Avalanche underlines risks 

Search and Rescue to propose radio repeater in Garibaldi Provincial Park to expand coverage on backside of Whistler

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARK STEFFENS - Happy ENDING A snowboarder regained consciousness after being buried for four minutes in a backcountry avalanche  on Blackcomb Mountain on Tuesday.
  • Photo by Mark Steffens
  • Happy ENDING A snowboarder regained consciousness after being buried for four minutes in a backcountry avalanche on Blackcomb Mountain on Tuesday.

A skier and two snowboarders are counting themselves lucky after being caught in the tail end of an avalanche on the Spearhead Glacier, just past the Corona Bowl area in the backcountry of Blackcomb Mountain.

The avalanche, which appeared to have been triggered by a snowboarder hiking across the top of the pitch, travelled about 250 metres down, hitting the group as they preparing to hike up and across the bowl toward the Husume descent that leads back into the Blackcomb Glacier.

Two members of the group, a skier and snowboarder, were partially buried while the third member of their group was completely buried by snow with only part of his snowboard still visible. There was a group of four skiers in the area that helped with the rescue, while the snowboarder that started the slide also descended to assist.

Blackcomb patrollers got an emergency call about 11:20 a.m. and flew out by helicopter immediately with an on-mountain doctor and Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) into the backcountry area.

The missing male was found unconscious by friends after a search of roughly four minutes, but regained consciousness before help arrived. All three of those hit by the slide were flown to the municipal helipad north of Whistler and then transported to the Whistler Health Care Centre as a precautionary measure.

The Whistler RCMP noted that the men were prepared for the backcountry, and urged people to be extremely cautious in the backcountry as the danger rating rises.

Whistler resident Mark Steffens, and his friends, had just left the area when the avalanche happened.

"We didn't hear it at all," said Steffens adding that his group was on its last zig-zag up into Husume when a member of the group saw the slide.

Not long before they had traversed across the exact slope the avalanche, estimated to be a Class 2 (big enough to bury and kill people) had occurred.

"We all took off our skins and went down to help," said Steffens, a manager for a German engineering firm, adding that after they returned to Whistler they sat and talked about what had happened for over an hour.

"We were all fairly shaken.

"As a group we are all pretty risk adverse, we are not cowboys... We have the equipment, we have done the courses, the (avalanche) conditions were moderate. All the conditions seemed favourable.

"But this just shows you that you can have all the training, have done everything right and things can still go horribly wrong."

Said WSAR manager Brad Sills: "The group seemed to be well-prepared and managed the self-rescue... this all turned out well in the end and that is a tribute to this groups' preparedness.

"But as we head into spring this is a good reminder that even when conditions are good the utmost caution is needed... in route selection and preparedness, as always."

Meanwhile in an effort to help save lives in the nearby backcountry of Whistler Mountain, WSAR plans to submit a proposal to build a radio tower in Garibaldi Provincial Park.

"Something that allows the signal to bounce back into the backend of the Spearhead and down to Cheakamus Lake because when we go in there we have no radio communication or cell. We have no communication at all," said Sills.

"We have no way of relaying the status of the injury. We have no way of saying what else we need. We can't signal out if we ourselves get into trouble. It really is a major deficiency."

Called a radio repeater, the tower allows communication between two or more bases that are unable to communicate directly due to distances or obstacles such as mountains.

WSAR has yet to figure out the best location for the tower, which Sills describes as six-feet in diameter, typically in the shape of a fiberglass cone. He suggested places close to Helm Lake or Upper Isosceles Creek within the park boundaries. A study must be completed to find that best location and then a proposal will be submitted to BC Parks.

Communication is fairly good everywhere else in the Sea to Sky corridor except for that area, said Sills.

"The Spearhead is the single most (frequent) place Whistler Search and Rescue goes to," he said. "The backside of Whistler (areas like the Cakehole that funnel down to Cheakamus Lake) is right up there.

"If you can't reach out to somebody, it could get really serious, really quickly."

Sills estimates those two areas, cut off from communication, account for about 40 per cent of WSAR's call volume.

The radio repeater is estimated to cost $75,000. WSAR will have to fundraise or submit grant applications for the money.

Sills said that in addition to doing the studies, WSAR has been waiting for a decision around the Spearhead Huts proposal, which would result in three new mountain huts and connecting trails along the Spearhead Traverse route.

That proposal now sits with BC Parks and proponents are awaiting a decision. The completion of the park's final management plan amendment is expected in April.

"We're waiting to see where that proposal fits," said Sills.

"Once that's in place, the call volume is going to increase."

— With files from Alison Taylor, Clare Ogilvie and Andrew Mitchell

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