Over the spring and summer, Kimberley Search and Rescue President Peter Reid, and SAR organizations around the province, urged backcountry users to exercise extra caution in order to limit strain on them and other emergency services and healthcare providers.
For the most part, Reid said, people seemed to have taken that advice to heart.
“I didn’t see a lot of people going crazy out there, just some misadventure, some sort of random accidents that I don’t think they could have done anything about,” he said. “But we are quite concerned about this winter.”
As the summer progressed and the fall approached, Reid felt like people began to suffer from pandemic fatigue and started to relax a little bit. This led to quite a bit of activity for SAR, particularly for their swift water team.
“I would say that people are still challenged with not really understanding that Search and Rescue is a volunteer organization, so they’ll just assume that we’re another service,” Reid said.
Part of the reason he is concerned about the upcoming winter months is he’s heard anecdotally that most stores around the region are sold out of backcountry equipment.
“This means that there’ll be a whole bunch of people who may never have been in the backcountry before that are now considering going out there,” he explained. “So we are concerned that we are going to have a very busy winter, because we live in fairly complex terrain in this part of the world, so our snowpack is pretty unique and as a result that you can get yourself into trouble pretty quickly.
“At the moment it’s super thin out there. We might get 50 or 60 centimetres of snow at the 1000-metre level and we might get 100 centimetres, if that, at the 2000-metre level. So we’ve got this real issue where people can hit stuff under the snow, so we’re quite concerned.”
They’ve not received any calls pertaining to this so far but they want to get the messaging out there of “be safe, have a plan.” Ensure that you have all the proper equipment with you and be trained for the activity you intend to do. For example, if you’re heading out to backcountry ski for the first time, Reid recommends taking the Avalanche Safety Travel Course level 1 first.
Another factor presented by the pandemic with the potential for concern is that Reid has been seeing many contractors, people who run ski lodges for example, having to change the way they operate their businesses due to COVID.
Reid is concerned that people who ordinarily would have gone to a lodge or had a certified guide take them out may now choose to do these things by themselves, either because the services aren’t available or because they aren’t comfortable going out with others.
Currently SAR hasn’t been getting calls for assistance and he thinks this is partially due to the fact that people have been “lulled into a sense of security because there’s so little snow,” and they don’t feel enthusiastic about getting out yet.
However, earlier in the week he was skinning up the back of the ski hill and saw that somebody had boot packed up his skin track, which tells him they were lost.
“I usually set that track purposely because I want to lead people back to the hill, otherwise we get a bunch of phone calls,” he said. “The fact that it was boot packed tells me that person wasn’t prepared and didn’t know where they were going — didn’t know that they could continue to go down the hill and ski out. They had to follow my skin track back to the hill. So that’s not a good sign.”
One of the good things Kimberley has going for it is that many backcountry users have training, and some degree of experience.
“What I’m concerned about is that as we get people coming from other areas that may own houses or cabins or condos here, that now because of the conditions of the ski hill, may actually be looking to track out somewhere else,” Reid said. “They may be wanting not to be exposed to other people on the actual lift so that they’re deciding to go and adventure out in the backcountry.”
He said that while they haven’t got any calls yet and he hopes it remains that way, he is pessimistic about it.
Over the summer SAR added to their list of volunteers as well as to their supply of equipment.
“It’s fabulous,” Reid said. “You can see a shift in our community and we’ve got quite a few people that are outdoors people that are interested in being involved in search and rescue.”
The SAR swiftwater team was a prime example of that. Peter said they’re an amazing group of people, able to respond in a swiftwater environment and who are aided immensely by the purchase of a new boat. They also have a member who has a jet boat of his own who helped out as well.
“Having all of that type of equipment was really good, plus their training, plus they just had a lot of experience,” Reid said. “There was a lot of calls so they got out a lot and it kept them really enthusiastic.”
While the new members were enthusiastic, training them all was an issue as they weren’t able to train in person due to COVID. They dialed training back in September as there was an upward trend in cases. They trained only their specialty teams, and those only in limited numbers to reduce their chance of a COVID outbreak on the team, putting them all out of commission.
Moving forward, they’re looking at all their safety policies, as they need to get out and train their winter team.
“We’re continuing to look at ways to train our members, where we don’t have to do that in person and really looking forward to the date where we can get back together,” Reid said. “We’re looking at unique ways.” He added SAR wants to celebrate its members, but won’t be able to have their usual holiday celebration.
Instead they will be doing that via their Zoom account and sending packages to each of their members homes to recognize their hard work.
In terms of their ability to respond to situations in the winter, SAR is bolstered by a snowcat, six sleds, two mountain sleds and four trail hybrid sleds that allow them to respond if they can’t get a helicopter.
What Reid is particularly excited about, however, is that they’re in the process of building a new command unit. SAR has secured some funding through BC Gaming, though they will still need to seek further funds.
This new command centre will allow them to manage some of the larger-scale searches they get called out to as well as provide a base of operations in case of a natural disaster, typically fire or flood in this area.
“This particular command unit will allow a base of operations that’s significantly larger than what we currently have so super excited about that,” Reid said.
This will be a self-powered, mobile unit with a 26’ box allowing them to have a conference room with connectivity and video so they interact with emergency services across the province. The vehicle is also capable of towing their other trailer, so they can create a base of operations anywhere they need to.
“Let’s say we have a mass casualty event and police fire ambulance all need a mobile centre, we can actually drop that centre off for them and then they’ll have the ability to operate within there as well,” Reid explained. “We’re really hoping that this thing and expect this thing to really be able to fulfill a big need within our community.”
Again, Reid’s main message he hopes to get across is that if you’re going out into the backcountry: “this isn’t a time of your life to extend your limits, this is a time to operate well within your limits.”
Make sure you have the training for the activity you intend to do, if you’re doing it alone tell somebody or more preferably file a trip plan with AdventureSmart which you can do by visiting www.adventuresmart.ca
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