With 15 avalanche deaths in less than a month, the issue of backcountry access is back in the media spotlight in a way that hasn't been seen since the winter of 2002-03 when 28 people were killed in avalanches in B.C. The provincial government is now looking into the possibility of penalties for people who ski out of bounds when the avalanche risk is high, or for people to pay for the cost of being rescued.
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, John van Dongen, recently told media there was room for a penalty for out of bounds skiers, but now says that he was speaking off the cuff and is more interested in what the public thinks.
"Let me be really clear, I was simply thinking out loud and inviting comment, I have no fixed agenda on this," he told Pique on Tuesday. "I believe the idea of billing people for the cost of a search is probably not realistic. I know we inevitably get calls for that, but I also think it would be a deterrent for people seeking help and it's not a supported policy.
"What I am doing is asking the public if they think a fine or some type of sanction is appropriate. Is it necessary, and is it helpful to increase compliance by people. I'm simply inviting comment."
Last week, Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason called skiers and snowboarders who ignore warning signs "morons" and "arrogant, self-entitled jerks," and expressed hope that people who violate warnings will "face hefty fines" as Minister van Dongen suggested. He went one step further and suggested that violators spend a few weeks in jail.
The skier and snowboarder killed in separate avalanches at Whistler Blackcomb on New Year's Eve were inside Whistler Blackcomb's tenure area, but there were signs to mark those areas as beyond the ski patrol area boundary and that specifically warned of the high avalanche risk and lack of avalanche control.
The strongest criticisms to date were leveled at the three snowboarders and one skier that ducked the ropes at Grouse Mountain and were later escorted out by a helicopter at an estimated cost of $10,000. Forced to defend themselves from attacks in the media, their position is that they weren't rescued but rather forced to evacuate from an area that they had every right to be in. They said they had the proper gear to be in the backcountry, knew where they were going, and were avoiding avalanche terrain.
Grouse Mountain banned the men for life and sent their photos and personal information to other resorts across the province. The four have already been out skiing and snowboarding again at Whistler Blackcomb, who said they are welcome as customers as long as they abide by the rules.
Grouse originally planned to charge the men for the cost of the rescue, but backed down this week after they were told that North Shore Search and Rescue would not accept the money.
That's the official position of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association, says president Don Bindon.
"Our take is that we do not charge for our services, so whether or not somebody is fined for what they did is not an issue for us," he said. "The majority of costs are borne by taxpayers, so if someone has to make a decision of charges or fines levied, it won't be a volunteer association that basically does its work for free.
"We do have a concern we've voiced, and that is shared by virtually everyone on the volunteer side, and that's that we want people to phone us if they get into trouble. If people delay calling us, or don't call us, or avoid using trained professionals by substituting family and friends... because they don't want to pay a fine, we would not support that. And we think there is a possibility that would occur."
There is also a chance that some people would actively try to avoid rescuers to avoid paying thousands of dollars.
Bindon also noted that people are not charged when they're rescued doing other activities, and if there is a new law then it needs to be fair and include all backcountry users - something there is little appetite for in a province where outdoor recreation generates billions of dollars in tourism revenues.
There's also a question of fairness - snowmobilers now account for 13 of 16 avalanche deaths in B.C. this winter, but there has been no call to create fines or charge people for rescues in this user group.
The issue gets into the heart of a debate that is decades-old, which is the extent that people should have access to the backcountry, and who should pay if those people need to be rescued. It also gets into the issue of how ski resorts patrol their boundaries if people are using their lifts to access the backcountry.
According to BCSARA, backcountry skiers and snowboarders only account for a small number of rescues each year. He couldn't give an average number, but Bindon says most of these calls are near urban areas like Vancouver, which also accounts for the media coverage.
"We average between 900 and 1,000 calls in most years - that's our average, but we're seeing a small increase each year, which probably reflects the growing population more than anything else. It's different every year, but I would say that the majority of those calls are in the summer," he said.
