For Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR), there are missions that make headlines: the case of hiker Tyler Wright, for example, who set out on a rugged 50-kilometre journey from Squamish to Coquitlam in 2010 and sadly never returned; or Christine Newman, who was near death after falling down a tree well during a snowshoeing trek in Garibaldi Park in 2014 and whose story had a miraculously happy ending.
But for every task that the volunteer organization takes on and that gets covered in the news, there are dozens of stories people don't hear about, the cases of hikers, skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, kayakers, tourists, and others who need WSAR's help but whose circumstances may not be nearly as dramatic. Those individuals are no less relieved to see the organization's volunteers heading their way when they're lost, hurt, or in trouble outside.
Yet even as technology has advanced — telecommunication certainly makes rescues a lot easier than decades gone by when cellphones didn't exist — and gear has gotten better, warmer, and stronger, the need for search and rescue efforts has never been greater.
WSAR responses have been increasing at a rate of five to seven per cent annually since 2010, says its leader, Brad Sills.
"I think a lot of people have lost touch with nature," Sills says. "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.
"Virtually every night on TV you'll hear us telling people to be prepared," he says. "Ongoing education by SAR teams is our only chance. Prevention really is our only hope."
No one ever expects to get into trouble outdoors, but a change in the weather, mistake in judgment, unexpected injury, equipment failure, or sudden nightfall can quickly turn a fun outing into a crisis. But a lot of incidents — and calls to SAR — can be avoided.
SAR is changing, with teams playing an increasingly crucial preventive role.
Part of the challenge of those efforts for the Whistler non-profit organization, however, is the region itself: living or visiting here, people have easy access to some of the world's most stunning — and potentially treacherous — terrain. They don't have to go far to find themselves in the midst of dangerous, unfamiliar, or inaccessible, or avalanche-prone territory.
"We have easy access to great terrain 24/7 in all seasons," says Sandra Riches, B.C. provincial co-ordinator of AdventureSmart, a national program that encourages people to be informed about being outdoors. "Because of the accessibility, people don't really think that where they're going is the backcountry, but you can get to the backcountry very quickly. There's a sense of security when things are easy to get to. There's a false sense of security that nothing's going to happen.
"We've all seen fatalities, and you'd think that would give people more of a headshake," she adds. "I wish it would. But no matter how many times someone gets hurt, people get lazy. People think they plan and prepare much more than they actually do."
DITCH THE FLIP FLOPS
Staying safe in the outdoors all comes down to what AdventureSmart calls the three Ts: trip planning, training, and taking essentials.
"Trip planning is huge," Riches says. "It's the homework you do before every adventure."
It involves establishing your route in advance, checking the weather, and knowing the terrain and conditions. Trip planning also consists of leaving a trip plan, including your expected return date and time, with a friend or family member in case anything goes wrong. There's a plan available on AdventureSmart.ca, with an online version you can even email from your smartphone to your contacts.
"A glorified note is one thing, but a detailed trip plan is gold," Riches says. "It's the difference between us finding you within a few hours and maybe a few days."
Training is next: "If you're heading out to hike Ridge Mountain or Joffre Lakes or the Pemberton Ice Cap, are you fit mentally and physically?" Riches asks. "Are you able to actually do the activity you're setting out to do? That's key."
Training involves more than hitting the gym and building up physical and mental stamina, though; it also means having sufficient expertise in areas like first aid, communication, and navigation. "Do you know how to use a topographical map? Do you know how to use a compass? You can't rely on your cellphone all the time."
Then there's the third T: Taking essentials. Also available at AdventureSmart.ca, these are all the items you need to have with you no matter what activity you're doing or where you're going, no matter how seemingly close. And everyone in your party should have the same; it's not up to a single person to carry things like a pocket knife, first-aid kit, fire-making kit, extra clothing, flashlight, signalling device such as a whistle, and so on.
And of course, proper clothing is vital. Flip-flops and a granola bar don't cut it for a day spent on switchbacks.
"I'm always amazed at what I see people showing up in," Riches says. "People need to understand what they need to do and what they need to have with them when they're outside so that they can help us."
