By Andrew Mitchell
Whistler-Blackcomb Ski Patrol and Whistler Search and Rescue are concerned by the growing number of calls they are receiving regarding people lost or injured in the backcountry, many of them completely unprepared for their circumstances.
Although the number of calls fluctuates with the snow, in the last few weeks the night ski patrol managers have been dealing with emergencies every other night.
“Just yesterday (Monday) we had two calls outside of the boundary,” said Dave Reid, who manages the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol’s night call service. “One was on Million Dollar Ridge, which was a femur fracture — they built a feature to jump over a tree — and another was an individual in the Khyber area that hit his head and had a head injury.”
Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol does respond to calls outside the ski area, but it’s not in their mandate — they go for humanitarian reasons, Reid says. However, that does put a strain on mountain resources, as well as Search and Rescue and the RCMP who are often involved when people are lost, missing, or injured in the backcountry.
But while injuries in the backcountry can happen, the biggest worry is the number of people that follow tracks in the assumption that they eventually lead back in bounds. Most of those people have little knowledge of the terrain, and the majority are unprepared.
The people that are either found in the backcountry, or find their own way out after a search has been initiated, come from a wide range of backgrounds. In the past few weeks that list includes people from Sweden, the U.K., Canada, the U.S., and Australia. But the most common missing person is usually an employee in the resort who has been here for a year or two, with an average age of 22.
According to Reid, most after-hours calls could be avoided or resolved more easily if people followed the basics — take an avalanche course, read the backcountry advisory, make themselves familiar with the terrain, travel with a partner, and bring a kit that includes food, water, cell phone, headlamps, first aid, and other gear to be able to spend the night. Common sense also goes a long way, Reid says, and following tracks when you don’t know where they lead is never a good choice.
Cell phones and radios have changed the situation slightly. While they do make people safer, Reid says they also make people more complacent — not realizing that there are dead zones in the backcountry areas of both Whistler and Blackcomb. They also don’t help when the person has no knowledge of the terrain — some skiers and boarders don’t even know if they’re lost on Whistler or Blackcomb.