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‘Special forces’ do the job

Local avalanche control, search and rescue star in Mount Seymour rescue

By Clare Ogilvie

When North Shore Search and Rescue realized they needed avalanche control experts to facilitate a three-day life-saving rescue on Mount Seymour last week they turned to the best: Whistler-Blackcomb avalanche control and Whistler Search and Rescue.

“The Whistler-Blackcomb team, they just rock,” said Don Jardine, a search manager for NSSR.

“They just did a fantastic job, man, just so impressive.

“They dropped in on skis, bombing and blasting the whole way down. They cleared the whole site down to where we had the patient… and basically they stopped there, had a drink of water, shook hands, and they were off back up.

“It was like special-forces had parachuted in.”

The Whistler team, Scott Aitken, Nigel Stewart, Kenn Nickel, Jack Hurtadese, Andrew Haig, and Whistler SAR manager Brad Sills, were called in by the Provincial Emergency Program as it became clear that very bad weather probably meant that 37-year-old Chris Morley would have to be stretchered out over land.

On Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 17, Morley fell nearly 300 metres while snowshoeing on Mount Seymour and was badly injured. By Wednesday night two NSSR men, Tim Jones and Gord Ferguson had hiked into his location, that they got from Morley’s snowshoeing companion Simon Chesterton.

The three spent Wednesday and Thursday night on the mountain as bad weather made a helicopter rescue impossible. Morley’s injuries included a concussion, broken nose, lost teeth, leg fracture, dislocated shoulder, broken wrist, broken rib and multiple cuts and bruises. He also lost his boot during the fall, which just added to his hypothermia. Sills believes without Ferguson and Jones to care for him Morley would likely have died the first night.

By Friday, the Whistler team was on Mount Seymour to prepare the slope for Morley’s stretcher evacuation over land. In order to clear a path for the land transfer the area had to be cleared of any avalanche threat, which was considerable after over 70 cm of fresh snow had fallen on top of an ice crust. Indeed it was ice that caused Morley to slip and fall.

“It was a very, very steep gullied area,” said Sills of the region where the avalanche work had to be done.

“We certainly weren’t under any illusions. It was pretty much near vertical everywhere in that area. So we knew that all 70 cm was going to go. The concern of course was for the subject and the rescuers who were at the bottom. We needed to ensure that we weren’t going to bury them.”

Sills said the team did their snow analysis and as expected it was highly reactive and sliding very easily.

The Whistler group divided into two teams of three and set about their task.

Sills, along with Aitken and Hurtadese, started to stabilize and entrance into the area. When they were on the fifth bomb a ledge gave way under Sills carrying him perilously close to the cliff edge where Morley had fallen, nearly to his death.

“I took a pretty scary ride,” said Sills, who lost his skis in the slide. “I was very fortunate that I stopped where I did or I would have ended up where (Morley did).”

It was a personal reminder of how unstable the area was.

The teams continued on down, without Sills due to his lost skis, and set the final bomb off as a way to identify a stable landing pad for the helicopter that was continually trying to reach Morley, a married father-of-three.

The explosion left a black stain on the white snow offering the pilot a reference point in the near whiteout conditions.

But even as the plan to take Morley out over land continued Friday afternoon the Talon Helicopter pilot, Peter Murray, finally got a break in the weather and managed to fly in and carry the injured snowshoer to safety.

Jones and Ferguson had to hike out.

“This is a really good example because here you have a gentleman who was hiking along a trail in a provincial park,” said Sills. “It is not like he was doing anything wrong. He was doing what the park is intended for, and managed for, and unfortunately as nature would have it something bad happened and he fell almost to his death.

“All of us are out there doing that. People in Whistler are out there doing that and you just realize that you have to be prepared to go out there and help those people because they are not going to make it on their own.”