"When we get into the ski season issues over out-of-bounds skiers do come to the forefront, but in truth they don't represent a large number of events during the course of a year in the province. We're talking about a big backcountry area, and summertime statistics are generally higher than winter."
As for the cost of rescues to provincial agencies, Bindon says it depends on the number of days, the number of searchers, the terrain, the equipment used, helicopter time and other factors. Every search is different, but he said searchers often do have a good idea where to look during the winter - either by looking for avalanche activity or searching drainages near ski resorts or popular backcountry areas where people invariably wind up. There are also fewer parking areas and access points in the winter months, and backcountry users gravitate towards more popular areas. Depending on the weather, it can also be easier to spot people and their tracks.
That's not to say the backcountry searches are any safer during the winter. The risk of avalanches and use of helicopters to access remote areas can make it riskier for adventurers and rescuers, says Bindon.
For the most part Bindon says he's happy with campaigns to educate people about the risks, and to inform them about the conditions and avalanche hazard. "But we also understand that no matter how much you do to prevent incidents from occurring, nothing is preventable entirely," he said. "Sometimes people make poor decisions. Sometimes people don't do anything wrong, but find themselves in a place they weren't prepared for or they get injured in the backcountry and need help."
Bryce Leigh, access and environment director for the Alpine Club of Canada, Whistler Section, says people need to make a distinction between user groups.
"First, people need to know the difference between skiing in a closed area, skiing out of bounds and skiing backcountry, because they are very different things," he said.
"Basically skiing a closed area is a definite no-no, and it's the resorts that designate that."
Whistler Blackcomb is now taking passes from people that cross into closed areas within the ski area boundary, but they have no jurisdiction over people crossing over the ski area boundary onto Crown land.
"It seems that the proposed law is only for people skiing out of bounds from a resort, and not for people going into the backcountry on Rainbow, or off the Duffey, or Cerise Creek," said Leigh. "That's an important distinction to make, because sometimes people who ski out of bounds are prepared, and sometimes they're not. The people who head out to Fissile or Decker are usually different than people who duck under a rope on a ski run to follow tracks. They usually have the right gear, and knowledge how to use it.
"It's an interesting issue, because a lot of backcountry areas are now only accessible through the ski resorts - partly because they were traditional backcountry ski areas before the resorts were built. It's also made those areas a lot more convenient. Given the choice between skinning up 4,000 feet or riding a lift, I'm more than happy to take the chair."
Leigh thinks more education and better signage will prevent less knowledgeable people from entering the backcountry, and he agrees with BCSARA that any new law that levies fines or charges people for rescues could backfire because people will be reluctant to call if they get into trouble.
That is also the position of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C., which is opposed to any effort that would limit access to Crown land, whether it's through a ski resort or not.
For his part, Leigh says he is avoiding the backcountry to be safe, and says everyone he knows is doing the same. At the same time, he says the media needs to put the issue of backcountry use into perspective.
"This issue (of access) always comes up when people are rescued from the local mountains or we get avalanches, because it's always high profile," he said. "Ironically it never seems to come up when someone is rescued from their sailboat or powerboat. I'm not sure why (government) would differentiate between outdoor recreation activities."
By suggesting a system of fines or other penalties, Leigh says the province is putting backcountry skiers in a position where they have to defend their sport at the same time they're encouraging people to exercise more.
"We have a government that encourages us to be more active, and to reduce our mechanical means of travel - but then wants to limit access to the backcountry. It's a healthy, good sport as long as you're careful and safe," he said.
Minister van Dongen says his main concern is public safety, and any changes to policy would not happen overnight or without consulting the main stakeholders.
"On average we have 14 deaths in Canada due to avalanches, and on average 65 per cent of those are in B.C.," he said. At this point we have 13 deaths this winter from avalanches. With that statistic looming, I'm quite simply asking the question, whether it's a good idea or not (to create a fine).
"We don't have any preconceived notions on this, but in terms of the deaths we've seen I wanted to invite people to give me their thoughts on it which we can use to direct any future actions. If we do pursue it, it will be a public process and there will be public consultation."