Injuries in the backcountry are becoming more serious, says the manager of Whistler Search and Rescue.
"The snowmobiling incidents continue to be fairly severe in terms of trauma," said Whistler SAR team manager Brad Sills, reached ahead of the SAR Manager's Report presented at Tuesday night's Annual General Meeting.
"(We're seeing) multiple broken bones and collapsed lungs, things like that," he explained. "Gravity and velocity are two physical properties we should always be in awe of, and if you're riding a snowmobile at 80 kilometres an hour and the environment suddenly changes — you go over a windrow or something — that's an awful lot of force that's going to be exerted on your body.
"We see it both in extreme skiing and snowmobiling. Not everybody's cognizant of that. I don't think they would do those things in the conditions they do them sometimes if they thought about it. It amazes me that people would go that fast in poor light."
Statistically, the period between February 19, 2012 and Feb. 19, 2013 will rank around average in terms of calls for Whistler Search and Rescue, with the numbers fluctuating from a low of 24 to a high of 56 over the last 10 years. However, for the 34 calls that SAR members responded to, Sills said the level of trauma had increased noticeably. Snowmobiling is the main culprit, he said, and rescues are complicated by the fact that SAR teams have to travel further than in the past to respond.
In total, Whistler Search and Rescue received 70 calls during the annual reporting period. Of those calls, 34 resulted in the team mobilizing for searches and rescues, while the others were resolved in other ways. For example, if someone went missing on the backside of Whistler Mountain then search and rescue is notified even though there is a good chance the individual or group would ski or walk out on their own before morning.
Of those 34 calls, 31 required the use of helicopters, something Sills said is becoming more common as people head deeper into the backcountry than before.
Search and rescue calls consumed some 1,174 volunteer hours over the report year. Most cases required tactical responses due to injuries rather than searches, and medical evacuations by helicopter included five spinal injuries, three head injuries, five fractured limbs and two chest injuries.
Eight of the 34 calls were in response to snowmobile accidents, seven were in response to ski mountaineering accidents and five were in response to overdue skiers. The other calls were split between hikers, climbers, avalanches, overdue snowboarders, swiftwater searches, mountain biking accidents and motor vehicle accidents.
Four of the calls involved fatalities, including one cardiac arrest, one snowmobile death, one kayaker drowning and one combination of trauma and hypothermia. There were seven other cases that were considered critical.
Males continued to account for the majority of SAR cases, representing 44 of 53 people helped last year, though the percentage of females has risen in the last decade. Foreign nationals accounted for 13 of 53 subjects and the average age of subjects increased as well.
The trends that stood out most for Sills in the past year were the continued decline in snowboard related calls and the increase in trauma among snowmobilers — something he'd like to see addressed at a provincial level.
The province has started to licence and register snowmobiles, which must be insured by ICBC. However, Sills would also like to see more education.
"They should have to have a specialty driver's licence," he said. "I liken snow to other natural resources, like fish and wildlife where you need hunting permits or fishing permits, and you have to abide by the laws for management units where areas can be closed at certain times or permanently closed."
SAR frustrated by helipad response
Of the 31 rescues that involved helicopters, all but three had to land at the municipal helipad north of Emerald Estates, with the patients then transported on to the Whistler Health Care Centre by ambulance.
The helicopter landing pad at the Whistler Health Care Centre was recently renovated to bring it into compliance with Transport Canada regulations, a process that required the installation of a new de-icing system, the removal of trees and the installation of traffic stoplights.
However, the renovations stopped short of what would be required to allow single engine helicopters — the kind most often used by local heli-ski companies that are hired by Search and Rescue teams — to land there.
Sills said they were confident they could reach a solution, but a few weeks ago SAR received a letter stating that Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) would not pay for additional upgrades.
"Since last summer we've been working very closely with VCH and we were very much encouraged until about two weeks ago when we received the news that there just isn't the money," said Sills. "We wanted to develop a business case to justify the money required to do this, and this is in spite of offers from Whistler SAR to spearhead some community support and find the funding ourselves if we can."
The required work to allow single-engine helicopters to land includes topping some trees along Fitzsimmons Creek and further changes to the traffic lights, among other things.
With SAR members responding to life-and-death situations, Sills said the decision does not sit well with team members.
"It's just really disturbing for all the volunteers who drop everything and go to the aid of somebody, only to find out that you're flying over the clinic and out to the municipal helipad," he said.
Sills added that Transport Canada would probably approve the work if it had the backing of VCH. "I think they should take our request more seriously to get on with this and re-establish single engine access," he said.
"We had it for 25 years... it's just surprising in a town with such an active population and with all the activities here that (VCH) doesn't recognize that this is a requirement."
Garibaldi Park plans, alpine mountain biking on SAR radar
Recently, BC Parks reopened the management plan for Garibaldi Provincial Park to look at different options for access. Among the proposed amendments are a hut system and trail network through the Spearhead Traverse, and changes that would allow mountain biking in the Musical Bumps.
Sills said the proposals will likely increase traffic in those areas, which will in turn increase SAR calls.
"There's no doubt about it, if you look at the statistics you can see that search and rescue is just a numbers game," he said. "When you put more people out there you're going to have more calls."
The Spearhead Range represented nine calls in the report year, followed by the backside of Whistler with five. The only other area with more than two calls was Powder Mountain with five.
"We've encouraged the province to take a hard look at what kind of safety network is in place around the expansion of the entire traverse," said Sills. "It's complex terrain... and we think that it's a consideration that should be examined when and if the project moves forward."
June 17, 2013, 5:00 PM
Social services, church and housing being built by Sea to Sky Community Services and United Church More...
June 17, 2013, 11:15 AM
Market opens with vendor numbers at maximum More...
June 16, 2013, 12:30 AM
67-kilometre mountain bike race sees 871 racers at the start More...