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Wilderness rescuers brace for a busy winter

As COVID-19 pushes people into the backcountry, Search and Rescue groups from the Pacific Northwest to the Sea to Sky expect to see a spike in rescues this winter
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Wilderness rescuers brace for a busy winter Story by Jane C. Hu / High Country News

Every winter, volunteers from Seattle Mountain Rescue are dispatched to the sites of dozens of harrowing incidents: They rescue backcountry skiers buried in avalanches, help injured hikers descend slick trails—and once, they even removed the wreckage of a single-engine plane from a mountainside. Volunteers must tackle steep, avalanche-prone mountain terrain, carrying the requisite gear to ward off hypothermia. Once on the scene, they rig anchors and ropes to carry out rescues, a time-intensive project that often lasts until after dark. “I can’t think of a time I didn’t come out in a headlamp during a winter mission,” said Cheri Higman, chairperson of the organization.

And this winter may be harder than usual, thanks to COVID-19. Owing to the pandemic, outdoor recreation skyrocketed this summer, and that trend is projected to continue into the winter. As a result, backcountry first responders are preparing for a potential rise in rescues, especially given the forecast for a particularly snowy winter in the Northwest. “We are anticipating there will be an uptick in accidents,” Higman said.

As soon as a wilderness emergency is reported in Washington, county sheriffs dispatch search and rescue volunteers. In King County, where Seattle is located, the sheriff may call one of nine all-volunteer units that make up the King County Search and Rescue Association. Each has its own specialty: building anchors with ropes and rigging kits for steep alpine rescues, tracking lost people, or transporting other rescuers on all-terrain vehicles. The association has more than 500 responders on its roster, though only about 25 per cent of them are trained to work in snowy terrain.

In addition to assisting with missions, Seattle Mountain Rescue typically holds a number of trainings and workshops throughout the year. This winter, concerned about early snow, it began training six weeks earlier than usual. But, Higman said, new volunteer enrolment has been down this year, in part because the organization had to abandon a recruitment round after the pandemic hit in the spring. Like other outdoor organizations, Seattle Mountain Rescue moved most of its training online; it’s also had to cancel in-person community workshops on treating cold injuries and training for winter navigation, which can help decrease the need for rescues. 

The pandemic restrictions could be a problem as more recreationists head outside. By October, the King County Search and Rescue Association had already conducted 191 rescues, compared with a total of 198 for all of 2019. Search-and-rescue groups in other Western states, including California, Utah and Colorado, were also stretched thin over the summer.

And this winter, many of the people hitting the slopes are likely new to backcountry adventures. With many ski areas limiting ticket sales in response to COVID-19, and resorts in New Mexico and Colorado already selling out of passes, retailers are reporting an uptick in backcountry gear sales. For instance, Evo action sports company, with stores in Seattle, Portland, Denver and Salt Lake City, has seen its April-to-October sales for ski-touring equipment like boots, bindings and skins increase by 120 per cent compared to the same period in 2019. “We see customers that are looking to provide themselves with options,” said Laura Holman, Evo’s assistant buyer.

Organizations that train recreationists are also preparing for a busy year, but COVID-19 has forced them to adapt. The Northwest Avalanche Center, which typically offers avalanche awareness courses to about 10,000 people annually, has pivoted to an online-only format. Similarly, The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based alpine club, has taken its basic avalanche safety classes online, with in-person field practices limited to small groups. Those courses are filling up fast, making it challenging to balance the demand with the COVID restrictions, said Mountaineers CEO Tom Vogl: “We’re all trying to figure out how we can offer as many courses as possible while continuing to contain the spread of the virus.”

Scott Schell, the executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center, hopes that the abrupt move to digital education will actually allow more people to take part. The center’s 14th-annual Northwest Snow and Avalanche workshop went online for the first time this year, and attendance was higher than ever before. “Avalanche awareness and education in general is now more accessible than ever to people in rural areas, [who] have historically been underserved,” said Schell.

