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8 lost skiers helped by search-and-rescue crews near Whistler, B.C., over the weekend

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Rescue crews were kept busy on B.C.'s South Coast over the weekend as multiple calls were made to help lost skiers and hikers on local mountains.

Whistler Search and Rescue said its team received several calls Sunday about skiers who were "trapped in avalanche terrain," while the hazard rating was high. Eight skiers from three separate groups were reported lost.

"At some point it appears that skiers had crossed a well-demarcated ski area boundary rope line and headed into a locals' favourite backcountry area known as the Cakehole in Garibaldi Provincial Park," Brad Sills with WSAR told CTV News in an emailed statement.

"Successful travel through this area and out requires an elevated level of skill, significant local knowledge, appropriate safety gear, physical fitness and a strong mental perseverance level."

Sills explained that, because of the high avalanche rating, rescue teams were unable to access the search zone on skis. Instead, it called North Shore Rescue to help with its night-vision-equipped Talon helicopter. But freezing rain and looming lightning storms delayed the helicopter's takeoff at Vancouver International Airport.

While waiting, WSAR talked one of the lost parties around some obstacles and three skiers made it back within the ski boundary.

"As the night wore on and the subjects, who were in very steep, unstable terrain realized that exiting out the bottom presented more danger than retreating back, were faced with a very difficult choice," Sills said about the remaining skiers.

"Whistler SAR was able to coach them into downloading a navigation app that allowed the rescue team and subjects to monitor their steady progress up to an elevation where a circuitous ski traverse back into the ski area boundary would be possible."

The five remaining skiers were guided to a rescue party waiting in a snowcat – which is an enclosed, tracked vehicle – at about 11 p.m.

"Great work by a whole host of mountain rescue professionals from a multitude of organizations," Sills said. "Another reason why SAR teams push preparedness."

Preparedness is the message from the ski resort as well.

Whistler Blackcomb senior ski patrol manager Adam Mercer says the resort cannot stop people from going out of bounds – but urges them not to do so unless they know what they’re getting into.

"If people are going out of bounds, we encourage them to have the training, knowledge, tools and awareness to do so safely,” Mercer said.

He said ski patrol members are always happy to talk to people about the current conditions and risks in out of bounds areas.

Given the severe avalanche risks this weekend, ski patrol would have strongly discouraged anyone from venturing past the resort boundaries. 

Rescues on the North Shore

Along with assisting WSAR, North Shore Rescue was called to help skiers and hikers on local mountains this weekend.

One operation was to locate a lost skier in Cypress Provincial Park, who called for help himself.

"There is elevated avalanche danger this evening complicating ground responses," a social media post from NSR shared Sunday evening said.

That skier was found below the Howe Sound Crest Trail and helped out, NSR said in an update Monday morning.

"Travel and avalanche conditions were very challenging due to the recent heavy snowfall," the rescue agency's statement said.

On Saturday, NSR was called about a missing hiker who was in the South Knob area of Black Mountain in Cypress Provincial Park. A rescue team used night-vision goggle equipment with a Talon helicopter while a ground crew also responded.

"The individual had done the right thing – left a trip plan with family, so searchers knew her intended route. She had also sent her family map images of her location a few hours prior, when her phone's battery was running low," NSR said in a social media post Sunday.

The hiker was able to make it out on her own, however, so rescue teams stood down. NSR said the hiker and her dog weren't well-equipped for the 70 to 100 centimetres of snow on the ground.

"The dog became skeptical about continuing," the post said. "They took shelter at the outhouse at the junction to rest for a few hours, and when it started to get dark, they embarked home using the limited light sources they had on them."

Preparedness tips

NSR said Saturday's rescue had many "lessons learned," and the agency offered tips for hikers and skiers. Those heading out into the backcountry should leave a trip plan with a trusted source.

As well, taking an external battery back when hiking can be helpful if a rescue is needed.

"The hiker's cellphone, unfortunately, ran out of batteries. This would have made navigation more difficult (as they were relying on it for mapping), and also prevented NSR from 'pinging' their exact location," NSR said about Saturday's search.

Those heading into the backcountry are also urged to prepare for conditions by researching their intended route, confirming the weather forecast and packing essentials with them

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Ben Miljure

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