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Snowmobiling straining local rescue efforts: WSAR

Seattle sledder's death among recent accidents
The peak of the Appa Glacier, pictured, where a 53-year-old Seattle snowmobiler plunged to his death on Saturday, March 19. Photo courtesy of Club Tread

Following the death of a Washington state sledder in Pemberton last week, local authorities are warning of snowmobiling's growing impact on search and rescue efforts in the Sea to Sky.

The victim was with a group of nine others on Saturday, March 19, when he tumbled roughly 100 feet (30 metres) down a crevasse on the Appa Glacier.

"They discovered that one of their group had disappeared and when they retraced their steps they saw snowmobile tracks going into a crevasse," explained Whistler RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair. "They were not able to make contact with him, so search and rescue was activated."

While waiting for search and rescue personnel to arrive, the group signaled a passing helicopter with a flare containing a group of heli-skiers and an experienced heli-guide. The guide enlisted the help of another heli-tour leader, who roped down the crevasse, where they determined the sledder was deceased.

The BC Coroners Service has not yet named the victim, a 53-year-old male from the Seattle area. The victim, along with the others members of the group, were said to be seasoned snowmobilers familiar with the area, police said.

There have been calls for signage in the area, popular with snowmobilers, which would identify potential hazards. But, according to Pemberton Snowmobile Club VP Tyler Kraushar, that's not a realistic option.

"The general consensus, and after conversations with government officials as well, is that we can't be marking hazards in the backcountry because there are hazards that exist everywhere," he said. The club's tenure stretches up to the Appa Glacier's access point. "We encourage education and we inform people at the trailhead. This group was aware of this specific hazard, which we had identified on our Facebook page and through our gate attendants at the bottom of the trail."

Responders have been dealing with a rise in snowmobile-related incidents in recent years, LeClair noted. Just this past week, Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) was activated on four separate occasions as a result of snowmobiling accidents.

Between 2004 and the end of 2014, WSAR was called out 38 times as a result of snowmobiling accidents, representing nearly a fifth of the group's responses. Twenty-seven of those incidents took place in the five-year span between 2010-15. That's compared to 52 call-outs over the same 10-year period for downhill skiers or snowboarders who left Whistler Blackcomb boundaries, 18 call-outs for backcountry travellers not on WB property or in the Spearhead, and 24 call-outs to the "slackcountry," which denotes those who travelled uphill for some portion.

"Something is changing, whether it's the technology or the demographic," said WSAR manager Brad Sills. "(Snowmobiling) has already replaced backcountry skiing as our No. 1 winter response."

But with education within the sledding community on the upswing in his opinion, Kraushar doesn't believe snowmobiling is placing an undue strain on search and rescue efforts.

"I think we get some bad seasons once in a while. Specifically in our region, I don't see a huge increase in (accidents)," he said. "Education has definitely been on the rise, people are getting more educated, they're taking the courses, they're going into the backcountry more. (The group of Seattle sledders) specifically were as prepared as they could have possibly been."

According to Sills, however, a lack of preparation within the sledding community is part of the problem.

"It's my personal belief that if you're going to engage in travel in hazardous terrain, that raises the possibility of a severe medical emergency. Then someone in your group should have the training to stabilize you in that event. It's quite common in other sports," he said. "In our experience at Whistler Search and Rescue, it's not been as prevalent in the snowmobiling community."

Now, Sills is hopeful a portion of the $10 million recently given by the province to the BC Search and Rescue Association will go towards educating snowmobilers on the dangers of the backcountry.

"Let's up our game here," he said. "Nobody's talking about closures or anything like that, but let's realize the danger we're putting ourselves in and at least try and mitigate some of the negative aspects."