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Patrol, Search and Rescue busy in the backcountry

About 10 people stuck overnight in the backcountry in recent weeks Backcountry rookies have been keeping Whistler-Blackcomb patrol and the volunteers at Search and Rescue very busy recently.

About 10 people stuck overnight in the backcountry in recent weeks

Backcountry rookies have been keeping Whistler-Blackcomb patrol and the volunteers at Search and Rescue very busy recently.

In the last few weeks about 10 people have spent the night outside, lost and cold. Many others have taken a wrong turn and found themselves in the middle of vast, unrecognizable terrain, called for help and then started the long hike back out to the highway.

If you get lost in the backcountry it could be as long as a 15-hour hike back to safety.

"People are going out of bounds and many of them are not prepared to go out of bounds," said Bernie Protsch, manager of Whistler Patrol for the past 16 years.

"For the uninitiated in the backcountry it can be an extremely dramatic experience, especially if they have to spend the night."

The lure into the backcountry is even stronger now as the days stay lighter longer and the fresh snow beckons. If the sun is shining and the powder is deep it’s so easy to ignore the out of bounds signs and follow someone’s tracks into the unknown.

"Things just look so friendly out there," said Protsch.

But one wrong turn and people can find themselves in a hard place with unpredictable territory ahead of them and a steep hill above them. Usually they opt not to walk back up the hill, choosing the "easier" downhill path. And soon they’re completely lost, unsure of the direction of the highway or the village, and wondering which way to turn.

Among the hotspots where people run into problems are Khyber’s Pass, the Cake Hole below Highway 86, Singing Pass and Fitzsimmons Creek and at the bottom of the Spearhead Glacier.

And it’s not just the tourists getting lost either. Locals who have been here for a long time don’t usually run into these situations but Protsch said people who have been here for three or four years may think they know the vast terrain beyond the Whistler-Blackcomb boundaries.

These days many skiers and riders are now travelling with cell phones and they call for help as soon as they get lost.

"Any search is an emergency and we take them very seriously," said Protsch.

"We are very concerned and very cognizant in ensuring there is a successful outcome."

Once patrol gets the call the first thing they do is try to identify the most likely place where the party is lost. This can be frustrating if the person was last seen at 11 a.m. near the Roundhouse. Patrol will then come up with a game plan. If the party is not back by nightfall, patrol will do a sweep of the perimeter and groomers and snowmobiles will be called in for help during the evening.

"We’re not going to send our teams out at night because it puts them at risk," he said.

If the party still hasn’t returned by first light, a helicopter may be sent up and dog teams may be called in to help out.

Members of Search and Rescue are volunteers he added, and they have to leave their jobs and families to facilitate in these rescues.

On top of the physical dangers for volunteers and staff, the searches also take up valuable time and resources on the mountain.

Protsch estimates that if two grooming machines spend three hours on a search they miss out on grooming 30 to 40 acres of terrain for the following day. Parties will be billed for the services of the helicopter and any mountain machines. The helicopter costs about $1,500 each hour.

For the people who are lost it can be a frightening and emotional experience. Many times they stumble into dark, rugged and unpredictable terrain. It’s full of hazards, from steep cliffs and cornices to avalanche dangers. By the time night falls, many will dig a little snow hole or find shelter under a tree with a few twigs and branches for the night.

Any area which is marked out of bounds is uncontrolled and unpatrolled and people need to understand this when they blow by the warning signs, said Protsch.

In addition they need to be prepared.

Anybody going backcountry should know where they’re going and know where the exit signs are. If they find themselves in unfamiliar ground, they should have a map handy to reorient themselves.

Other essentials for backcountry travel include water, some food, an extra cell phone battery, avalanche transceivers, probes and a shovel.

And he also recommends taking an avalanche course for good measure.

People going into the backcountry should be equipped for their own self-rescue.

Protsch said with the sheer number of calls for help, it’s fortunate no one has been injured.

"It was pretty busy there for a week or two."