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Whistler's RCMP protocol guides police in search and rescue missions

Unique checks and balances for local police designed to prevent tragedy in backcountry

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Whistler RCMP Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair knows a thing or two about searching the backcountry for missing people.

He's been backcountry skiing for 25 years, and volunteering with the police ski patrol for almost two decades now. When skiers, or snowmobilers or snowshoers go missing in places like the Cakehole, or the Pemberton Ice Cap or the Callaghan Valley, LeClair innately knows what challenges they're facing.

He's been there.

That's why when he took over as the head RCMP officer for Whistler LeClair developed a unique protocol for the police on how to deal with people missing in the backcountry — an all too frequent occurrence in Whistler.

While the police play a critical role in these files, they also rely heavily on the expertise of ski patrol and the volunteer members of the local search and rescue team.

"Every location is different depending on what the backcountry reality is, what the nature of the ski resort is and if there's terrain that's accessible," said LeClair from his office.

"We've tailored our protocol to the reality that we face."

It is designed to prevent tragedies in the backcountry like the one in Golden three years ago where a Quebec couple got lost for nine days and only the husband, Gilles Blackburn, made it out alive. Wife Marie Fortin died of chronic hypothermia two days before rescue came.

They ducked the ski area boundary and got lost. Then wandered more than 30 kilometres in the snow, mostly in the first two days and nights, maddeningly within reach of help, their odd tracks and SOS signs spotted and reported. And yet no one ever looked for them.

Fortin ate two granola bars; Blackburn tried to eat some spruce tree resin. They slept outside, sticking close to the creek for drinking water and with the thought that it would put them under the helicopter flight path.

In his coroner's report into the death of Fortin, Tom Pawlowski wrote:

"The fatal outcome of this incident was the culmination of a series of critical miscalculations, incorrect assumptions and miscommunications."

He went on to write:

"The actions and omissions of those who were responding to the signs in the snow, resulted in a situation where the different parties held different pieces of information, but a complete, accurate picture was not allowed to emerge. Following the initial reporting of ski tracks on February 17th (2009), the various key players made assumptions that someone else would notify the police to initiate a search, and when no search was taking place, assumed that the need for a search had been properly ruled out."

LeClair is familiar with the Blackburn case but cannot speak to the details. There is an ongoing lawsuit between Blackburn and the RCMP. Blackburn has settled his case with Golden and District Search and Rescue and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort (KHMR). The details of these agreements are not public. KHMR released a statement saying that Blackburn's action against the resort was discontinued without costs and that the case presents a cautionary tale of the importance of responsible backcountry travel.

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