As the days get colder, wetter and darker, the search and rescue units that volunteer to serve Squamish are getting ready to face the elements. Are you?
While the summer season sees the height of calls for Squamish Search and Rescue, in winter those calls average at three to five a month, BJ Chute, the president of Squamish SAR said. In November and December of 2018, there were three calls per month, a height of six in January 2019, one in February, five in March and three in April.
Chute said the recreation ranges from what many would consider spring and summer sports to those more associated with the cold winter season.
"It was everything from injured mountain bikers still, stranded hikers, and then we had some of our more typical winter responses, either snowshoers or skiers who were lost or injured in the backcountry. It was a pretty big smattering of different types of responses last winter," he said.
In January, they responded to a climbing fall on Conroy Forest Service Road, which Chute said he didn't think was ice-related. Another climbing-related call came in February. Chute said their call log doesn't show any responses for the snowmobile community last winter season.
"In the summertime, we know we're going to do a lot of calls to the Chief," Chute said. "In the wintertime, we know we're going to do the majority of our calls towards Garibaldi Park. I think that's just the fact that a lot of people that go out there. It's easy to get there, it's well known."
For the Squamish Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (RCM SAR) unit, which responds to marine-based rescues primarily on Howe Sound, however, there are fewer boaters on the water, but an increase in the severity of calls.
"We still get the odd call," RCM SAR Squamish Station 4's Scott Shaw-MacLaren told The Chief. "There are less people on the water, but calls can end up being a little more serious in nature when folks either breakdown or have trouble with winter winds and cold water."
RCM SAR has welcomed seven new recruits, who began on Nov. 28, bringing their total to 31 active members.
"The fall and winter is pretty focused on the initial training," Shaw-MacLaren said. "Then our existing crews get the opportunity to do a little bit more intense, regular training in the darkness, in the winter, strong outflow winds."
Squamish SAR is usually about 60 volunteers strong, Chute said, with a new addition of 10 recruits expected to complete the final stages of their training in February, once they pass their field responses including an overnight exam.
Conditions and preparation
"They should be aware of the colder temperatures, the wind chill. It's not uncommon to get freezing spray in Howe Sound when it's really windy," Shaw-MacLaren said. "Because of the cooler temperatures and the denser air, a given wind speed will also whip up larger waves. The waves can be a lot bigger as they move south in the sound, because they'll have more strength and more fetch in the other direction. [With] the darkness coming on earlier, you may plan to be off the water, have a small problem, and the next thing you know it's dark."
Of the low visibility the season brings, Shaw-MacLaren said, "It increases the risks for us a little bit. We train to operate in those conditions, but any time the weather is worse, our risk factors go up so we have to be a little bit more aware of that. Our being out in the freezing cold, we may not be able to search as long before we have to switch off crews."
Shaw-MacLaren recommends ensuring your vessel is in tip-top shape, that personal floatation devices are always worn, boaters have enough clothing in case they stay out longer than planned, and have an effective way to call for help.
"The best way to do that is VHF [Very High Frequency]. If they don't have a VHF radio, they should consider getting one and getting trained appropriately to do that," Shaw-MacLaren said.
As for land-based conditions, Chute said the freezing conditions should be approached with preparation experience and knowledge. When lakes freeze over, recreationalists should keep in mind how quickly temperatures fluctuate and take care to know how thick ice should be to hold weight.
According to the Canadian Red Cross, ice should be 15 centimetres for a single person walking or skating alone, 20 cm for skating parties or games and 25 cm for snowmobiles.
Likewise, people should be careful not to underestimate how much snow there may be at higher elevations. Trails that are accessible during warmer months may have different hazards in the winter seasons.
"A significant point is that people do need to be aware and even cautious of the light here, and just how early it does get dark, and have a real understanding that that could have a significant impact on our ability to respond in a timely fashion," Chute said.
"If we are not able to fly into an area, for example, or we're not in a position to travel through avalanche terrain at night. It's going to delay our response capabilities — not because the team is ill-prepared, but because we just simply are not able to put our members at risk like that. It does have a significant impact. We do tend to see the majority of calls for help quite late in the day, so I think another good message for people is if they are in trouble, the earlier they call, the better it is."
The ability to self-rescue is important, Chute said, recommending bringing appropriate layers, extra clothes, water, food and shelter. If heading to avalanche terrain, the essentials include a beacon, probe and shovel — and knowing how to use them. At a minimum, Chute recommends taking the Avalanche Skills Training 1 (AST1) course.
"It's similar to a first aid kit: It doesn't really do anybody any good if they don't have the training to use it as well," Chute said.
At the time of his Nov. 29 interview with The Chief, Shaw-MacLaren said the Squamish RCM SAR unit is currently waiting for equipment. Earlier this year, the crew's vessel had engine issues. Shaw-MacLaren said a significant portion of the funds needed to fix the vessel were raised by the community, and it's currently in the shop for its scheduled refit.
"It's in a million pieces over on Vancouver Island right now, being totally rebuilt. So when it comes back, it'll be a brand new boat," he said. "That means it's gone for two months, at least."
In the meantime, a boat from the Horseshow Bay station is on loan, but faces mechanical issues. That doesn't mean the Squamish region of Howe Sound is on its own — there are still the active rescue and response operations from Horseshoe Bay and Gibsons, as well as the Coast Guard. All can be called via VHF radio. The Squamish RCM SAR volunteers, Shaw-MacLaren said, hope to be active in the next few weeks.
The best thing someone can do if they find themselves unprepared for the elements or a hazard, Chute said, is to know when to turn back.
"We really do want to encourage people to go out and recreate, because that's why we all move to Squamish," Chute said.
"The more educated, prepared and more training people have, the more enjoyable a time they're going to have when they're out recreating in the wintertime."
Find more resources and tips for preparation at AdventureSmart (also available as a trip planning app).