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SAR calls getting more "serious"

Search and Rescue, Whistler Blackcomb urge caution in "silly season"



Dave Heighway has been skiing in Whistler for almost 17 years but he's never spent the night outside in minus 12 degrees, injured, willing down the hours til rescue — until the night of Saturday, Feb. 25.

All it took was a simple misread of the terrain, terrain he's skied before and knows well, and before he knew it, he and his buddy Cory Leis were veering away from Flute Creek back to Singing Pass and were heading down a steep drainage in the other direction.

They knew they were off course. But by then it was too late. They were past the point of no return. And the avalanche danger was considerable.

Heighway was below Leis; the snow, he said, was starting to slab on him. The next thing he knew he was being taken out in the wash of an avalanche, losing his skis, his poles, banging up his hip, damaging his knee — "through the ringer" was how he described it.

Leis, who has first aid, rushed to his friend who fortunately was not buried.

Heighway was alive. But unable to bear weight on one leg. It was 2 p.m. Leis knew he had a long, solitary journey ahead of him for help in what has been described as "some of the most heinous gullies that are around." He made his friend comfortable, left him a puffy coat to brave the night, and struck out.

"Things don't have to go very wrong before you're spending the night out there," admitted Heighway, a few days after his ordeal and still unable to walk.

Leis said simply: "It's so hard to leave your friend."

Far from the extraordinary, Heighway's story is becoming the familiar for Whistler Search and Rescue (SAR).

At SAR's Annual General Meeting in February, manager Brad Sills outlined the organization's responses in the last year — four fatalities and at least five critical care medical rescues. In total 29 tasks that consumed more than 1,000 hours of volunteer effort.

It's the nature of the calls that has Sills sitting up and taking notice.

"The trend towards serious outcomes is growing," he said this week.

That's one of the reasons why Whistler Blackcomb issued a press release this week to urge caution in what it calls "silly season."

The two main messages are: never ride/ski alone and ski/ride where you know.

"Whistler Blackcomb is finding an increasing number of skiers and riders are heading into areas they are unfamiliar with and worse, they are heading into these areas alone," said the release.

"Adventure and exploration are key elements to what makes skiing and snowboarding so enjoyable but it is important to be educated on the terrain and the potential hazards when entering a new area."