Terrace search and rescue crews saved a local skier Dec. 18 in a high-risk operation in the Shames Mountain backcountry.
The skier and a friend were in an area known as No Dogs when he lost a ski and ended up face down in a tree well, out of sight from his skiing partner. The man was suspended upside down for over two hours, buried underneath layers of fresh snow.
“People die every single year from this type of incident… it’s very, very severe,” says search and rescue vice president Dave Jephson. “Tree wells are incredibly dangerous.”
The skier was able to make a pocket of air to breathe until he was located by his partner, who dug him out and used the inReach emergency system to notify search and rescue around 3:20 p.m.
The skier was conscious, but suffering from hypothermia and unable to move. His partner started a fire using emergency supplies to warm him up, but when the victim’s condition worsened, the pair made the difficult decision to ski 800 metres down to the creek bed to meet search and rescue teams there.
“They felt that was going to be the best for them and that he had enough strength to do that,” says Jephson. “That was truly the turning point, that the two companions were able to help each other out. That made all the difference.”
SAR quickly mobilized, setting up a rescue team in the field, a second command team on the mountain, with two back up teams ready to go from Terrace and Prince Rupert.
The lack of light meant Search and Rescue crews were unable to use the helicopter for this rescue, meaning the only way crews could reach the skiers was to ski through the dark backcountry.
Once avalanche technicians finished their assessment, the four-member team headed out with heavy rescue gear and only their headlights to illuminate the way.
“Coordinating was a challenge, it’s pitch black and it’s pounding down with fresh snow,” Jephson says. “If you had stepped out of your skis, you would have sunk at least four or five feet.”
The team was assisted by Shames Mountain staff to get to the top of the mountain, where they skied down 600 metres to the bottom of the valley and then up another 800 metres to meet the two skiers.
After a medical assessment of the men, the rescue team escorted them on skis back to the Shames Mountain ski lodge.
The lost skier was taken to hospital, treated and released around 1 a.m. Dec. 19.
“This individual was able to dig deep and keep himself alive until his partner showed up, which is miraculous in itself. We were very fortunate,” Jephson says.
Jephson credits the coordination of multiple teams alongside Shames Mountain staff, and the experience of these two backcountry skiers, for the successful rescue.
Even though Shames Mountain was closed, staff were able to activate the lift, snowcat, and as well open the lodge to provide wi-fi services to support SAR in their efforts to assist the two skiers.
“This incident is serious, and one of many that search and rescue trains for,” Jephson says. “The crew we were able to put together last night are some of our best in the area for this. With our partnership and emergency planning that we do with Shames Mountain and their staff, it’s another example of why this was a happy ending.”