A home-grown pilot project to integrate more mountain snowmobilers into search and rescue was put to the test last Friday, after a massive avalanche swept up 17 people.

Rod Whelpton was one of the Robson Valley Search and Rescue (SAR) team’s special Mountain Snowmobile Responders, and was the first on scene.

He happened to be snowmobiling in the same area with friends when they came upon the avalanche. Two other SAR members later attended by helicopter.

“It’s almost like I pre-positioned (SAR) people in the right places,” SAR Manager Dale Mason said of Friday’s rescue.

Mason hatched the special snowmobile stream in late 2014. He recruited half a dozen people from both Valemount and McBride to take part in a one-day course; Mason wrote the curriculum which was approved by the Province. The fast-track course allows snowmobilers to avoid the 75-hour time commitment of the full SAR course, but to still help out in rescues. The course focusses on winter rescues only, and because they lack full training, the snowmobile members cannot attend a rescue unaccompanied.

Mason says he gave the curriculum to the Province and it is now being used by other search and rescue teams in B.C.

Having an alternate method of reaching the backcountry is important, since there is not always a helicopter and pilot available in the Valley, Mason says. Weather may also hamper efforts from the air.

Despite the quick response of their friends, five men from Alberta were killed in the avalanche. Four out of five had already been dug out by the time Whelpton arrived. The fifth was later located, and Whelpton was able to determine that no one else was missing.

“Everybody did the right thing,” Whelpton said of the snowmobilers who witnessed the slide. “They were very prepared. (But) when you’re in deep snow, you can’t say what’ll help.”

About a dozen regular SAR members are also proficient with snowmobiles. Robson Valley SAR does not own any snowmobiles, and relies on private sleds of its members. The Province reimburses them for the snowmobile on an hourly rate. All two dozen local SAR members are volunteers.

SAR Funding

After last week’s announcement by the BC Government of an extra $10M for search and rescue teams, Mason says the funding they receive from the Province is sufficient for most things.

“By and large that keeps us going; but it’s getting a little tough to update some of the equipment.”

He says if the Province doesn’t provide enough money, they have to apply for grants such as through BC Gaming, which is time-consuming and not a sure-thing.

He adds a lot of their equipment is technical and technology changes. They have had to purchase computers with appropriate software to do mapping, handheld radios, GPS devices, and avalanche transceivers to name a few costly expenses.

“Finding funding for those things gets a little challenging,” he says.
Mason, who took his first SAR course in 1974, has been doing search and rescue in the area since 1984; he says he enjoys helping people.

“I like going out and helping people who found themselves in a little bit of a jam.”

He says they received 26 call-outs in 2015. 2014 was an “anomaly year” he says, with 42 call-outs. He did not have readily available statistics on the number of winter call-outs vs. summer.

Mechanics of a Rescue

Often backcountry users will carry a SPOT beacon – a device that can send out an emergency signal with their location if they are in trouble, which is what happened last Friday.

The signal goes to the beacon’s company headquarters, often as far away as Texas. The company pinpoints the location and relays it to the closest RCMP detachment. Their dispatch people will plot it and tell them what kind of terrain they’re looking at.

The RCMP then shares that with SAR and they’ll map it and make an educated guess about what is probably going on.

“It’s literally ‘someone is in trouble in this particular real estate;’ that’s all we know,” Mason says.

“We have to make some assumptions. Why are they there, what probably happened. And respond appropriately.”

If you’d like to get involved in the search and rescue team you can contact Dale Mason at [email protected] or 250-569-7036.

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