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Search-and-rescuers say billing irresponsible skiers could do more harm

Snowboarders make their way to Cypress Bowl past the North Shore Search and Rescue Command centre on Cypress Mountain near Vancouver, B.C., in this file photo.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

The rescue of a Norwegian snowboarder who rode out of bounds and survived three frigid nights in Whistler's backcountry has reinvigorated calls for those who flout resort rules to pay for efforts to save them. But rescue officials and a Vancouver man found in similar circumstances say that would be bad policy.

Search-and-rescue leaders say billing irresponsible skiers could do more harm than good. Mike Danks, a team leader and 19-year volunteer with North Shore Rescue, said those who get lost out of bounds are more reluctant to call for help when they believe a hefty fee will be attached to any operation to find them.

"And when they delay from calling us, that puts our members further at risk," Mr. Danks said. "Typically, they get a lot further into the back country, so it delays our response and they usually get further into harm's way."

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He cited the 2013 case of snowboarder Sebastian Boucher, who was the subject of a massive manhunt while he spent three sleepless days wandering the backcountry in waist-deep snow after ducking out of bounds and falling off a cliff on West Vancouver's Cypress Mountain. After his dramatic rescue, the resort told the media it expected Mr. Boucher to repay $10,000 in costs. Later, a man lost on nearby Grouse Mountain called friends, family and police – anyone but North Shore Rescue – for help, Mr. Danks said.

"He [told police], 'I don't want search-and-rescue because I can't pay,'" Mr. Danks recalled. "It was this whole misconception that we were going to charge him for rescue. "He was doing everything he could to evade calling us and in the meantime he's wasting daylight hours and he's wasting his cellphone battery – again, that just puts us at risk because we're coming into these calls later and we have to operate at night."

Cypress Mountain waived the fee for Mr. Boucher, who had received a phone call informing him his best friend had died just before he hit the mountain that day. Mr. Boucher organized a charity ball hockey tournament in his native Ottawa that raised about $6,000 for North Shore Rescue. He says he also contributed $4,000 of his own money to the volunteers who saved his life.

"I felt horrible because that day I didn't plan on falling off a cliff, getting stuck in an avalanche, losing my best friend. A lot of stuff went down and I had a lot of people criticize me saying they should have let you die there," Mr. Boucher said from his Vancouver office on Monday. "I didn't ask for helicopters, I didn't ask for anything, but I'm glad they … came and saved me."

He said he felt duty-bound to repay "these guys who worked hard, these guys who have second jobs," but added that only people who put themselves in danger through a joke or stunt should be forced to pay for rescue.

About 40 people were involved in a search for 20-year-old Julie Abrahamsen that started on Friday at midday and ended with the stunned and dehydrated snowboarder being airlifted to a nearby clinic on Saturday afternoon. Half of the rescuers were volunteers and the others were paid, such as Mounties and Whistler Blackcomb staff, according to Whistler Search and Rescue spokesman Brad Sills.

Fine print on ski tickets says the resort has the right to charge for rescue. However, Mr. Sills's group, like most across the country, is a non-profit that fundraises to cover most of its $120,000 budget. Its members are reimbursed for on-duty mileage and meals by the provincial government, he added.

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The search for Ms. Abrahamsen, which included several hours of flying time in the helicopter, probably cost more than $5,000, Mr. Sills said. His team searches the backcountry about 35 times a year, and about 85 per cent of the people they rescue are from the Lower Mainland, he added.

"Why would we single out one person in all of Canada to have to pay for rescue services?" said Mr. Sills, who added he does not know of a volunteer group in the country that charges for rescues. "Adventure is the key message they use to attract people here, and when Whistler is at full capacity, it returns literally millions of dollars to the public treasury every week in taxation.

"The taxpayers should look at this as just the cost of doing business."

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