Long weekend a ‘perfect storm’ for Squamish SAR

More calls for help during statutory holidays in Sea to Sky Corridor

While long weekends typically see the highest call volume for Search and Rescue units across the province, BC AdventureSmart executive director Sandra Riches said the B.C. Day response in the Sea to Sky Corridor was an ‘anomaly.'

"It was the perfect storm, so to speak. It was perfect weather, a couple of festivals happening throughout Squamish and Whistler," Riches said, noting both the Squamish Days Loggers Sports and Whistler's Wanderlust yoga festival took place over B.C. Day weekend. "Everyone had the time off and everyone wanted to be outside."

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Squamish SAR responded to at least six calls over the weekend, with multiple calls coming in virtually back-to-back for consecutive days, BJ Chute, the president of the Squamish Search and Rescue unit, told The Chief.

Thursday, Aug. 1

The call from two climbers stranded in the Tantalus range took days, stretching from Thursday to Saturday morning. That day, there was also a missing woman at Elfin Lakes.

Friday, Aug. 2

The volunteers responded to the Tantalus call all day.

Saturday, Aug. 3

As the 40-hour Tantalus rescue was wrapping up on Saturday, and the two climbers were transported to the hospital, the next call came in about a climber with non-life threatening injuries after a fall at Cheakamus Canyon.

Sunday, Aug. 4

The second fatality of the summer on the Stawamus Chief required a 12-hour response from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

During the day, a senior hiker also fractured their leg on the trail between the Sea to Sky Gondola and the Chief, but other first responders were able to take care of the call without SAR assistance.

As the SAR volunteers were cleaning up their staging location from the fatal fall, another call came in: a possible body in the Squamish River. It turned out to be a 'non-event', Chute said.

Monday, Aug. 5

On the statutory holiday, SAR had to retrieve gear from the Chief via a helicopter longline. As they finished putting their equipment together, a mountain biker sustained a leg injury on Half Nelson. Just as the volunteers were going home around 7:30 p.m. from that call, an exhausted hiker had to be rescued off the Sea to Summit Trail.

"Obviously, it was an extremely busy and taxing weekend for our team," Chute said. "I think our team, as it always has, has come together and really did shine this weekend. It really is a commitment of the volunteers of Squamish SAR that I'd like to recognize."

Of the dozens of volunteers, there are seven SAR managers who take turns co-ordinating response calls in Squamish. Chute said there are no official protocols specifically for long-weekend response, but the team members are in contact about who is around and available.

"We're in constant communication on a daily basis throughout the entire summer, if not a little bit more leading into the long weekends to make sure that somebody is going to be around and that we do have coverage for this potential of a second call coming in as well," Chute said of the SAR managers.

When it's significantly warmer and drier than usual, Chute said they know people will be more fatigued and their decision-making can be impacted.

"That heatwave just tends to drive people to the outdoors," he said.

Even when it's not a long weekend, from the Fraser Valley to Lillooet, Riches said, "this whole corridor is our B.C. search and rescues’ highest call volume area."

She added there is no question that the impact of more people in the region leads to more distress calls to local SAR teams.

"There are pros and cons to the increase in outdoor recreation use," she said. "These long weekends are indicative of a lot of outdoor recreation use. The corridor is getting inundated by residents, new Canadians and tourists."

Why the corridor? Riches said it comes down to easy access, which she said often gives people a false sense of security.

"We get into a different mindset... when things are easily accessible by car, by foot, by bike, by paddling or boating. That places us in a very relaxed state of mind, per se, and the outdoor recreationalists aren't preparing enough," Riches said.

Ahead of long weekends, Riches said BC AdventureSmart ramps up its public safety messages and in-person presentations to help the search and rescue volunteers and other first responders. The free AdventureSmart app is available nation-wide, and almost 70 per cent of the app's downloads are in B.C., Riches said.

But because outdoor recreation continues to increase, Riches said they may not be able to reduce the number of calls coming in. Instead, increasing awareness about preparation techniques is the focus.

"Incidents will happen, but we can reduce the severity of them," she said.

Chute said, regardless of if there's a long weekend, recreationalists must be prepared for the elements and the terrain — and to self-rescue.

Even a little bit of research beforehand, he said, can go a long way.

In addition to the app, BC AdventureSmart also offers free training and outdoor education sessions individuals and groups can book. Find more information and tips at www.adventuresmart.ca.

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