Trent Ernst, Editor
On March 7, at around 10:30 am, a missing snowmobiler was located in the bush, alive and well.
The sledder had been snowmobiling in the Babcock Mountain area. Family and friends were able to locate his sled tracks the previous evening, but were unable to get to the man, who had wound up going up and over the mountain.
According to Search and Rescue (SARs), the man got lost after going up and over the back side of the Superbowl, a popular playground for sledders in the Core Lodge area, and wound up going over a small but icy cliff covered in fresh powder. The man began to search for an alternate way out. Local riders say there is a route into the area, but he wound up going the wrong way into the Barbour Creek drainage and began following the creek downhill.
The man was expected to return around four pm on March 6. When he didn’t show up, family and friends began to worry. Sarah Gamble is the local SARs coordinator. She says that the family alerted Peace River Coal’s Mine Rescue Team and a group of six people, four from the mine rescue team, went out looking for the lost rider. They located his truck and followed his tracks to where they disappeared over the icy cliff, but fog and unfavourable weather conditions, as well as the dark prevented them from following until the next morning.
Gamble says she received a call notifying her that the man was missing at around midnight, and she spend her evening arranging for the search the following morning. Because the man went missing in avalanche terrain, SARs members are not allowed to enter the area until it is determined to be safe.
“The next morning, everyone headed back to those tracks,” says Gamble. “They expected to see him at the base of that slope, because there’s a play area down there. There’s a road you can get out of from there, but he wasn’t aware of the trail out. Classic lost person behavior is to go downhill following creek drainage.”
SARs arrived on scene at around 10 am the next morning, and Avalanche Technician Dave Merritt arrived by helicopter a few minutes later. Gamble had provided the coordinates of where the group the previous evening had tracked the man to, and Merritt and the pilot did a quick flyover, following the sled tracks until they located the missing man, alive and unhurt. He had gone down the creek drainage until he couldn’t go on anymore, his progress blocked by a fairly large waterfall.
Gamble says the man was lucky. He was out by himself without proper avalanche equipment or a SPOT Transmitter.
The pilot dropped off Merritt to check on the man. “He was fine,” says Merritt. “He built himself a fire. It’s always smarter to carry a bit more gear. He kept travelling, which wasn’t the best. He built a fire, he had water.
A search party organized by family and friends were informed that the man had been located. Gamble says that there was some frustration with how long it took SARs to get on scene, which she understands. “I know people want to help, and we did have a lot of volunteers out there, but our primary concern is public safety,” says Gamble. “According to the avalanche bulletin for here, the conditions were dangerous. Natural avalanches could be expected. You don’t want a lot of people back there to get into danger. SARs is a provincial organization. We fall under WCB and are legislated. We legally can’t go on scene until an avalanche technician has assessed the terrain.”
Gamble says she understands what it’s like. “If it were my brother-in-law out there, I’d probably take off my SARs hat and get out there. It’s a natural reaction. But how would the family feel if a searcher were injured or killed looking for their loved one?”
Gamble says a lot of behind the scenes work took place after she got the phone call. The avalanche technician had to be lined up. The helicopter had to be arranged, the SARs trailer had to be packed and made ready. “We are working through the night.”
Avalanche terrain is some of the most dangerous conditions faced by SARs. “If it was a summer situation where there are no terrain risks, we could get in there right away, but as it was, we were limited by darkness, because the helicopter wasn’t able to fly, and because we needed an avalanche technician.”
Gamble says that Search and Rescue is always looking for more recruits. “We have a small but passionate team, and many people, unfortunately, can’t just leave work at a moment’s notice. We’d like to thank all the volunteers for helping out as well as the family for working with us.”
Merritt says that he’s heard rumours that the cost of a rescue like this is passed on to the victim, but says this is not the case. “SARs volunteers will never support a fee for service model. If that was the case, then the family might not have called. Our priority is people. There is no fee and there will never be fees.”
Tumbler Ridge Search and Rescue meets the first and third Tuesday of the month. They will be conducting Ground Search and Rescue Certification Training in the next month. No experience is needed to join.