British Columbia

Whistler Search and Rescue crews respond to rising number of emergency calls

A surge in backcountry skiing and snowmobiling in Whistler has lead to a 22 per cent increase in emergency call for help, according to Whistler Search and Rescue

'We see far more trauma then we ever used to,' says Whistler search and rescue manager

Whistler Search and Rescue responded to 56 calls for help between March 2017 and 2018. (Whistler Search and Rescue)

As the number of visitors to Whistler increases year-over-year, so too do the calls coming into Whistler Search and Rescue, which says a surge in backcountry skiing, snowmobiling and mountain biking has led to a 20 per cent increase in emergency responses over the previous year.

Between March 7, 2017 and March 4, 2018, there were 56 incidents where search and rescue assistance was required, up from 46 the year before, according to Whistler Search and Rescue.

Increase in trauma calls

"We see far more trauma then we ever used to — and so that created a training shift of significant proportions," said Brad Sills, manager for Whistler Search and Rescue.

Two physicians joined the Whistler Search and Rescue team five years ago to deal with the increase in call volume, as well as an increase in the complexities of various traumas that were responded to.

The team of 32 volunteers train weekly, practicing and updating their skills in mountain, avalanche and swift water safety.

A Whistler Search and Rescue 2018 manager's report released March 6, shows snowmobiling was the "single largest contributor to trauma by activity," with 11 call outs, including one death.

The founding member of Nanaimo's Search and Rescue was killed February 14 near Whistler, when a ledge of snow fell from under him, sending him down a hill.

Karl Baker was snowmobiling with a group near Mount Callaghan, northwest of the village, when he stopped on a cornice that suddenly gave way. 

The rise in search and rescue calls coincides with a surge in visitors to the resort.

The town has seen a dizzying growth, with visits up 59 per cent over a ten-year period. The 2016/17 season saw close to 3.5 million visitors compared to 2.2 million in 2006/2007.

In February, oudoor enthusiast Karl Baker was killed after a ledge of snow he was on gave way near Whistler. (CHEK News)

Changing demographics

Sills said the demographics of those who get into trouble in the outdoors has shifted in the last decade.

Ten years ago, the call volume was more heavily weighted to young males aged 15-25. That has since changed.

"We've seen it in the 30 to 40-year-old range ... that has increased substantially," said Sills. "The teenage boys got older."

Calls for females on the rise

And last year, females made up 40 per cent of search and rescue responses in Whistler. Sills said ten years ago, calls for trauma or injury among females were few and far between.

In April, 2016, the body of a 48-year-old woman was found at the base of a 25-metre cliff in the West Ridge area on Whistler Mountain. The local woman was found by another skier.

The report noted there was a rise in the number of mountain bike incidents, but noted this was likely an anomoly due to newly created venues on Rainbow and Sproatt mountains.

Foreign nationals represented 22 of the response calls, while 14 were from B.C. residents. Whistler locals accounted for 11, and the remaining 15 were from other Canadian areas.

Over the course of the 2016-2017 season, the report said the Whistler Search and Rescue recorded 1,115 hours of volunteer effort.