KAMLOOPS – According to local search and rescue members there are typically only a couple rescues per year at the second largest ski resort in the province but after four searches in nine days staff at Sun Peaks are trying to figure out how to keep people safer, especially as they face a potentially record breaking year for number of guests.
Three 14-year-old boys were rescued after skiing out of bounds on the west side of Tod Mountain Dec. 23 and on that Friday Kamloops Search and Rescue was called out to help find two missing sisters after they went out of bounds. While on that call a U.S. Woman in her 40s was reported missing out of bounds as well. Then on New Year's Eve a 24-year-old Ontario man also got lost out of bounds off of Tod Mountain. All seven skiers were found in good health and brought back to safety by search and rescue teams.
Tourism Sun Peaks President Christopher Nicolson says visibility of out of bounds markers is not the issue, the entire 3,678 acres of skiable terrain is marked off by 10-foot high posts, double ropes and signage clearly warning of the risk and consequences.
“People have to physically go out of the way to cross over, they are making a purposeful decision to cross that boundary,” Nicolson notes. “Responsible back country ski activity comes with the responsibility of having training... the right equipment and the training to use all that equipment.”
Tools such as probes, compass, shovel, avalanche air bags and digital receivers along with knowledge of the area and those tools can make back country activities safer, according to Nicolson, who does not condemn all back country skiing and believes it can be a great activity, if you're properly prepared.
“What this story is about is people being unprepared,” he says of the seven skiers that have had to be rescued over the busy holiday season. “They didn't have the knowledge, skill or expertise (to be in the back country.)”
Just because people ski out of bounds does not automatically mean they will be charged, though every resort in B.C. has the right to do so. Because search and rescue is so involved Sun Peaks staff are often involved in limited amounts, usually only at the beginning of the search when there is still daylight.
“We have the people, equipment and expertise, we can go in with only 60 minutes left before dark,” Nicolson says, adding there is often a delay for rescue crews to get up to the hill. “There's an immediacy there Sun Peaks can offer.”
Nicolson explains that within the ski boundary area ski patrol is the lead agent but outside of that search and rescue groups take control. If a ski operator is asked to assist most will charge for that service though, even when search and rescue groups won't.
Sun Peaks has conducted searches without the aid of search and rescue and while they are not uncommon the local rescue group is called in whenever they believe it could be an overnight rescue operation. Rescues aren't needed that often though because all (controlled) paths lead down to the village.
“As you get off lift you are skiing down into the valley where there's the village, golf course and parking lots,” Nicolson says, “But if you cross that ski area boundary that's a whole other scenario.”
At Sun Peaks charging for rescues is a case by case basis decision and while Nicolson says they have charged for services in the past and a number of factors influence that decision, including the number of staff on duty, fuel if equipment is used, difficulty of the rescue, time of year and even the actual people needing rescue.
“Over 20 years I've seen situations where the wrath of parents would far exceed any financial penalty,” Nicolson notes. “Some can be very emotional and want to be proactive to help get the message out (about safety of staying in bounds.) Publicity around safe conduct has a lot of value.”
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