Thirty-five years ago four friends were on Whistler Mountain’s well-skied Back Bowl area (now known as Harmony) in the eye of a sudden snow squall.
It was a Saturday afternoon in early April, the storm so intense you couldn’t see your hand held up an arm’s length away. It would have been impossible for the four, who were described as excellent skiers, to see a fracture line in the snow or predict that a cornice above was about to give way.
In just one moment they were all swept away in an avalanche.
A massive response was mounted after the four were reported missing. Patrollers, ski instructors, RCMP officers, mountain employees and volunteers, numbering about 100, some from as far away as Victoria, rallied to search in stormy conditions.
This was 1972. Whistler, the resort municipality, didn’t even exist, and only a few hundred people called this community home.
Two days later the bodies of the four friends were found over a 30 foot by 15 foot area, buried under four-feet of snow.
The event, the first of its kind on Whistler Mountain, was to change the course of history in the little community of Alta Lake.
Dave Cathers, president of Whistler Search and Rescue, remembers it was a “rude awakening.”
In addition to the tragedy sparking an avalanche program on the mountain, it marked the beginning of the local Search and Rescue group.
“(We realized) there was a need for a secondary rescue group that was basically going to help out the patrol as well as do the backcountry,” said Cathers. “We were formed under the Provincial Emergency Program.”
Cathers, 61, has been part of that group, which was officially formed the year following the deadly avalanche, for more than half his life. That’s 34 years of putting his life on the line to help others who are lost or stranded or in tricky situations, and all of it is done on a volunteer basis.
All 4,700 SAR members in B.C. are volunteers who get their meals and gas money reimbursed by Victoria during search operations. That’s it. They are expected to buy their own equipment and leave their jobs when calls arise.
When asked why he’s a part of it, why he dedicates 250 or more hours a year to the program both in training and in calls, Cathers is quick to answer.
“Anybody can put themselves in a position like that, where you go out and hurt yourself,” he said. “And it’s always nice to know that there’s some sort of resources that might come out and get you. It’s sort of a comradeship.”