Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Searching for a legacy

Search and rescue in Whistler has come a long way in the last 50 years—thanks in part to lessons learned from a fatal avalanche in 1972

[Editor’s Note: For Part 1 of this story, 'They just vanished,' check out last week’s print edition of Pique, or find it online.]

The team of about a dozen was on the west side of Whistler Mountain, probing an old avalanche path for anything solid, when Jamie Pike heard a sound overhead. 

It was an overcast April morning in 1972, and the group was part of about 120 volunteers and professionals who’d been searching the alpine terrain in and around the resort for hours. Four Vancouver skiers had been reported missing Saturday evening after failing to ski out, following a heavy afternoon storm. 

The mood was grim. What began as a search for lost or injured friends had transformed into a recovery mission, after it was concluded an avalanche was the most likely explanation for the skiers’ disappearances. 

Pike was standing alongside fellow searchers at the base of what was then called Far West Bowl when a noise prompted him to look up. Snow began pouring over a cliff, about 30 to 40 metres upslope from where he was standing. “I watched it impact the top of our slope and a subsequent fracture line go across the top. I shouted a warning and hopped around into a tuck, straight down the mountain, easing off to the south when I could,” he recalls. “When I was able to look around, the avalanche had travelled twice as far as I had.

"The only reason there wasn’t a greater disaster that day was that the avalanche simply missed us."

Pike adds, “The person at the north end of the probe line, closest to the avalanche, had fallen as he tried to turn and ski away from it. He was about a metre away from the edge of the avalanche path.”

The powerful, quick-moving slide continued for kilometres down the mountainside and took out everything in its path, aside from the searchers who miraculously managed to get out of the way. As they’d soon come to understand, a second search party exploring higher-elevation terrain directly over Pike’s group had triggered the avalanche. “The obvious lesson was that search coordination needs to know where every party is,” explains Al Whitney, who was probing alongside Pike when the slab released. 

The searchers later skied out over the avalanche path, where “the rubble had set like concrete,” Pike remembers. “I gained a great respect for the power of avalanches that day that served me well for the rest of my days in the mountains.”

It was one of several near-misses illustrating the hectic nature of the two-day effort that culminated in the retrieval of four bodies from Whistler’s Harmony zone, with the help of an RCMP dog. (A fact that would eventually inspire one Whistler patroller to found the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, but more on that later.) 

In its immediate aftermath, the tragedy highlighted Whistler’s existing need for a rescue group that could rapidly deploy and save the lives of mountaineers, hikers and skiers in the backcountry and challenging terrain, recalled Cliff Jennings in an email earlier this year. 

He, alongside fellow Whistler locals Dave Cathers, Stephen Les, Trudy Alder (then Salmhofer) and Paul Burrows, would go on to found Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR)—initially dubbed Alta Lake Search and Rescue—that same year. Ever since, the organization and its crew of highly-trained volunteers has been tasked with finding and saving the many people who find themselves lost, injured or otherwise in need of help in the Sea to Sky’s unforgiving backcountry. In those 50 years, Whistler SAR has saved thousands of lives—and, just as important, offered closure to dozens of loved ones.  

A coordinated search-and-rescue organization wouldn’t have made a difference in whether the four lost skiers—Heather and Peter Howard, Dave McPhedran and Gerry Schlotzhauer—survived the 1972 avalanche in Harmony Bowl. 

“They were killed on impact,” acknowledges Heather’s brother, Chris Patrick. “But the system would have been set up far better to search for them.” 

Humble beginnings  

Whistler—or Alta Lake, as it was then known—was a very different place half a century ago. When Whistler Mountain first opened to the public in January 1966, any search-and-rescue demands fell to ski patrol. But in the years leading up to the fatal slide, the establishment of an auxiliary search-and-rescue group was already beginning organically, remembers Burrows, WSAR co-founder and former patroller.

Without cell phones or internet, “Everything was very basic and very primitive,” says Burrows, over the phone from his home in Salmon Arm, adding, “There were only five of us [patrollers] to control the whole mountain. And so … we had to get others involved in the community.”

WSAR began as “kind of an ad hoc thing,” Burrows explains, “where you just knew somebody who knew what they were doing and wasn’t in danger of [setting off] a search for themself, rather than looking for somebody else, in the process.” As more people began visiting Alta Lake and smaller numbers began venturing into the backcountry, “The whole genesis of the search-and-rescue issue at Whistler is that it was a gradual reaction to the need of the day.”

Eventually, the organization was designated a member of B.C.’s Provincial Emergency Program and earned non-profit status. By the time current WSAR president Brad Sills joined the organization’s ranks in 1973, “it was a pretty ragtag crew,” he recalls. Even still, search team leaders like Jennings and Cathers were “very good role models” to the rest of the group, who, like a lot of Alta Lake residents at the time, were squatting throughout the valley, says Sills. “But we were climbing and we were ski touring and we were doing all those things,” he adds. “We definitely wanted to help, we just didn’t have telephones or anything.”

A call for help would normally reach the RCMP detachment in Squamish first. “Typically, they would phone somebody up here to see if they could get any help and the person up here would usually call the Boot Pub and see who was around,” says Sills with a laugh. Word would eventually reach the fire department, and travel on from there. “During the winter, everybody would know where to go. Somebody would come around to the squat, knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” says Sills. 

SAR training provided by the province would only come into play about a decade later, meaning volunteers had to rely on their climbing and mountaineering experience. They’d also have to rely on their personal gear, Sills remembers, from hauling in their own climbing ropes to packing their own lunch. 