Meanwhile, many of the Northwest’s best-known outdoor organizations are teaming up to coordinate a message for recreationists looking for safe but snowy fun this year. Their advice: Always check avalanche forecasts, carry an avalanche shovel, probe, transceiver and other necessary gear, and seek training whenever possible. Schell said that it’s a common misconception that popular summer hiking trails are safe to snowshoe in the winter. “Snowshoeing is not the wintertime equivalent of hiking,” he said. “You’ve got to have a winter mindset, and that involves the ability to identify avalanche terrain, and when it’s appropriate to be there.”

Jane C. Hu is a contributing editor for High Country News and an independent journalist who writes about science, technology and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle. This story originally appeared in High Country News on Nov. 11, 2020.

Preparing for the pandemic wave in B.C.’s backcountry

By Megan Lalonde

Almost five years have passed since the day Dave Crompton and his friends found themselves gravely in need of rescue from B.C.’s backcountry.

It happened on the first full day of what was to be a seven-day ski touring trip through the Selkirk Mountains, near Golden. Though all members of the Canmore-based group had fundamental avalanche training—some had more extensive backcountry experience than others—the skiers had hired a certified guide to lead them through the unfamiliar terrain.

As the last skier in the 13-person group began to descend a steep, narrow chute, a massive avalanche was triggered.

Five people were fully buried. Five more were partially buried, while two people narrowly escaped getting caught in the slide. Only one skier was standing in a protected, treed area when the slope gave way.

Bones were broken, knees and shoulders torn, brains injured.

One member of the group, Doug Churchill, never recovered. Despite being dug out by his peers in less than 10 minutes, he died in a Calgary hospital three days later.

Crompton and friends Mitch Putnam and Sheila Churchill—Doug’s wife—are now focusing their efforts on a newly launched initiative born from the tragedy, called Backcountry Safe.

“We have accepted that the avalanche that took Doug’s life was the result of many errors—both from our guide and to an extent ourselves,” Backcountry Safe’s founders acknowledge on its website. Through sharing their story and detailing those mistakes, the friends are working to foster “honest and open dialogue between all backcountry users, from recreationalists to professionals,” that they hope can prevent similar tragedies from happening to others. With support from the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, it also aims to bring about greater accountability to Canada’s alpine guiding practice.

The initiative couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Sheila explains in a 30-minute documentary posted to Backcountry Safe’s site (scroll to the bottom to watch it.) “We know that this winter, there’s going to be a lot more people in the backcountry, and we need people to learn from our avalanche and our experience.”

SAR volunteers expecting ‘a lot of missed dinners’

Like their American counterparts, local rescuers expect to see more people than ever seeking out backcountry adventures this winter.

There are several factors leading to this projection, chief among them COVID-19, the deadly virus that’s proven to spread faster indoors. But with bigger crowds in the backcountry comes an increased need for search and rescue. These not-for-profit organizations are staffed entirely by volunteers, who drop everything to help when someone is lost or injured in the wilderness.

“I don’t think any emergency response agency or group in the corridor isn’t fully prepared for an onslaught,” said Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) manager Brad Sills. “Every indicators there that it’s going to be very, very busy, so we’re kind of just resigned to the fact that there’s going to be a lot of missed dinners and nights where you don’t come home.”

In what is likely a preview for the winter ahead, Sills estimated that more than 150 people each day headed up to Hanging Lake on Nov. 28 and Nov. 29. To put it into context, that number is “somewhere in the magnitude of at least a five-time growth in that area,” he explained.

The remarkably high number of people flocking to B.C.’s trails over the summer came alongside an unprecedented number of calls for Squamish Search and Rescue (SSAR) crews, as well. “Our 2020 has been the busiest year for us ever on record, and so we’re expecting that trend to continue through the winter season,” explained SSAR president Gerald Wolfe.

