Video courtesy of Renata Lewis (@airwolf_md)
In previous years, Whistler Search and Rescue (SAR) would typically receive about two or three calls to help climbers who found themselves lost, stuck or injured in the backcountry, according to Whistler SAR president Brad Sills.
This summer, volunteers have instead responded to three climbing-related calls in just the last two weeks alone. “We've had a sudden reemergence of climbing as an activity that we respond to,” Sills said. “We've not been hugely involved in that over the past decade.”
Crews rescued one of those subjects on July 26 from Mount Weart, near Wedgemount Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park. Rescuers extricated the woman, who Sills estimated was in her late-20s, via a helicopter and long-line from a ridge about 200 metres below the peak’s summit. Part of a party of three, she was scrambling up a four-metre vertical pitch when she fell and landed on her hip, sustaining painful injuries in the process, Sills said.
Fortunately, she landed on the mountain’s narrow ridge, and didn’t fall off either side of the knife-sharp arête. “Likely, she wouldn't have survived that,” Sills said. “She realized just how close she came.”
The incident “kind of reflects the changing face of mountaineering in the South Coast,” he added. “Back in the ’70s, that route—or certainly for good portions of it—you were roped, and it was deemed to be, like, a Class 4 or 5 scramble with lots of exposure. Now, it’s fairly common to see trail runners on it, in just running shoes and Lycra shorts and a cellphone.”
In recent weeks, Whistler SAR also responded to two mutual aid calls from Pemberton SAR: one to help a lead climber who was stuck after veering off-route near Marble Canyon, and another stranded on a ledge near the Train Glacier above Semaphore Lakes.
The incidents are among a flurry of calls that brought an abrupt end to a slower-than-usual start to the season for Whistler’s SAR crews. “It was like the team was on summer vacation—we were all commenting on how nice that was,” Sills said with a laugh. “But in the last two weeks, we've done seven calls, so that's right back up there with a busy summer.”
The other four calls reportedly involved two hikers, a mountain biker and one dirt biker. All were prompted by injuries, “some of them quite significant,” said Sills. In one case, Whistler SAR assisted Whistler Blackcomb patrollers with rescuing a mountain biker who was ultimately transported to a Lower Mainland hospital via air ambulance.
Out of those seven calls, two involved local residents. Five subjects were visiting the corridor from either the Lower Mainland or another country.
Compounding the usual stress associated with a callout this summer is a helicopter pilot shortage impacting crews’ ability to respond to those calls as quickly as they would like.
Sills attributes the shortage not only to a record wildfire season that's keeping many of B.C.’s pilots and aircraft busy battling blazes across the province, but also to stricter federal flight regulations that continue to limit pilot availability since going into effect in December.
If an adventure “involves risk that could possibly entail helicopter rescue, you’d better be prepared to spend the night [outside], because it's very, very, very difficult to get a helicopter right now,” Sills said.
In some cases, “we're waiting sometimes two or three hours for helicopters, and sometimes we don't get them at all,” he added.
Moral of the story? Be prepared with extra layers, food, water, a fully-charged communication device, and other survival items before heading out. Visit adventuresmart.ca for a refresher on the “three Ts”—trip planning, training and taking the essentials—before venturing into the backcountry.