Missing people in avalanche backcountry put search and rescue in difficult position

Think carefully before heading out to a high-risk avalanche area because you will be putting search and rescue teams in a difficult position if you go missing.

Vernon search and rescue conducted a record 58 operations last year says search manager

A skier with a self-guided group triggered an avalanche that critically injured two people in the Esplanade mountain range north of Golden B.C. Sunday. (Golden and District Search and Rescue)

Think carefully before heading out to a high-risk avalanche area because you will be putting search and rescue teams in a difficult position if you go missing. That's the message to backcountry enthusiasts from B.C. Search and Rescue after this weekend's avalanche tragedy in the interior.

A snowmobiler died Saturday after getting caught with three others in an avalanche near Golden, B.C. The next day, 13 skiiers were struck by an avalanche in the same area, putting one of them in critical condition.

On Monday, six snowmobilers near Vernon were reported missing in a high-risk avalanche area, where a search and rescue helicopter later picked them up.

"The nature of the beast with search and rescue is we will go out and try to look for you," said Pete Wise, regional director of B.C. Search and Rescue.

But rescuers follow the rule that they will not put themselves in danger.

"We have to take into consideration that we always have to put the safety of the searchers first."

Search and rescue teams often enlist the help of an RCMP member, an avalanche dog, a doctor, and avalanche technicians, said Wise.  

'If they choose to go out, boy it's a tough situation'

Golden and District Search and Rescue, who responded to an size-3 avalanche in the East Quartz Creek on Feb. 20 that killed Calgary resident Nick Roberts, took this photo of the slide aftermath. (Golden and District Search and Rescue/Facebook)

Conditions for the past several days have been bad, with Avalanche Canada issuing a special warning on Friday for B.C.'s central and southern interior mountain ranges.

"The avalanche conditions that have been put out all week were extreme, beyond extreme," said Wise.

Wise says it's frustrating when people head out into the backcountry, not knowing the true risk of avalanches.

"There are so many instances where people go out there and they're not prepared. It just drives me crazy."

Avalanche Canada and search and rescue teams place a lot of emphasis on avalanche awareness every year in an effort to prevent avalanche deaths. But ultimately, the choice is not theirs to make.

"We do everything within our possible means to get the message out to these guys and the final aspect of it is ... it's all up to them," said Wise.

"If they choose to go out, boy it's a tough situation."

Avalanche Canada is asking people who do choose to go out, to take turns on slopes where there is a risk of avalanche.

"We're putting a lot of emphasis on making sure people expose only one person at a time on a slope, whether it's skiers, snowboarders or snowmobilers," said Gilles Valade, executive director of Avalanche Canada.

"Have the rest of the party standing by, ready to assist if necessary."

Declining death rate, more searches

Helicopters are used for search and rescue operations when the avalanche risk is too high for teams to search from the ground says Pete Wise, regional director for B.C. Search and Rescue. ((Sgts. Wayne Simpson and George Olynyk))

Despite this weekend's incidents, the number of avalanche deaths in Canada is decreasing says Avalanche Canada.

"I think after this weekend, it may be challenging to believe that they are, but if you look year to year in trends, … we know that the average is going down," said Valade.

Meanwhile, the number of search and rescue operations in the Okanagan has gone up, according to Wise, who is also the search manager in Vernon. 

"We had an all time record last year, we had 58 call outs."

The crew has received 12 calls so far this year, he said. 

To listen to the interview with Pete Wise, click the link labelled: 'It just drives me crazy:' one volunteer's frustration with backcountry searches.

To listen to the interview with Gilles Valade, click the link labelled: Number of avalanche deaths going down says Avalanche Canada.


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