That's especially true given that SAR members — all 2,500 of them in the province of B.C. — are volunteers, with family, jobs, and commitments outside of the hours they dedicate to the team.
"Some of the calls can last days," Riches says. "Our volunteers are moms, dads, sisters, brothers from every profession you can think of. They take time away and leave their family and work to respond to calls. They happily do it and we will always respond, but a lot of the incidents we deal with are preventable.
"They wouldn't have to sacrifice either family or their work if people had the right footwear, if they had the essentials, if they needed to spend a night outside they could and were prepared for an emergency, if they had an extra jacket and a flashlight and didn't need to call. That in turn helps all those volunteers."
ON CALL, DAY AND NIGHT
Sills joined Whistler SAR in 1976, three years after it formed. An avid climber and mountaineer originally from Quebec who runs a backcountry lodge in the Callaghan Valley, he knows first-hand just how demanding it can be to have to drop everything, day or night, to assist someone in need.
"My two adult sons grew up in a household of 'Where's dad?' More than one or two Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners were left on the plate. When we interview volunteers, your life has to be supportive of SAR, meaning your employer, your spouse, and your children have to be onboard with it. It is a huge challenge for family life. It affects everything around you and everything you do.
There's a ton of behind-the-scenes work; when volunteers aren't out on calls, they're training, taking courses, tending to equipment, handing out information, doing public and media relations, and more — all on top of their central, crucial job of saving lives.
Every B.C. SAR volunteer must take a 70-hour Ground Search and Rescue course while some are trained as team leaders to plan and direct operations. Additional training is required for all operations in avalanche terrain regardless of the kind of rescue.
All SAR members in B.C. also receive training helicopter operations, with some taking additional training in "hover exit" if they need to go somewhere a chopper can't land. Some also learn sling-loading techniques and advanced patient transport. Then there is specific training for rescues that involve swift water, flat water, ice, steep snow, logging roads, and extrications from cars. Volunteers also learn to use ropes, long lines, and rescue communications, among other tools, while some go on to train in wilderness medicine.
"We deal with lost skiers and snowmobilers; injured climbers; missing children; drownings; crevasse rescues and swift-water rescues; motor-vehicle accidents; people with Alzheimer's who have gone missing — often in technical terrain and in extreme weather," he says. "It's a huge scope of work."
Sills remembers searching for people in the early days, when resources were scarce.
"When we first started, it was all personal gear and we had nothing, absolutely nothing, he recalls. "Everything we did in those days was manual labour. If you had to extricate someone from the backcountry, it was all guts and brawn. There were no helicopters helping us out. To find people we had to use compasses and reckoning. Equipment was very rudimentary for evacuation."
Whistler is fortunate in that it has a relatively stable team of volunteers; only occasionally do they have to put out the call for new members, unlike North Shore Search and Rescue, which is in constant need. Sills points out that volunteers don't have to be rugged outdoorspeople; the organization also requires help with communications, administration, and fundraising.
Earlier this year, the provincial government announced $10 million in one-time funding to B.C.'s 84 SAR groups to help bolster training, provide administrative support, and renew equipment. That's in addition to the $6.3 million that the B.C. government provides annually to help cover all 84 organizations' costs. But even with that support, the province's SAR teams continually having to find and raise money to keep their operations going: the costs of equipment, gear and insurance are staggering.
To raise funds, WSAR will hold its 17th annual gourmet dinner and silent auction, "Wine'd Up" on Saturday, Oct. 15, at Dusty's Bar and Grill. Tickets, $170, are now on sale, and attendees get to enjoy a five-course dinner prepared by some of Whistler's best chefs, with wine pairings from California, including Lake Sonoma Winery.
"Whistler SAR is so well-supported by our community," Sills says. "A small group of volunteers work fundamentally all year long to put this event on."
Every year, WSAR members do everything in their power to help fellow outdoors enthusiasts who happen to encounter trouble. Here's a look at a few standout moments from the past five years.
