May 27, 2011 Features & Images » Feature Story

Surviving the backcountry 

As a growing number of people head into the backcountry it's clear that education is key to enjoying it safely


When the call came in Whistler Search and Rescue members knew they had to move fast.

Lying at the bottom of a 27-metre icy crevasse in the Brandywine Falls area lay a 50- year-old snowmobiler, injured, likely hypothermic and, rescuers were told, he had recently had heart surgery.

The sledder, visiting from the Lower Mainland, was riding a snowmobile along the fall line in the middle of the glacier around lunchtime in early February. Any mountaineer will advise not to do such a thing, but ride the fall line he did, right into a hole on the backside of a 90-degree rollover.

As soon as the team got there Whistler SAR sent one of its experienced team members into the crevasse to stabilize the man. But it was no easy feat for the crooked shape of the crevasse hampered the operation. The remaining team members set anchors in the snow and set up a pulley system. A sixteen-person team was assembled from Whistler Search and Rescue, the RCMP, Whistler Heli-skiing and Whistler Blackcomb to help with the rescue.

When the team member reached the injured man he had broken bones, was bruised all over and had difficulty breathing. He had injuries to his head, back and legs and his heart condition was complicated by the fact that he was on blood thinners. Using a harness he was moved to a place where daylight could be seen. But time was running out as nightfall approached. That is when it was decided to get ready to call in help from the Canadian Armed Forces in Comox if needed. In the end with twilight deepening into night the team managed to extract the injured man and by 5:30 p.m. he was in a helicopter on the way to Whistler's health care centre.

The snowmobiler did not have a daypack with food, water or any other safety equipment.

This is hardly an isolated incident. More people are entering the backcountry every year and the rates of incidents are increasing on average, year after year - with many of these adventure seekers travelling unprepared.

As this season of winter backcountry use draws to a close those who put their lives on the line to rescue others in need want to remind people to be prepared - staying safe is about education not policing the backcountry.

The British Columbia Search and Rescue Association has seen a steady trend upward in callouts. And while it's nearly impossible to count the number of people visiting the backcountry every year, there's no question more of them are having trouble finding their way out of it.

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