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Whistler Search and Rescue sees summer calls outpace winter for first time

Hiking No. 1 reason for SAR response last year

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Whistler being the No. 1 ski resort in North America, it makes sense that the winter season would make up the lion's share of search-and-rescue calls in a given year. But in a sign of the evolving nature of the resort and backcountry recreation in general, the summer narrowly outpaced the winter in Whistler Search and Rescue's (WSAR) annual Manager's Report for the first time.

Covering the period between March 1, 2018 and March 1, 2019, WSAR crews mobilized 59 times, up slightly from the 56 mobilizations in the previous year. Of those responses, 33 took place in the summer, and 32 were in the winter months.

WSAR manager Brad Sills attributed the shifting dynamic to a pair of factors.

"I think it's both that the (summer visitor) numbers are increasing and the number of people that want to get into the backcountry is increasing," he said, adding that the majority of summer mobilizations were due to relatively minor injuries, such as bone fractures or lacerations—with the exception of major trauma caused by mountain biking accidents, or in one case, a rope-swing incident at Logger's Lake.

Hiking replaced snowmobiling as the No. 1 activity requiring response last year, at 16, ahead of out-of-bounds skiers (11), mountain bikers (nine) and ski tourers (eight). Sills said the rise in incidents speaks to a general lack of preparedness among many of the visiting hikers who take to the backcountry.

"These are typically people that are unprepared for their venture," he said of the increase. "For a lot of people we're seeing on hikes, the only gear they have ... is a cellphone. Twenty years ago, we didn't have that. The culture was, if you were going to go hiking, you had a pack and you had extra clothes. People understood if they got in trouble it was going to be a long while (before they were rescued). Now, I don't think people even think about it, they just expect it."

With seven calls requiring a search-and-rescue response (down from 11 the year prior), snowmobiling fell to fifth. Both snowboarding and paragliding resulted in three calls.

Sills, who has called for improved safety protocols in the sport in the past, believes that snowmobiling has reached "a maturity" with more than two decades of alpine experience.

"There is 25 years, let's say, of alpine snowmobiling and generally the learning curve has been experienced by more people," he said. "Hopefully people are learning that some behaviours aren't appropriate."

Building on a years-long trend, women continue to make up a greater portion—38 per cent—of the subjects involved in SAR responses. Subjects also tend to be older than in years past, when the call volume was heavily weighted towards young males between the ages of 15 and 25.

"It seems that the demographic is aging and I think mountain biking is having a huge impact on that; there are a lot more older people riding bikes, so that's more likely to lead (to an increase) not because of their age, but because there are more of them," Sills explained.

Foreign nationals represented 18 of the 79 subjects involved last year: 14 Americans, two Germans and two Spaniards. Local residents accounted for 14 of the subjects, while other B.C. residents (27) and Canadians from outside of B.C. (20) rounded out the list. (The report noted, however, that the origin data is anecdotal.)

The Garibaldi Lake area led the way as far as the location with the most search-and-rescue responses, at 12, followed closely by the Whistler municipality (11), and the backside of Whistler Mountain and the Spearhead Range, which both saw seven callouts.

"The rise at Garibaldi is the twisted-ankle phenomenon, the bee stings—those kinds of non-technical rescues explain that out. The (Whistler) municipality is mostly mountain biking on Comfortably Numb and Lord of the Squirrels and those somewhat more challenging (trails)," Sills said. "Those areas with more visitation are more likely to have us respond to them."

With more than 75 per cent of WSAR's responses requiring helicopter mobilization last year, Sills said his volunteer crews would be undergoing additional safety training this year.

"We're attributing more time, more resources and more funding to helicopter techniques and how we can safeguard our members from accidents in and around helicopters and just be more efficient with that type of training," he explained.

For tips on backcountry safety and preparedness, visit adventuresmart.ca.

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