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Community ralies to support Search and Rescue

34 years after it was founded, Whistler SAR gets a permanent home and sees biggest fundraiser ever

Thirty-five years ago four friends were on Whistler Mountain’s well-skied Back Bowl area (now known as Harmony) in the eye of a sudden snow squall.

It was a Saturday afternoon in early April, the storm so intense you couldn’t see your hand held up an arm’s length away. It would have been impossible for the four, who were described as excellent skiers, to see a fracture line in the snow or predict that a cornice above was about to give way.

In just one moment they were all swept away in an avalanche.

A massive response was mounted after the four were reported missing. Patrollers, ski instructors, RCMP officers, mountain employees and volunteers, numbering about 100, some from as far away as Victoria, rallied to search in stormy conditions.

This was 1972. Whistler, the resort municipality, didn’t even exist, and only a few hundred people called this community home.

Two days later the bodies of the four friends were found over a 30 foot by 15 foot area, buried under four-feet of snow.

The event, the first of its kind on Whistler Mountain, was to change the course of history in the little community of Alta Lake.

Dave Cathers, president of Whistler Search and Rescue, remembers it was a “rude awakening.”

In addition to the tragedy sparking an avalanche program on the mountain, it marked the beginning of the local Search and Rescue group.

“(We realized) there was a need for a secondary rescue group that was basically going to help out the patrol as well as do the backcountry,” said Cathers. “We were formed under the Provincial Emergency Program.”

Cathers, 61, has been part of that group, which was officially formed the year following the deadly avalanche, for more than half his life. That’s 34 years of putting his life on the line to help others who are lost or stranded or in tricky situations, and all of it is done on a volunteer basis.

All 4,700 SAR members in B.C. are volunteers who get their meals and gas money reimbursed by Victoria during search operations. That’s it. They are expected to buy their own equipment and leave their jobs when calls arise.

When asked why he’s a part of it, why he dedicates 250 or more hours a year to the program both in training and in calls, Cathers is quick to answer.

“Anybody can put themselves in a position like that, where you go out and hurt yourself,” he said. “And it’s always nice to know that there’s some sort of resources that might come out and get you. It’s sort of a comradeship.”

Which is perhaps why the community rallies to support its local SAR chapter.

Last month at Wine’d Up, SAR’s annual fundraising gala evening at Dusty’s, more than $42,000 was raised — the biggest take ever for SAR.

“We enjoy fantastic support from the community and I would suggest that most of that comes from the fact that everybody recognizes that it is volunteer,” said long-term member Brad Sills.

It hasn’t always been easy, particularly in the early days. But an event in 1994, 20 years after its inception, became the turning point for the organization.

It was Thanksgiving weekend and Ann Marie Potton, 24, boarded the Whistler gondola to go hiking at the peak. It was an ordinary crisp fall day.

She never returned.

Another massive search was launched, although SAR members were frustrated by an initial lack of information about where to start looking on the mountain.

A week later the searchers and dog teams were forced to stop looking due to a rising snowpack and no clues.

It was a chilling reminder to everyone who ventures into the mountains, even in an area that’s “in bounds” and not technically the backcountry, that anything can happen when you’re out there.

“I would say it was… the turning point for search and rescue, where we actually got some more funding and more equipment,” recalls Cathers. “There was always searches before that but that was the one that sort of put us on the map.”

One year later Potton’s body was found. It is believed she fell and broke her leg while trying to get down the Whistler Glacier and tried to seek refuge in some rocks from the falling snow and sub-zero temperatures.

There are searches, like Potton’s, that end tragically. But, more often than not there are happy outcomes to dire situations, and thankful souls who will forever remember SAR members.

For Sills the volunteer work “runs pretty deep.” He has been a member since 1976.

“It’s just what I am, what I do,” he said.

New recruit Greg Newton, one of the seven new members, has patrolled on the mountains for 13 years and likes knowing he can look after himself and help other people when they get in trouble.

“I thought that there was an opportunity to learn more skills from SAR and possibly give a lot back to the community too,” he said of why he joined.

The seven new recruits bring the total membership to 27.

This year marked several new changes, and a sort of coming full circle for SAR.

In March the American Friends of Whistler donated a truck to the organization. The truck will be fully equipped with everything the SAR team needs for any rescue.

In addition, the team will be moving into new digs, courtesy of the Resort Municipality of Whistler. The group has moved from hotel rooms to rec centres to the RCMP building and trailers, and now it will have a permanent home, possibly by the new year.

The municipality is spending $400,000 to build the facility at the Public Works Yard, where SAR can train, meet, and store equipment.

“It’s a big event for us to finally have a place that we’ll be able to call home for a long period of time,” said Sills.

And though it remains a grassroots community organization, with the world watching Whistler as 2010 approaches, and the sheer volume of calls that SAR is attending annually, it’s important that all of its governance and policies are kept up to speed.

“What we’re really having to work on now because we have been so successful in some of our fundraising efforts and as the organization’s growing, is concentrating more on governance,” said Newton.

It’s just another sign that Whistler SAR has become a crucial part of the community.

“It’s really nice that we’ve come of age,” said Sills. “We’re one of the very few 100 per cent volunteer agencies left in the valley so it’s really nice to get the recognition and the support of the community. It’s quite rewarding.”