After three rescues in one week, a B.C. resort considers where to send the bill

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

A woman from Washington State is escorted to safety after being rescued at Sun Peaks resort in B.C. (CTV)

When he first heard the noise, what sounded like a faint voice in the dark of night, the search-and-rescue volunteer thought it had come from his radio. He had been tracking two sisters who had ventured out of bounds at B.C.’s Sun Peaks Ski Resort and gotten lost in avalanche-prone terrain.

The rescuer turned his snowmobile engine off to have a better listen. The voice seemed to be getting louder. And then, suddenly, there they were: The sisters – physically and emotionally drained from an ordeal that could easily have had a less fortunate ending – stepped out of a wooded area to safety.

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It’s been a busy week for Kamloops Search and Rescue. The non-profit organization, based in the province’s Interior, was called to the slopes near Sun Peaks three times to rescue people who had ducked a barrier and headed out of bounds.

Sun Peaks has said it is considering charging those involved for its portion of the search, renewing a familiar debate in this province. Search-and-rescue organizations have opposed such charges, for fear fewer people will call for help when lost.

Alan Hobler, Kamloops Search and Rescue’s search manager, said in a lengthy interview Sunday that each of the three cases in the past week was different, and he shed light on the techniques crews use when every minute counts.

In the first instance, last Monday, Mr. Hobler said three 14-year-olds who had gone out of bounds were rescued after police were able to ping their cellphone and track their location within 100 metres. Mr. Hobler said getting to the teens was still a bit of a challenge, and he noted it can be difficult to find cellphone coverage in the backcountry.

Mr. Hobler, who before taking on the role of search manager was one of the on-the-ground volunteers, described the second search as more of a challenge.

He said one of the sisters was able to send a text to her mother to provide a general sense of where they were.

Based on that description, Mr. Hobler said, officials determined the sisters – one aged 17, the other in her early 20s – could be in one of two areas.

Volunteers located some tracks and began following them, but the task was made much more difficult by a howling wind that was blowing away some of the evidence. But, Mr. Hobler said, at least crews had a sense of the direction the sisters might be headed in.

Mr. Hobler said officials can determine how far a person can physically travel in the amount of time they’ve been lost. Volunteers jumped two kilometres ahead of where the sisters might have been, found faint tracks, and started working back.

Eventually, the tracks became more defined and the volunteers knew they were getting close. The sisters were found before midnight.

While that search was under way, Kamloops Search and Rescue were also looking for a woman who had gone missing on her own. She wasn’t rescued until Saturday morning, when she was spotted from the air by an RCMP helicopter.

Mr. Hobler said finding people who’ve gotten lost is always a thrill, given the challenges that come with searching vast terrain and the fact it can truly be a matter of life and death.

Christopher Nicolson, president of Tourism Sun Peaks, in an interview said finding people and getting them to safety is always the priority.

But he said ski resorts are able to bill those who deliberately go out of bounds and have to be rescued, if the resort has to use resources such as staff and equipment. He said a decision on whether to send a bill to those involved in the three incidents will be made in early January.

Mr. Hobler said there are generally one or two searches at Sun Peaks every year. He said three in a week is atypical, but described it as an anomaly and not an indication of an underlying problem.

Mr. Nicolson said much the same. “We’ve never had this number of searches so close together,” he said.