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Skiers ‘arrested’ in backcountry

Soldiers on snowmobiles met pair who descended Cake Hole



Josh Leigh was primed for his day on the hill.

The human kinetics student at UBC came up to Whistler with a friend on Jan. 31, expecting to get a full day in before the Olympic-sized crowds hit town. They arrived at 10 a.m., parked at Creekside and headed up the gondola.

The two of them bounded straight for the high alpine, took the Peak Express and skied straight to Cake Hole, a backcountry expert run outside of the ski area boundary on the mountain's southwest side.

Leigh had skied it "countless times," including three or four times this season alone.

"I was there in the past and it's a pretty fun run," he said in an interview. "It's an almost three hour drive and we just wanted a day of skiing."

The skiers came down through Cake Hole and banked left off of Khyber Pass, finally coming to a track at the bottom of the mountain. There they hoped to meet someone on a snowmobile who could give them a tow out of the Cheakamus valley. They eventually flagged down two sleds coming towards them - each carried two soldiers with guns slung over their shoulders.

They were army personnel stationed at an infantry camp on Whistler Mountain and they were monitoring the backcountry surrounding the athletes' village.

The entire Cheakamus Lake area, including the Whistler Interpretive Forest and all roads and trails in the area, was closed to the public on Jan. 23 when the Olympic Integrated Security Unit extended its perimeter around the athletes' village.

Leigh asked if they could get a ride but the soldiers made them wait about an hour before "politely" asking them to walk out. Leigh said the soldiers followed them for about four kilometres on their sleds to ensure they didn't go off track.

Leigh claimed they were then arrested and brought to a camp where their pictures were taken, their drivers' licenses and credit cards documented and asked what they were doing in the area.

"They basically kept treating us like we chose to be there, like I chose to be in a zone that we weren't supposed to be in," Leigh said. "We were just taking our first lap down to get some fresh turns that no one else really goes to because it leads seven kilometres out from base.

"There's a big hike out. No one really wants to hike out for a fresh start."

The questions persisted. The soldiers sat them down for an hour, asking why they intruded into a security zone. Leigh had no idea he had done that. He didn't pass a sign that said "closed" and he never crossed a line he hadn't passed before.

"They all wouldn't let us move," Leigh said. "They made us sit down and they didn't let us move from our sitting positions for about an hour."

Once the Army was done with them they were turned over to the RCMP for more questioning.

"They hassled us as much as the Army hassled us," Leigh said. "We didn't cross any signs, we basically had no way of knowing that they were even there and they basically kept telling us that we chose to trespass and we never chose to trespass. We were skiing a backcountry line that everyone skis."

It was 3 o'clock before the skiers were returned to their car.

Major Dan Thomas, a spokesman with the Integrated Security Unit, said in an e-mail that to prevent future incidents a sign has been posted at the relevant ski area boundary with the following message:

"During the period of the Olympics and Paralympics (3 Feb - 24 March) anyone leaving the ski area boundary may find themselves in an Olympic restricted area, and they may be subject to surveillance, search and detention. Whistler Blackcomb Strongly urge you to reconsider your choice to ski out of bounds."

He stressed in his e-mail that Leigh and his friend were not "arrested" but informed that they entered a restricted zone and had to be escorted out.