Backcountry Winter Safety

More and more people visiting Fernie during the winter are drawn to spending time in the amazing backcountry, whether on skis/snowboards, snowshoes or a snowmobile. The current global health challenge is likely to increase further the numbers of people looking for socially-distanced recreation in the wilderness.

While the experience can be one of the highlights of your time in Fernie, once outside controlled areas (essentially Fernie Alpine Resort), you are exposed to substantial avalanche risk. Fernie’s legendary deep powder and steep mountains can be fatal if not approached with respect.

Fernie Search and Rescue (SARS) is operationally ready to respond 24/7 to winter emergencies, however it is better for everyone to minimize the need for our services.

As such, here are some thoughts for anyone planning a trip to the backcountry.

Make sure you are safe:
Check the weather report
Maybe it’s going to warm up and howl with rain, not a good time to be in the backcountry.

Check the AvCan website 
Make sure you know the avalanche risk in your area. Read it all season, so you can track the trends, not just when heading out.

Choose your partners well
Don’t go alone and don’t go with that guy bragging at the bar about secret stashes. Make sure the people you head out with have similar objectives, risk appetite and fitness. Decide who’s in charge and what “go/no-go” criteria you have for the day.

Take the gear, know the gear
You’ll each be taking a transceiver, shovel and probe. Attend a course and make sure you know how to use them; your life may literally depend upon it. Also, take enough gear to be comfortable if things go wrong and you’re stuck there for a while. There are lots of suggested gear lists available online.

Calling for help
No-one expects to, but it happens, otherwise SAR wouldn’t exist. How will anyone know you need help? Will there be cell signal where you are? Are you taking a personal satellite communicator? Whatever you do, don’t forget a Trip Plan. Not sure what that is? Check our website, there’s an online one you can fill in under “Outdoor Safety.”

If you need help:
It doesn’t matter who you are or how well you planned your trip, sometimes things go so wrong that you need outside help. It could be gear issues, you could be lost, someone may be injured or someone may be buried.

Companion Rescue
If some of your party are involved in an avalanche you must immediately begin a companion rescue, do not wait for SAR to arrive. If possible, get a member of the group calling for help at the same time.

Calling for help
Dial 911 and ask for the RCMP and state that it is a backcountry emergency and you will need SAR. No cell signal, then poke your satellite communicator. Don’t have one of those? Then you will need to decide whether to wait on the Trip Plan to kick in, or send someone to raise the alarm.

Never delay a call – it is better to stand down rescue teams than to delay the call until dark.

First aid
Provide what you can with what you have. Keep injured people as warm as possible.

Be visible
It’s hard to spot people in bad weather in the snow, and even harder in trees. Consider means of improving your visibility; fires, waving jackets, reflecting mirrors if it’s sunny, stomp out an SOS in the snow, some people carry mini-flares.

Secure the site
Most times we will be coming in via helicopter. People scattered all over the site, loose clothing or equipment blowing around will all make things a lot harder. Never approach the machine, it will often remain under power. We will come to you.

Be patient
Emergency services never move as fast as those needing help would like; a wilderness setting adds significant challenges. A realistic timeframe from 911 to SAR on-scene is 1-2 hours, longer if the avalanche conditions are high or it is night. We have to gather information from 911 agencies, make avalanche safety assessments, requisition specialized resources. You may see us fly over, come in close and then fly away, often so that we can assess and refine our rescue plan, sometimes so we can reconfigure for longline rescue.

Above all, have fun, play safe and have a great winter.

Simon Piney is Head of Fernie Search and Rescue,