If you go into the woods today you better go well prepared 

Whistler Search and Rescue seeing fewer calls as policy to leave lost, healthy skiers and boarders out overnight continues

Whistler Search and Rescues’ policy of leaving healthy lost skiers and boarders out overnight may be paying off.

This year call volume is down and WSR has only needed to respond to seven calls. Last year it’s estimated there were 12 calls for the same period.

"Part and parcel of what we are trying to promote here is don’t dial a rescue because if that is your back-up plan it’s a lousy one," said Brad Sills, search and rescue manager for WSR.

"We decided three years ago that we were going to start to interpret the requirements the RCMP have, which is that you have to be missing 24 hours in order to be a missing person."

Inside of that 24 hours rescue is only going to take place if the lost person is young, old, has a medical condition, is hurt, or is in danger. And it has to be relatively safe for the rescuers to go in after the lost person.

Sills is clear that Search and Rescue will always respond when needed. But he said going in after a skier who calls on a cell phone at dusk because he or she went out of bounds too late and they want a lift out is not an emergency.

"As far as you spending the night out that isn’t an emergency," he said.

"The skier may think it is an emergency, but let me put it this way: I have been doing this for 27 years and we have yet to have a case where people have succumbed, either through loss of limb or through death, to the elements.

"The chances of anyone being severely hurt from the elements through the night are very rare.

"So typically what (the lost person) will get is a little chat about what to do for the evening, such as stay dry, don’t move, get yourself under a tree, strip some boughs off, and move around through the night.

"Then in the morning we tell them to save their battery and don’t phone a whole bunch of people. Give us a buzz back and tell us what you see, where you are, and try to move to higher ground. Then we will come and get you."

Sills said that on any given Saturday WSR may field 20 cases, most of which WSR volunteers will not be called out for.

In fact if volunteers responded to every call no one would be available if a real emergency were to happen.

And said Sills: "On any given weekend night I am convinced that there are at least eight people stumbling around in the backcountry who are technically lost but no one has reported them missing.

"They stumble around until the morning and then they find their way out."

WSR’s policy may seem controversial but said Sills: "We are not being callous in this.

"The fact of the matter is that to send rescuers out at night dramatically increases the risk of danger to them and that is just not something that we are going to do unless there is a known medical condition or the person is young or elderly."

So, said Sills, pay attention to the signs on the mountain. When they say you are going out of bounds that means there are no patrollers looking out for you, no avalanche control, no posters warning you of natural hazards like cornices, or creeks.

"When you call the RCMP and the search and rescue they are not the ski patrol," said Sills.

"They are there to protect life and limb, not to ensure that you are home to watch the hockey game that night."

And almost everyone in Whistler has heard a story about the long walk out from the Cake Hole at 10 o’clock at night, and it’s likely that is also playing a role said Sills.

When the RCMP receive a report of a missing person or get a call from someone out of bounds they pass the information on to search and rescue. If warranted, a meeting may be called with all the rescue stakeholders in the valley and an action plan will be drawn up.

In some instances Whistler-Blackcomb staff are called in to help, especially if the lost person is out of bounds near the mountains.

But skiers and boarder be warned: if mountain staff come to get you they will also be handing you a bill.

"Search is an emergency and the decision to go out has to be the right decision," said Bernie Protsch, the manager of Whistler Patrol for the past 16 years.

"We are not just like the cavalry running out.

"I can be sitting at home and someone will call 911 and (the RCMP) will give them my number and… if they are just out of the ski area boundary and they are OK I say, ‘sure we can come and find you if you have a credit card.’

"And we will charge them."

In the last couple of weeks alone Whistler-Blackcomb has responded to two calls which have resulted in bills of about $800 and $7,000.

In many, many of these cases, said Protsch, the outcome could have been avoided if the skiers and boarders had prepared themselves better and were more informed.

"Respect the boundary," he said. "If you don’t know where you are going then don’t go.

"There is no patrol, there are crevasses, avalanche risks, cliffs, all kinds of things.

"If you do go, know where you are going, be prepared, carry emergency supplies and self-rescue equipment, tell someone where you are going, and make sure your cell phone is charged up.

"People need to take responsibility for their own actions and they need to realize that they are in the mountains and things can happen even with the best laid plans and experience.

"But there are too many people who are not experienced who just don’t know what they are doing or where they are going and they get themselves into these pickles."

With spring break just around the corner rescue personnel are bracing for a few busy weeks.

But, said Protsch, he is hopeful that winter warriors will get the message and enjoy the mountains and the backcountry sensibly.

"We train a lot for these situations and we just ask that people use their brains so they don’t get into treacherous situations and don’t put us in that same situation."

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