Five missions to rescue injured or avalanche-buried snowboarders, skiers, and hikers in B.C. backcountry

Avalanche Canada has extended a special avalanche warning in B.C. until February 4

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      Anyone thinking of heading into B.C. backcountry for skiing or snowboarding should take note of several missions conducted to rescue individuals from avalanches or due to injuries over the past week. 

      In the late afternoon on January 26, NSR received a report of an out-of-bounds snowboarder at Cypress Mountain, who was off Strachan in the Mittens Couloir area. When he was caught in a small avalanche, he was injured from colliding with a tree, buried up to his waist, and complained about being cold.

      An attempt to extract the individual with a helicopter and longline operation wasn’t possible before nightfall, but air crews located the snowboarder.

      When a ground team reached the area, they found several individuals who happened to be in the area, had heard the snowboarder’s calls for help, and were attempting to rescue him.

      Team members discouraged their well-meaning efforts to prevent any further injuries, as they assessed the risks of the area. The team was able to reach the individual, who was suspected of serious injuries and wasn’t able to walk, and moved him to the Howe Sound Crest Trail.

      As a military helicopter was unable to assist due to another emergency, the injured snowboarder was taken by rescue toboggan to the Cypress ski hill, and was then taken by ambulance to Lions Gate Hospital in critical condition.

      The NSR states that “shaming those in need of rescue in the backcountry is toxic and dangerous” and that it is sharing information about these missions to educate the public to prevent such incidents in the future. (NSR, and other volunteer search-and-rescue groups, aren’t in favour of charging or fining rescue subjects for several reasons, including potential delays in calls made for help due to fears about being charged.)

      NSR stated that in this particular case, the individual ducked the boundary rope alone and didn’t have any appropriate gear. NSR explained that this is different from backcountry skiing or snowboarding with appropriate rescue gear and training, careful assessments of avalanche forecasts and local conditions, and with similarly prepared partners.

      NSR emphasized that the first and only call should be made to 911. NSR said that this snowboarder called his girlfriend, who then called for emergency help. NSR explained that emergency crews need to speak directly with the individual in need of help, particularly when time is crucial and if phone battery levels are low. Also, cell reception may not be available in various areas of North Shore mountains.

      North Shore Rescue recued a backcountry skier with an injured ankle in the Hollyburn area on January 29.
      North Shore Rescue

      More rescue missions

      On January 29, NSR rescued two other individuals.

      One was a backcountry skier with an injured leg, who was taken out of the Hollyburn area on a stretcher.

      On the same day, a snowshoer near Suicide Gully at Mount Seymour reported hearing two people calling for help. A father at the mountain then reported that two 16-year-old males had gone missing while snowboarding. Field teams located the two individuals but were only able to get within 400 metres of them due to avalanche danger in the area.

      When NSR crew members were able to reach them and provide the two teens with snowshoes, avalanche beacons, and headlamps, they guided them out on a route with less avalanche risk.

      On the next day, NSR recued a hiker with an injured ankle near Norvan Falls on January 30.

      On January 31, Comox Valley Search and Rescue responded to an avalanche triggered by a ski touring group north of Mount App. Although several individuals were buried, the group was able to rescue almost everyone.

      Unfortunately, one skier had sustained fractures in both legs and dislocated a shoulder.

      Rescuers were able to transport her to Courtenay Air Park, where she was taken by air ambulance to Vancouver for medical treatment. 

      Avalanche Canada said that on the same day, two skiers were reported to be caught in an avalanche on Mount Cameron, southwest of Courtenay, on Vancouver Island. Both individuals were carried about 200 metres down a slope, and buried one individual about 1.5 metres under debris. The other person, who remained on the surface, was able to rescue the buried person, who was seriously injured.

      Comox Valley Search and Rescue

      Avalanche warning

      On February 1, Avalanche Canada extended and expanded a special warning for recreational backcountry users in B.C. South Coast region to include Vancouver Island and in effect until February 4. 

      Forecasters are concerned about a persistent and buried weak layer not usually found in the current climate. A recent snowfall deposited a greater load upon that layer, burying it deeper in the snowpack.

      According to Avalanche Canada, if this weak layer is triggered, “the resulting avalanche could be deadly”.

      Regional avalanche forecasts are available at the Avalanche Canada website. Anyone entering B.C. backcountry should have and know how to use essential rescue gear.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.