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Skiers turn up safe after two-day search

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A challenging two-day search for a pair of backcountry skiers who were attempting the Spearhead Traverse ended well on Friday, March 19 when the men emerged from their tent and were spotted by search helicopters.

The men, 26-year-old Michal Opolsky and 29-year-old Geoffrey Orr, were in their second day of a planned four day traverse from Blackcomb to Whistler when the weather turned bad on Sunday. They tried to retrace their steps, but were forced to dig a snow cave to wait out the storm in the area between the Shudder and Tremor glaciers.

They were last spotted on the nearby Platform Glacier by another group on Sunday morning, about a day’s hike from Blackcomb Mountain, but high winds and poor visibility kept searchers out of that area until Friday afternoon.

They spent the next three days in an improvised snow cave until it started to collapse under the weight of the new snow and gusting wind in the early hours of Thursday. In the middle of the worst part of the storm they were forced to retreat outside, where they set up their tent with winds gusting as high as 150 km/h.

According to Brad Sills, manager of the Whistler Search and Rescue, the men did the right thing by staying put and were prepared for the worst.

"They spent five days in the high alpine weathered out, three of them in a snow cave until it started to collapse in the blizzard… so it was an extremely harrowing situation they found themselves in, they were in extremely inclement weather," said Sills.

Whistler Search and Rescue got the call from the RCMP on Wednesday evening after friends reported the North Vancouver men overdue by about 18 hours.

"We started working on it Thursday morning at 7 a.m., but the weather was such that we couldn’t fly until noon that day because of the extremely high winds overnight that were still persistent in the morning," said Sills.

After the first flight, the search area was socked in by weather once again, although they did manage to make another search after 4 o’clock that afternoon.

A total of seven Search and Rescue teams from the region had a six-hour meeting on Thursday evening, and prepared a ground search the following day with three groups and up to 40 volunteers.

The ground search was called off because of the high avalanche risk and visibility.

"We woke up Friday morning with a formidable avalanche instability evaluation and variable visibility," said Sills. "There were extremely stiff slabs caused by wind-driven snow, and 50 to 60 centimetre deep failure, fracture lines, so we didn’t want to be putting crews out in the alpine."

Four helicopters joined the search that day, but the conditions kept them out of the highest part of the traverse near where the missing men were last spotted. At four o’clock the conditions cleared, and the men were spotted by two helicopters.

The men were still healthy enough to ski down to where the helicopters landed, and were flown out to Whistler.

"They recognized the situation on Sunday, the day they went missing, and started rationing their food and fuel, so they could melt water on their stove, and they figured out how much water they needed every day. Then they just hunkered down in one place the way we would have wanted them to," said Sills.

"It was good to see these people that weren’t extremely experienced mountaineers had the wherewithal to go into the backcountry prepared enough for what they were going to face in an emergency, and they stayed calm and collected throughout it."

Although the weather was forecasted to change on Sunday, nobody predicted the severity or the duration of the storm that overtook the backcountry skiers. It also descended earlier than expected, catching groups touring the backcountry off-guard.

The Spearhead Traverse is an alpine touring route that connects Blackcomb and Whistler around the Fitzsimmons Creek drainage. It takes an average of three days to complete, although some experienced skiers have made the trip in a day with shortcuts.

Whistler’s Karl Ricker followed the story of the missing skiers very closely. He was part of the group that completed the first ski traverse of the area in 1964, and submitted the list of geographic names for the area to the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names.

"It’s interesting that one of the reasons we submitted all these geographic names for the Spearhead drainage was for rescue purposes, with Whistler Mountain opening and people able to access the backcountry up there. This is the first graphic sample I’ve seen of my initial work being used for what it was intended for in 40 years," he said.

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