As of Nov. 17, Squamish crews had responded to 114 callouts since the calendar year kicked off. Previously, the record was 104 calls throughout the whole of 2018. Though the Pemberton Search and Rescue Society (PSAR) has not yet experienced the same overwhelming uptick in calls as its Squamish equivalent, all available evidence prompted PSAR president Pete Schimek to make this prediction:

“It’s going to be a full-time, unpaid job for us this winter,” he said.

“Hopefully people that are going out there are being smart and aren’t going to need our services, but we don’t really have much control over that.”

Ready to rise to the challenge

Unlike the SAR crews currently experiencing volunteer shortages south of the border, those in the Sea to Sky corridor appear to be well manned.

In Whistler, volunteer levels rarely change year-over-year thanks to a stable group of experienced, highly trained rescuers.

A few kilometres down the highway in Squamish, SSAR is even in the process of recruiting new members to join its 65-member team.  

Wolfe said the crew is accepting applications until the end of December, “because we recognize the need to have more members going forward as our call volume increases.”

Pemberton’s team is also growing: According to Schimek, a new seven-person crew has recently been established in Lillooet, joining the 27-member squad that will remain based in Pemberton proper. Throughout the corridor, “We’ve got really well-trained, competent people,” explained Schimek. “A lot of them do work in the industry of ski patrollers and avalanche technicians so they’re staying up to speed on avalanche-type work.

“We’re lucky that way.”

Each SAR group was also able to keep up with its preparatory training sessions throughout the fall months, though the sessions—like pretty much every other event, meeting or appointment these days—were moved online whenever possible.

Tips to stay safe and ease the burden on local first responders

Itching to get out into the backcountry this winter? Complete your own fair share of prep beforehand, say Sea to Sky SAR leaders.

“Do your avalanche courses, make sure you’re well equipped,” advised Schimeck. “Leave an itinerary with somebody.”

Schimeck lauded BC AdventureSmart’s trip-planning app, which allows users to build an itinerary and send it to a friend before setting off. That way, “they have a good idea of where you are, what you have with you and if something happened to you then we, of course, can get that information and would have a better idea of how to respond to a task,” he said.

When venturing into avalanche-prone terrain, always be sure to pack safety gear like a transceiver, probe and shovel (and make sure you know how to use it), along with extra food, water and warm layers. With higher volumes of calls anticipated, wait times for rescues will likely rise too, warns Sills, “so you better have a sleeping bag and extra clothes.”

Particularly in the context of an ongoing pandemic that has the potential to place enormous amounts of pressure on the province’s healthcare system, this winter is not the time to push the limit, Sills added. “Don’t make the big moves, and try to come home for dinner every night.”  

For those planning to dip their toes into the world of ski-touring, splitboarding, snowmobiling or snowshoeing for the first time, Sills recommends joining one of B.C.’s many backcountry clubs and taking part in the training courses they typically offer.

“If you can’t do that, for whatever reason, then definitely you must have at least—as a minimum—an AST 1 [avalanche skills training] course before you think about leaving the ski area,” he cautioned.

Sills also recommended finding a solid crew of more experienced friends to learn from. “I’ve been doing this for 44 years here in the corridor. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not learning something new,” he said.

Though backcountry rookies should absolutely heed Sills’ advice, there’s also wisdom to be found in Crompton’s tragic experience: Surrounding yourself with mentors is crucial when you’re getting started in the backcountry, but the presence of someone more experienced is never an excuse to let your guard down.

It’s a lesson Crompton and his Backcountry Safe co-founders learned the hard way.

In filmed interviews posted to the site, the friends admit to relying too heavily on their guide to make safe decisions, even when they had their own extensive experience to lean on.

When asked what he would change if he could turn back the clock, Crompton said, “I would really question going with a group that large, for starters.”

Whether you’re skiing with a guide or not, “you have to really understand your group, but you also have to understand yourself,” he added.

“If you’re relatively new [to the backcountry] and you’re with a guide or someone who’s really experienced, you’re deferring to that individual, and you’re putting all your trust in them. That’s not ideal, because you really should have the knowledge; you should have the training yourself.”

- With files from Steven Chua / Squamish Chief