Kimberley and Cranbrook Search and Rescue (SAR) teams rescued two sledders who had got themselves stuck in the backcountry near the Verticle Omnidirectional Range (VOR) tower north west of Cranbrook.
According to Kimberley SAR president Peter Reid, the two sledders had followed the power line that runs beside the tower, then made a righthand turn and got stuck in a substantial cut block. After spending a significant amount of time trying to dig out their sleds, they put the call in to SAR.
A total of 15 people were involved in the rescue, 11 on the ground and four in command and in a variety of support roles, plus two members of the public.
“I would say that they did an exceptionally good job. Very, very pleased with them,” Reid said of the responders. “We’ve added some technology that really helps us in terms of our team response so we are responding significantly faster than we would have in the past, I still would like us to respond faster, but we can get our teams rolling really quickly and out there. Our members were prepared.”
Their rescue started at around 5 p.m. and Reid said his teams weren’t home until after 2 a.m., calling it “a lot of people doing a lot of effort.” This rescue highlighted both the importance of SAR teams, but also how critical it is to be prepared when venturing out into the backcountry.
“[Rescuing] is what we do,” Reid said. “I hate victim shaming; it’s not what this is about, but we really need to encourage people to take that accountability and responsibility.
“When we encountered them, and they’d communicated this on the phone, they were underprepared.”
Reid said that the sledders just were not prepared properly for what ultimately happened. They didn’t have a way to start a fire, they didn’t have food or water and were not prepared for an overnight stay, which Reid says is partially understandable given where they were.
“The problem that we have is that we get into this level of complacency because it’s just the VOR — they had cell service,” he said. “It really is what we would consider front country nowadays, because, ‘hey I’ve got cell service, I can talk to people, it’s not a big deal, it’s not really in the wilderness,’ whereas they actually are really in the wilderness and things can go really bad really fast. I think they discovered that really quickly where they were ill-prepared and got caught.”
The call originally went to Cranbrook SAR who deployed a helicopter, and had Kimberley on standby, but unfortunately the individuals had waited just long enough to call so there wasn’t enough light left to locate them. Due to cloud coverage and a lack of light they had to turn around.
“You can imagine how frustrated they were and it’s very hard on the subjects as well — you see a helicopter you think okay I’m safe and then the helicopter flies away. It’s like one of those nightmares,” Reid said.
Kimberley SAR then had to get their ground team mobilized, which takes some time, which is why they generally try to do a helicopter rescue when possible. They need to do an avalanche assessment, navigate around closed forestry service roads and essentially make sure that they don’t run into and become stuck in the same problems that their subjects encountered in the first place.
“As a result we did get them, managed to get them out, gave them some hot chocolate and pizza and made sure they were okay,” Reid said. “They didn’t appear to require and didn’t request medical help, so we did not call BC Ambulance. Notified their loved ones and off they went.”
Another thing that would have helped in this case is if they individuals had filed a trip plan. Had SAR lost contact with them, for instance if their phones had died, then it would have likely turned into an all-night rescue. Because SAR members were able to build a fire and had hypothermia gear, this isn’t a problem for them, but could have been extremely serious for their subjects.
Also contributing to this specific case was the kind of snow present in the area. It’s been a very cold, dry season where there is an unconsolidated sugary layer topped with the November snowfall, followed by prolonged cold temperatures creating a surface hoar.
The snow doesn’t bond to itself, becoming like frost sitting on top of the snow pack. This means that the snow can be come bottomless, with no base at the bottom. This creates hazardous conditions as it’s tough to tell how deep it actually is because it can get held up on trees or stumps and make it hard to get out of.
Reid says that this rescue highlighted the importance of SAR’s winter messaging to the public. Even if you are venturing to an area you might not consider to be backcountry, you should be prepared for the worst.
Have the essentials, which for our area includes a probe, shovel and a transceiver, and know how to use them. Take an Avalanche Safety Training 1 course, which is offered at numerous places in the area. File a trip plan before you go on www.adventuresmart.ca
Have a secondary means of communication beyond your cell phone and consider bringing a secondary method of transportation, for example snow shoes or backcountry skis on your sled. However, if you do get into trouble, it’s important to put in the call for help right away, which these individuals did.
As competent as Reid’s team is, he would always rather not have to do a rescue in the first place.
“I’m very, very pleased with everybody’s efforts and they did it after a day of work, and one of them had to get up three hours later and go to work again,” Reid said. “I’m actually feeling extremely confident with our team this year we’ve just got a great group of super solid people and they’re all backcountry people.”