'Only have 15 or 20 minutes:' Backcountry enthusiasts can't count on fast rescue

Mark McMorris from Canada in action during the X Games Hafjell Big Air Ski final in Hafjell, Norway, Saturday March 11, 2017. Experts say the growing number of skiers and snowboarders enticed by pristine powder in the backcountry shouldn't assume help will arrive quickly if something goes wrong.Snowboard star McMorris, a medal favourite at next year's Winter Olympics, was hurt badly while attempting a jump in British Columbia's backcountry on the weekend.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Geir Olsen/NTB Scanpix via AP

CALGARY - Experts say the growing number of skiers and snowboarders enticed by pristine powder in the backcountry shouldn't assume help will arrive quickly if something goes wrong.

Snowboard star Mark McMorris, already an Olympic medallist and a favourite at next year's Winter Games, was hurt badly while attempting a jump in the backcountry near Whistler, B.C., on the weekend.

It's not known how long it took to get the 23-year-old native of Regina off the mountain. He was airlifted from Whistler to a Vancouver hospital, where he is recovering from a broken jaw, broken left arm, ruptured spleen, stable pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed left lung.

More and more people are venturing into the wilderness in search of the freshest snow, said Luke Penner, snow sports product leader with Mountain Equipment Co-op in North Vancouver.

"It's definitely gaining popularity. Right now self-propelled snow adventures are probably the fastest-growing part of the snow sports industry," he said Monday.

"We've definitely seen that in sales of backcountry gear."

Penner has been skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry for 20 years.

"I think you get addicted to powder and you just want it all the time," said Penner, who added that spots along the Sea-to-Sky Highway and in Glacier National Park are among some of the favourites for B.C. backcountry aficionados.

Penner has known people who have been hurt and have had to be rescued, so he knows how important it is to be prepared.

"You're on your own to make that rescue happen, so you need to have the training, have the gear and knowledge to do that yourself," he said.

"Having wilderness first aid is always an asset for going into the back country."

Karl Klassen, warning service manager at Avalanche Canada, said he's seen growing interest in backcountry adventures over the last decade or so.

"People are interested in getting away from heavily tracked and groomed snow at the ski hills, getting into the wilderness where you're more in touch with nature."

Klassen, who is also a professional mountain guide based in Revelstoke, B.C., recommends taking at least a weekend avalanche training course before heading into the wilderness.

He said a transceiver, probe and shovel are essential, but avoiding an avalanche in the first place is the best defence.

"The bottom line really is if you're caught in an avalanche and you're buried, you really only have 15 or 20 minutes before the chance of survival is very, very low," he said.

"So whatever technique you use to call for help, it doesn't negate the fact that immediate companion rescue by the other people in your group is probably what's going to save your life.

"By the time a rescue team gets there in most cases in Canada, it's generally speaking too late."

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