Search for missing snowboarder scaled back 

Fresh snow and cold temperatures thwart hope of finding language student alive

click to enlarge Not Giving Up Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair holds up a picture of Ai Ito, missing on Blackcomb Mountain since March 20. Photo by Logan Swayze,
  • Not Giving Up Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair holds up a picture of Ai Ito, missing on Blackcomb Mountain since March 20. Photo by Logan Swayze,

The search for a Japanese snowboarder missing on Blackcomb Mountain since last Thursday has been scaled back.

“…A decision was made by the search and rescue management and the RCMP management that as of today (Wednesday) we would scale the search back and allow just the dogs to go and look throughout the day and all the additional resources have been pulled back for now,” said Whistler RCMP Cst. Afzeel Yakub.

“The decision was based on the fact that so much time has passed and the chances of finding Ms. (Ai) Ito at this point alive are really slim.”

The area where the 25-year-old English language student is believed to have disappeared has also been searched over and over again using infrared, and RECCO tag technology. At the height of the search 43 professional searchers and 10 police and avalanche dog teams were scouring the mountain for any sign of the slim, petite, dark-haired snowboarder.

Yakub said the public has been calling in with sighting tips but at this point all the evidence points to Ito going missing on the mountain.

“So far what has been revealed to us points to the fact that she is on the mountain,” he said.

“However we have been getting calls from the public… stating that they might have seen her… and certainly if we get any leads that might lead us to some other investigation we will certainly pursue them.”

Ito’s mother, father and brother arrived in Whistler Tuesday and have been fully briefed on the search efforts.

“They were also told about the decision last night and they understand what led to it and they appreciate all the support that they have been given,” said Yakub.

“They totally understand that we are having to make this call (to scale back the search) at this point.”

Ito was last seen Thursday mid-morning as she headed up 7 th Heaven for a solo run.

The International House language student was reported missing Sunday by her home-stay family.

It was common for Ito to stay overnight with friends, the RCMP said in explaining why it took so long for Ito to be reported missing.

With over 60 centimetres of fresh snow in the last several days and temperatures dipping to –15 overnight on the mountain there is little hope that Ito is still alive if she went missing on Blackcomb.

“Snow is very good at hiding things despite our best efforts,” said Whistler Search and Rescue manager Brad Sills, adding that it may be that the fresh snow that has fallen will have to melt before Ito is found.

He also reminded outdoor enthusiasts enjoying their sport alone to take every precaution available.

“This is mountain living,” he said. “It is not that we should not do things but when we say you shouldn’t ski alone there is a reason for it.”

Search and Rescue personnel from Whistler, Pemberton, Squamish, Surrey, Lions Bay and the North Shore were all involved, along with Blackcomb ski patrol. Police and Blackcomb Helicopters also offered air support.

For the first time local SAR used a RECCO reader, which picks up the signal from a small electronic transponder which is more and more commonly being embedded in outdoor wear.

Ito did not take her cell phone with her, but rather left it with her other personal belongings at her school locker, as she commonly did.

Steve Haddad, director of International House said the school was re-looking at their communication policy between students and homestay families in light of Ito’s disappearance.

“We are looking at that and we have been in touch with all our families already,” he said.

The school’s policy is that students are to phone their homestay anytime they will miss a meal. But, said Haddad, after some time the families become comfortable with the students and the practice can be forgotten.

“And the students are adults,” said Haddad.

This is one of the largest searches ever conducted on the local mountains. In October 1994 a massive search involving upwards of 120 people was organized for missing hiker Ann Marie Potton.

It wasn’t until the following September that her remains were found after unusual animal activity was noticed. The area she disappeared was searched at least three times by air with heat detecting infrared gear, and up to four times by dog teams and innumerable times on foot.

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