A military helicopter had to be flown in to Whistler Monday night after the RCMP received a distress call regarding a hiker who injured his leg on Wedge Glacier.
Whistler RCMP were notified by SPOT (Satellite Personal Tracker) GPS Distress Systems in Texas at about 8:40 p.m. that a distress beacon signal was coming from a location about six kilometres east of Whistler. The nature of a distress cannot be provided by the SPOT system, and thus RCMP were not aware of the severity of the emergency.
Shortly after, a 9-1-1 operator received a call asking for helicopter rescue for a member of a four-man climbing party who broke his leg at 8,200 feet on the Wedge Glacier.
Whistler Search and Rescue was notified thereafter and put in contact with the caller, who was not the injured person. The caller said the injured hiker was fine, both conscious and breathing, except for a possible fracture to a lower leg.
At this point it was 9:10 p.m., too late for a helicopter to fly. The caller was instructed to go back to the injured man and provide care and guidance to a rescue party in the morning. The caller agreed and said he would send the other two fit members of their party to the Wedge Hut campsite to get clothes and sleeping bags for the injured climber.
Whistler SAR received another call at midnight saying that the situation had worsened for the injured climber — the caller said he was exhausted, cold and could not make it back to the injured climber. He also worried the injured man might die if a helicopter didn’t reach him immediately.
Whistler SAR relayed the information to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria and requested assistance from 442 Squadron — Air/Sea Rescue out of CFB Comox on Vancouver Island. Land-based search and rescue is not generally the squadron’s responsibility, but it is the only unit with night-flying capability.
Brad Sills with Whistler SAR said it “doesn’t take a rocket scientist” to figure out the dangers of night flying in the Coast Mountains.
“Typically (they’re) flying with night vision goggles, which enhances different levels of light,” he told Pique . “ It’s not like they’re seeing with the naked eye, they’re interpreting things through digital technology.
“ Just the fact that you’re relying on technology heightens the danger.”
It’s because of these dangers that night rescues are very rare.
After some delays due to the squadron’s call priority status, it was confirmed 442 Squadron could carry out the rescue but first needed to reconfigure the aircraft, burn off fuel and remove much of their rescue kit in order to carry out a rescue at 8,200 feet.
A large EH 101 Cormorant rescue helicopter landed at Whistler Municipal Heliport at 4:35 a.m. and, with the help of Whistler SAR and the RCMP, the aircraft was prepared for the rescue.
Still in darkness, the chopper was then flown up Rethel Creek to the scene using night vision equipment. The rescue crew was confused to find another climbing party of four ascending the glacier.
The rescue crew were later shocked to discover a lone person, the injured climber, lying on the glacier at a higher elevation. The rescue crew was able to access, stabilize and transport the injured hiker inside the helicopter.
The rest of his climbing party had to be woken from a “deep sleep” at Wedgemont Hut, according to Sills. Whistler SAR was surprised that the injured person would be left alone after a seemingly urgent request for help.
According to an e-mail from Sills, the threesome felt there was no point in them all being cold when a helicopter would pick them up in the morning.
However, when asked in an interview why the climber was left alone on the glacier, Sills said, “We don’t speculate on why people do things.”
Sills said that Whistler SAR is “very concerned” about the use of SPOT technology as people’s only rescue plan while doing outdoor activity.
He added that relying on the technology, which is available in stores such as Mountain Equipment Co-op, is a flawed concept because it merely indicates the location where an emergency is taking place.
“All they do is submit a lat and longitude, so all we get is a location of a distress call but no details,” Sills said. “I don’t think it’s a well thought through technology because it doesn’t give the nature of the emergency.”
He said in his e-mail that outdoor recreationalists need to have adequate knowledge and skill sets for the areas they travel in and should know what to do if rescue crews don’t show up.