It may be expensive and dangerous to rescue people who get into trouble skiing or snowboarding in areas deemed out of bounds by an alpine resort, but search and rescue workers say criminalizing such incidents would be a big mistake.
On Sunday, a 33-year-old man went missing for more than two days after he apparently crossed the ski boundary at Cypress Mountain Resort, north of Vancouver, and snowboarded in the direction of a nearby creek.
Sebastien Boucher was unable to retrace his steps back to the ski slope, it seems, and wound up wandering the mountainside until he was spotted in a deep ravine by a rescue helicopter early Tuesday evening.
'The media and the public look at it as though the person has done a bad thing and should be charged. That causes us no end of grief.' —Dwight Yochim, Coquitlam Search and Rescue manager
After a difficult trek by rescuers over land, Boucher was transported out of the wilderness by a Cormorant military helicopter and taken to hospital, where he was said to be in good condition with no major injuries.
"Mr. Boucher made the mistakes of someone who has a disregard for their own safety and the safety of others," Cypress Mountain said in a statement Wednesday.
The cost of such rescue operations are borne by the province. They can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars and can pose considerable risks to rescuers asked to brave rough terrain and unforgiving weather, said Dwight Yochim, a manager with Coquitlam Search and Rescue.
But he argues that fining or taking other legal steps against anyone who chases fresh snow into dangerous territory would backfire.
"What concerns us is the media and the public look at it as though the person has done a bad thing and should be charged for it. That causes us no end of grief," Yochim said by phone.
"People who hear about the threat of getting charged — we’re afraid that if something like that comes in it may cause family and friends to launch a search, which could be fatal," because of the dangers involved, he said.
Ian Cunnings, a specialist with Emergency Management BC Search and Rescue, agreed, writing in a statement to CBC News that a fine system might make people less likely to seek help.
Neighbouring Washington state passed a law last year allowing authorities to slap skiers or snowboarders with fines of up to $1,000 for using out-of-bounds areas at a ski resort. Alaska also has a law on the books prohibiting skiing on closed slopes and trails, or outside of designated ski zones at a resort.
Cunning said that, to his knowledge, the province has never billed a rescue victim, though there have been instances where ski hills did. Cypress Mountain said it will forward a bill for $10,000 to Boucher to recover costs and donate the funds to search and rescue.
Yochim said there are other ways of dealing with the problem. Skiers or snowboarders can be made to purchase insurance that would cover their rescue. Or ski resorts can take stiffer measures such as banning customers who venture into forbidden areas, as they have done on some occasions.
Raising public awareness about the dangers of leaving groomed trails at a ski resort may help too, Cunning said.
"We want to be clear that government cannot do this alone," he said. "There needs to be a shift in thinking, and personal responsibility starts with the individual."
Many people on the slopes don’t realize the extent of the risks they’re taking when they leave designated ski areas, said Lawrence White, executive director at the Alpine Club of Canada.
"For people to be cavalier about jumping out of bounds in any of those resorts [near Vancouver], they’re going to get in trouble," White said.
People who want to go backcountry skiing should prepare by taking an avalanche course, invest in the right gear and consider using a company that specializes in guiding such treks, he advised.
"You check the avalanche forecast. You go with the knowledge of what you’re going to get yourself into," he said.
"Unfortunately people just get in over their head."