According to Question, Whistler Search and Rescue experienced a hectic and busy winter break, which lead to 19 people calling in need of help compared to a mere three during the 2014-15 winter break. About 75% of those calls were for skiers that were south of Whistler Mountain in the Cheakamus River Valley, which is an area accessed off of the backside of the resort. The increase in search and rescue calls is attributed to bluebird skies and superb snow conditions along with an increased number of skiers and snowboarders.
“Here in Whistler we have had a really, really busy Christmas. It’s the busiest on record,” said Brad Sills, the volunteer organization’s manager.
Venturing out in the backcountry poses a lot of risks and a recent spike in interest has lead to an increase in search and rescue calls. Whistler Search and Rescue has noticed the recent increased interest in Backcountry skiing, which has prompted them to invest in safety measures for the backcountry surrounding the resort. The first phase involved replacing a repeater tower atop Whistler Mountain and now in the second phase, search and rescue is aiming to place a tower at Wedge Peak, which would provide searchers with communication coverage across the glaciers. The total project has an estimated cost of $300,000.
“We had hoped we would have something for this calendar year,” Sills said, noting cellphones can’t be relied on in those areas.
Sadly, as backcountry exploring increases, the number of fatalities and search and rescue calls increase along with it. Over the past 5 years, Whistler has experienced a steady increase in backcountry access, which means that an increase in search and rescue calls is inevitable. Whistler Blackcomb’s backcountry tickets, which allow skiers and snowboarders to get a single lift ride up, are being snatched up quickly. The availability and placement of backcountry equipment is allowing skiers and snowboarders to become more comfortable and familiar with the sport, along with realizing all of the safety equipment that is available.
“Nowadays it has definitely become a mainstream activity,” said the owner of Canada West Mountain School, which teaches avalanche courses.
Last year, the B.C. Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) started exploring the idea of establishing stable public funding for search teams. The search and rescue team currently receives funding from donations, but they proposed a fund that would be centralized around funds that would be generated from gaming. In the past fiscal year, the emergency Management BC provided SAR groups throughout the province with $6.3 million for training, operational costs, and equipment. That’s a lot of money, but it is for a good cause that keeps people safe.