Whistler Blackcomb, 2016:
During a single week this past January, WSAR volunteers attended to three calls. One involved two British snowboarders who went missing after heading out of bounds. Searchers travelled by snowmobiles for many hours and found the snowboarders uninjured. A few days later, WSAR team members were called to help a man who was skiing the backcountry with friends when he broke his leg. They flew in via helicopter and retrieved him from near the Flute-Oboe drainage. The next evening, a woman called police to report that her boyfriend and another man hadn't returned from a trip in the Blackcomb backcountry. She last heard from him via text just after 3:30 p.m. letting her know he was lost. Despite attempts by police to track the men's cell phones, they were not found that night. WSAR was activated the next morning, locating the pair by helicopter.
Wedge Mountain, 2015:
A 21-year-old Norwegian snowboarder went out of bounds — only to end up getting lost and spending three cold, wet nights in the backcountry. She had promised to keep in touch with her dad every day during her trip; when he hadn't heard from her and learned she had gone missing, he feared the worst. WSAR members found her at the base of the rugged mountain unharmed. Her thankful father flew to Canada to thank WSAR and make a cash donation to the team.
Whistler Mountain, 2014:
A Port Moody man and his teenage daughter were skiing near Boundary Bowl when they ended up out of bounds. Although they tried to follow their tracks back out, it took far longer than they expected. The man called 911 but, with dusk approaching, it was too late for WSAR to initiate a response. The man took a calm approach to the situation and built a snow cave, later telling Pique he knew he just had to focus on the tasks at hand. That enabled them to conserve their energy for the next day, and staying put made it easier for rescuers to find them. WSAR came to the duo's rescue early the next morning.
Spearman Glacier, 2013:
Several skiers and snowboarders were caught in the tail end of an avalanche just past the Corona Bowl area in the backcountry of Blackcomb Mountain. The slide travelled about 250 metres and hit a group of three who were preparing to hike up and across the bowl toward the Husume descent. Two of them were partially buried by snow, while the third was completely buried. Other skiers who were nearby assisted with the search and called for emergency help. WSAR members, Blackcomb ski patrollers, and an on-mountain doctor flew out by helicopter. Although the man who had been submerged was initially found unconscious, all three were treated and released.
Spearhead Range, 2012:
A University of Washington professor skied up to a crack in the snow when it opened up and caused him to fall 15 metres down a crevasse. He wasn't hurt, but he was stuck, with no way to get out himself. He had an emergency blanket and extra clothing and said he could have survived the night; luckily, a friend he was skiing with called for help. WSAR members flew to the scene with Blackcomb Aviation. The man spent just over two hours trapped and said he was lucky things weren't any worse: the crevasse dropped another 20 metres or so beneath him.
by Gail Johnson
B.C. SAR teams do not charge people for searches or rescues, nor are there any plans to start charging.
"It's a pretty complex topic, but the premise is that people will be reluctant to call and therefore will extend and make possible responses more complicated," says John Howe, BC Search and Rescue Association's Sea to Sky regional director who has been a volunteer since the late 1980s, when a fellow climber recruited him. Not calling for help when they need it could decrease people's chance of survival or put volunteers' lives in greater danger when they do head out. Whether someone has gone out ill-prepared, has ended up with a broken bone while skiing out of bounds, or has become disoriented and lost, it doesn't matter: there's no cost.
"I don't judge people by their mistakes," Howe says. "We want people to play safe, follow the rules and recommendations, and have fun."
The B.C. Search and Rescue Association stands by its official position not to charge people for the help it provides on its website: "The moral obligation of helping those in need will always take precedence over political, legal, economic and jurisdictional issues. We conduct over 1,300 responses in B.C. each year; from urban searches for people with dementia, wilderness searches for people who become lost on hikes, to backcountry rescues using technical expertise and equipment."
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
With winter coming AdventureSmart has these tips to keep in mind:
Wear a helmet
This goes for people who are skiing, snowboarding, skating, or snowmobiling.
Dress in layers
Proper layers will help you ward off hypothermia, while covering your head, ears, and hands prevents frostbite.
Don't assume a frozen lake is thick enough before you go skating or snowmobiling. Check its thickness.
As you know, heading out of bounds can lead to extremely dangerous conditions and terrain.
Be avalanche aware
Check local bulletins and practise rescues using transceivers, probes, and shovels. Be prepared to spend the night.