Busy start to 2016 for South Columbia Search and Rescue

Local search and rescue is attributing an increase in calls to the high snowfall, and braces as the forecast calls for more.

Local search and rescue is attributing an increase in calls to the high snowfall, and braces as the forecast calls for more.

South Columbia Search and Rescue (SAR) has been on five calls this year in relation to winter activities, with a most recent mutual aid this past weekend near Whitewater Ski Resort in Nelson.

Four lost skiers were counting their lucky stars their Personal Locator Beacon signal was received by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria Saturday night. The distress signal was picked up by the RCMP, who traced the device back to some overdue backcountry skiers, while Nelson Search and Rescue headed a search in the 5 Mile Drainage area.

Due to darkness and avalanche danger, a helicopter rescue team and ground crew deployed at first light Sunday. The missing group was found in good health deep in the valley bottom in a snow cave shelter with a camp fire burning.

Despite knowing the area well, the group had become disorientated due to poor visibility and claimed to have skied in a circle before they realized they were in trouble.

This weekend marks the third rescue in the 5 Mile Valley this year, which South Columbia SAR has assisted Nelson with. The local group of about 28 members has also responded to a snowmobiler who was having mechanical problems and a snow cat operator who had a medical issue. The handful of calls may not seem like much, but is a drastic climb from last year where they responded to one call.

“Usually, we’ll get three calls, maybe four, and that’s through the winter and we’re just getting started and we’re already at five,” said Mike Hudson, South Columbia SAR president.

While skiers and snowboarders are bowing to the snow gods and setting out to find fresh powder, Hudson is left with a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“On the days that we’re really getting pounded with lots of snow, you think to yourself, ‘Oh boy, I hope today is not the day that we’re going to get a call,’” he said. “As soon as the big snowfall comes down, we know people are going to get out there and play in the powder and hopefully they’re not going to get into trouble.”

The big snow brings “considerable” avalanche risk in the Kootenay Boundary, according to Avalanche Canada. The rating is tied to multiple small avalanches in the region and several rounds of snowfalls followed by melting and then freezing, which creates an unstable snowpack.

Add unpredictable weather and even the most seasoned backcountry skier can get turned around.

“The first year that Red opened up its runs on Grey, we had multiple people getting lost, and it was all in the same spot, which made things quite a bit easier for us to go in and find them,” he added.

Surprisingly, some people who were lost and hunkered down for a cold night were familiar with the mountain but just weren’t prepared.

“We have a lot of people, for instance at Red Mountain, who live really close to the mountain and are only going to go out for a 40-minute trek so they’re not going to take any pack with them, they’re not going to take a beacon with them, because they know they’ve been there before and they feel no issue can arise from it,” said Hudson. “That being said, a weather system can come in, they could get stuck and not being able to see and get off the beaten track, and now they have no equipment, no gear, not nothing, and now they’re in trouble.”

South Columbia SAR continues to press the message to play safe and be prepared. Skiers, snowboarders and other backcountry enthusiasts are reminded to evaluate avalanche conditions and wear an avalanche rescue beacon that signals your location.

There is much more to learn about avalanche safety, which was evident during Avalanche Awareness Day at the base lodge of Red Mountain this past weekend. The event hosted by Rossland and District Search and Rescue offered hands-on avalanche safety gear clinics.