Opinion » Editorial

Everyone pays for rescues



It is a fact of life in Whistler that death stalks us here

Every year Pique reports on the deaths in and around our community — from the lovingly written tributes to our citizens who have passed on, to the heart-wrenching tales of those lost too soon.

So, it's fair to say that when we learned that a 20-year-old, short-term visitor to Whistler had been missing for two days before the authorities were alerted — and that her last known location was on Blackcomb Mountain — everyone expected the worst.

Everyone was thinking of Julie Abrahamsen's family back in Son, Norway.

Like other parents before them, would their first visit to the resort be to organize the return of remains of their child to their home country?

But even after all these years of loss, collective hope still burns in us all. We still believe in miracles.

And the survival of mountain lovers like Abrahamsen is at the root of our belief. She had nature on her side, to be sure, with ridiculously warm weather in Whistler valley over last week, and this was a young person who had considerable mountain experience behind her as well.

I think a lot of people, including Whistler Blackcomb staff, search and rescue, and others were walking around the resort with silly grins, when news broke on Saturday, Jan.24, that she was safe.

But now that we have had time to remember what miracles feel like we have a responsibility to ask some hard questions. After all, collectively the only way we can prevent something like this happening again (probably an impossible task, but let's just keep the optimism going for a bit longer) is to learn from the mistakes made.

My intention is not to be harsh here... but to be realistic.

From information garnered from multiple news sources and Whistler Search and Rescue the first error in judgment appears to have been that Abrahamsen did not tell anyone she was going out of bounds and where she was going.

That's Rule #1 according to the hundreds of stories Pique has written on "the rules" of going out of bounds.

Next she followed the tracks of other skiers/boarders going into an area she was not familiar with. Added to that she went into the backcountry without at the very least a shovel and provisions and extra clothing.

And she went alone with a dead cell phone.

Like others before her, as exhaustion set in on the second day she decided to walk beside, or in, a creek, which swept her away leaving her soaked by the time she got out.

Creeks are rarely a good choice as a path.

Back in Whistler, her roommates, all new friends, didn't think too much when she didn't come home for one night, but by the third day they were worried.

A roommate explained to Pique that, "in Whistler it is not unusual for someone to not come home for a few days.

"On the third day everyone in the house was worried, as still no contact and she hadn't 'seen' her Facebook messages, which for a 20 year old is unusual, as they normally check Facebook every 5 minutes.

"We've only known Julie for 2 weeks, but when away from home your room mates are your family and you do anything for your family."

Perhaps another opportunity to help prevent this from happening again would be for roommates to set up some sort of check-in system?

If Abrahamsen had been injured, being rescued quickly might have been a life and death situation.

The young Norwegian did things right too. She found shelter, she didn't panic and she believed she could get out alive. She rationed herself what food she had with her — some leftover pasta — and tried to keep hydrated.

She was tough, as Whistler Search and Rescue manager Brad Sills told Pique in the days after a rescue. And as a European skier she likely failed to understand that skiing out in B.C. does not lead to another small town or farm — it leads to wilderness — something every regional skier should realize.

Her survival touched Sills as it did everyone in the resort.

Search and rescue personnel, who are volunteers and Whistler Blackcomb staff, also volunteers, spent hours searching for Abrahamsen on Friday and Saturday — close to 40 people in all.

Of course others were part of the provincially funded operation too — helicopters and their pilots (at probably more than $2,000 an hour), ambulances on standby and staff at the local medical centre who looked after the young snowboarder as well. Friends joined in the search too.

In B.C. we don't charge those lost for their rescues, believing that fear of the cost might stop someone calling for help if they are lost, or it might dissuade a friend from reporting someone missing.

And let's remember that Whistler is a mountain resort attracting millions of visitors a year — it gives millions of dollars to all levels of government as a result of the spending of these travellers — looking for them when they are lost and keeping them safe is part of our operation.

But that does not remove the onus on those who head out to the hills to take responsibility for their actions.

Every rescue takes an emotional and financial toll — let's try and make them far and few between.