“The first meeting I went to, I remember, the team owned two radios, a rope, and a backpack,” he says. In terms of both equipment and coordination, “it’s come a long, long, long way.”

One major shift came in 1994, after Ann Marie Potton went for a Thanksgiving Day hike on Whistler Mountain and never returned. 

The search for Potton—an avid outdoors person and a recent university graduate who had moved to Whistler for a year from Ontario—lasted seven days. It was, at the time, the largest search ever in B.C. history, Sills told writer Dawn Green for a feature story celebrating WSAR’s 40th anniversary, published in Pique in 2012. “We had well over 125 people every day ... It was very intensive, and yet at the end of seven days it yielded no results.”

Potton’s body was discovered in Glacier Bowl the following year. Severely injured, she had crawled under the rock where she ultimately died, hidden from view. “An ice storm had ensued, which would have encrusted her in a layer of ice, sealing her body from scent and making it virtually impossible, even with dogs and infrared, to find her,” wrote Green. 

The incident and subsequent search effort not only strengthened WSAR’s relationship with other emergency responders in the corridor, but boosted the organization’s budget. Prior to the search for Potton, WSAR’s annual budget was $4,000. The following year, it expanded to $40,000.

In 2022, WSAR’s annual budget is set at approximately $325,000, says Sills. Only about $87,000 is funded by government. WSAR’s busy crew of expert volunteers, all of whom spend about 200 hours training and responding to calls each year, is currently comprised of 27 full members and 14 members in training.

Even five decades later, Sills says lessons from the fatal slide in 1972 still apply—particularly when it comes to the internal battle to keep responders’ safety at the forefront of any rescue mission. “We still fight it on every call,” he says. “There’s something about an avalanche call that sets people’s hair on fire. Even practiced SAR people tend to get very, very excited … It sets you off, because the timeframe is such that, you know you have to do something immediately, even if it’s not the most prudent thing to do.”

DOG DAYS 

Today, the crew responding to one of those avalanche calls almost always includes a four-legged member, certified by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA).

In 1972, it was an RCMP tracking dog named Rocky and his handler, Cpl. Dale Marino, responsible for locating the four victims under avalanche debris in Whistler’s Harmony zone. Despite the fact that Parks Canada had trained dogs on hand in case of a slide and Rocky wasn’t specifically trained for avalanche purposes, it was among the first instances in Canada of a dog taking part in an avalanche recovery call, following similar instances in Fernie and Jasper earlier in 1971 and 1972, respectively. 

The incident—coupled with his own experience being partially buried and having to dig out a colleague without shovels or probes after a 1978 slide off Whistler Peak—sparked an idea for then-Whistler patroller Bruce Watt. It had taken days for Cpl. Marino and his dog, based in Nanaimo, to join the search effort. So, Watt thought, why not train an avalanche response dog as part of Whistler’s patrol team? 

“There was no real avalanche training, really, in those days. So it kind of spurred me on to think, ‘Well, we need to be able to have better rescue gear,’ and the dog was the ultimate rescue gear to have.”

Watt adds, “If an avalanche comes down and you don’t know if there’s anybody in it, you can send a dog in and they’ll search that area very quickly, so you don’t have to put a probe line in and you don’t have to put people in danger under cornices or hangfire.”

Watt brought the proposal to lift company president Franz Wilhelmsen. Whistler Mountain had already committed to increased snow-safety measures following the fatal spring avalanche in ’72, bringing up an expert from Alpine Meadows, Calif. named Norm Wilson to help develop an avalanche safety and control plan and outfitting patrollers with transceivers. The lift company also started working with the National Research Council to complete avalanche studies and had begun developing an avalanche-forecasting program, explains Watt. 

But when it came to an avalanche dog, “Franz wanted an actual piece of paper that said, ‘Hey, you are legally allowed to be on that slide path,’” recalls Watt. “So that was our first goal, to get that piece of paper. And we did, but it took about four or five years to actually get that through all the red tape.”

Watt found a dog, a German shepherd he named Radar, and started connecting with RCMP dog masters—including Cpl. Marino—for training tips. 

“But when it really mattered, they said, ‘Well, we can’t just allow you to come to these RCMP courses all the time, why don’t you form an organization of your own? So that’s where the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association started, so that we could get those validations and stay up to date on a yearly basis—because that’s what all dog handlers have to do," Watt explains. Alongside Rod Pendlebury, a Fernie-based patroller Watt met through B.C.’s informal avalanche forecasting network, Watt officially co-founded the non-profit organization in 1982, with the mission to train and validate avalanche dogs. 

Watt and Radar eventually became the first civilian handler and dog team to be certified for helicopter long-line rescue. “That was kind of a big deal at the time,” says Watt. “Now, of course, everybody uses that and it’s a really effective way to get in and be safe about getting into the slide, and getting the dog on that debris fast.” For years, the pair would respond to both Whistler Ski Patrol and WSAR calls. 

Today, the program has grown significantly at Whistler Blackcomb in particular, with two dogs working on the mountain each day and space for about 10 in total, says Watt. 

The biggest mark of success for CARDA, and for Watt’s efforts, came in December 2000, in Fernie, when Robin Siggers and his dog Keno carried out the first live recovery in Canadian history. 

“It took a while, and you know, there hasn’t been another one since,” says Watt.

“It’s hard to get people out of avalanches quickly, but the dog was right there. It was quite an emotional thing—we were pretty pumped up about that. 

“We always said ‘If we could only just save one life, it would be all worth it.’ Well, we did. It was great.”