.

The last WSAR manager's report, which covered February 2015 to February 2016, shows that the organization received 55 requests for help and mobilized on 36 of those — that's up over the previous report's calls. In December 2015 and January and February of 2016, WSAR was out at least once a week aiding those in trouble. The callouts consumed 687 man-hours of volunteer time.

This latest manager's report also noted that that number of females asking for assistance is up, as is the age of those requesting assistance — 26 to 50 years old. Foreign nationals (tourists) represented six of the 39 subjects involved. Local-area residents accounted for 10 responses while 18 others were from B.C. and five were from other Canadian addresses.

One of the locations WSAR responded to frequently, according to the report, was the backside of Whistler Mountain — perhaps with this early season safety wake-up call enthusiastic mountain users will think twice before heading out that way without a clear plan.

Let's keep in mind that the whole season stretches out before us.

For now, Whistler is mourning the loss of one of its own and we share in the grief of this man's family.

Nothing can bring him back, but perhaps his loss can remind us all to respect Mother Nature and look after each other.

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