North Shore Rescue has a pre-plan referred to as our “Code Alpha” Avalanche Response plan. This plan is put into motion when NSR receives a tasking for a known or suspected burial of a person (or persons) in an Avalanche. This pre-plan rapidly brings together professionals with expertise in avalanche rescue, avalanche forecasting, avalanche control, and advanced medical care. It ensures a rapid response, while also ensuring that rescuer safety is the foremost consideration. When an NSR team member sees “Code Alpha” on a tasking, they know it is extremely serious. This weekend, the Code Alpha pre-plan was put to the test.
In the earlier afternoon, on Saturday March 4, two backcountry skiers were skiing on Hollyburn Mtn. One of the skiers triggered an avalanche and was swept down approximately 400 feet through trees, off a cliff and was buried in Tony Baker Gully. The skiers were prepared and had avalanche beacons, probes and shovels. The 2nd skier was able to ski down and locate his partner using his beacon and probe. Luckily there was another ski team of 5 in the gully that saw the incident and skied down to assist and dig. One of these individuals hiked up to make the 911 call.
The team of skiers dug down 6 feet and were able to clear snow from the buried skiers face so he could breath. It was discovered that the subject had sustained multiple injuries during the slide. NSR was subsequently notified via cell phone of the avalanche and responded to the area via helicopter. The team was able to hover exit close to the subjects location and began providing medical care.
Once stabilized, the subject was then flown out from the scene via a long line under the helicopter, back to Capilano SAR station near Cleveland Dam. Due to the subjects condition NSR’s medical team made the extraordinary decision to transfer him into the helicopter and fly to Grand Blvd in North Vancouver. This location is close to Lions Gate Hospital, where the patient could receive rapid and definitive care. NSR’s advanced medical team transferred the subject to BC Ambulance Paramedics upon landing near Grand Blvd who provided further treatment, and raced him to hospital.
Currently the skier is in serious condition in the hospital.
These two skiers where prepared with proper avalanche gear. If they did not have the correct gear and training, the skier buried in the avalanche would have died. Furthermore, this individual was extremely lucky that another party was nearby. Digging down 6 feet without multiple people to share the work would be very challenging, and much more time consuming.
Ultimately, if Avalanche conditions are elevated, people should not be skiing, boarding or traveling in these areas. No matter how well prepared you are, it means little if you are traveling through terrain where the risk cannot be mitigated. Before you head out, get on http://www.avalanche.ca (and download their awesome app for Android and Iphone), and further check the Environment Canada weather forecast. Regardless of what the forecast says, be conscious of the terrain you are traveling through, and be aware of signs of snowpack instability. If it’s not looking good, call it day.
Frankly, there are days when the risk is so high, the best decision is to stay in bounds…this was one of those days.
NSR would like to thank BC Ambulance Service, Talon Helicopters, Cypress Ski Patrol, Metro Vancouver staff, the team of 5 skiers, and Lions Gate Hospital staff for their invaluable assistance.