Terrace Search and Rescue coordinated with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s search and rescue squadron, based at Comox on Vancouver Island, to mount a dramatic rescue of two skiers stranded in the Shames Mountain backcountry late Saturday night, Feb. 9.
The skiers left from Shames Mountain earlier that morning to travel through the backcountry to Anderson Cabin. After trekking 20 kilometres over 12 hours, they found themselves stuck on the northeast side of Mount Amsbury, along the Repeater Ridge.
“We had to go along other ridges, and one of them was 500 metres high with an angle of 35 degrees, and it was all ice,” says Félix Cauffopé, one of the two skiers.
“Any little mistakes or bad luck going up that ridge would have sent us down into really steep slopes, into drainages, and that would have been fatal.”
As the sun set and temperatures dropped below -20 C, their situation became dire. They were able to radio to a third party, who then called Terrace SAR around 6:30 p.m. for help.
Terrace Search and Rescue (SAR) vice-president Dave Jephson says the original plan was to send in a crew that would ski on the ridgeline for two to four hours to try and find the two skiers, but the lack of light made it difficult for avalanche technicians to properly assess the risk, and it was too dangerous for SAR technicians to conduct the rescue on foot.
The second option then was to fly in with a local helicopter in the morning, but because the skiers were not prepared to safely spend the night on the mountain in freezing temperatures, Jephson says the situation turned “grave.”
“We feel they made an error in expectations and didn’t have the correct equipment or the knowledge to be on top of the mountain,” he says.
“You need to take enough supplies to survive a night or two out there in case something goes wrong. Here’s a perfect example — they started out on their trip, it ended up being worse conditions than they thought, they got trapped halfway and had nothing to prepare themselves. Always prepare and plan for the worst.”
To keep warm until rescue crews arrived, Cauffopé says they created a shelter underneath a cabin they found using sleeping bags and blankets to shield themselves from the weather after discovering the front door was blocked.
They also lit a fire, though it was difficult to keep it going with the high winds. Mild hypothermia and frostbite had begun to set in.
A call was made to RCMP, who requested support from Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Victoria, who then called in search and rescue technicians from the Canadian Forces Base (CFB) in Comox, B.C.
“There’s no one here locally who can fly at night…[CFB Comox] have night-time navigation aids, and when they leave their base they leave with everything,” says Terrace SAR president Dwayne Sheppard.
“They made the judgment call, and we agreed that this could end with loss of life or frostbite.”
A crew of five flew from Comox to Terrace in a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter used for air and sea rescues. Sheppard estimated it took at least two hours for the aircraft to travel from Comox to Terrace.
The two skiers were located just after midnight on Feb. 10. and the pilot was able to successfully land, retrieve the skiers and flew them to the Northwest Regional Airport. BC Ambulance Services transferred them to Mills Memorial Hospital. Both were treated for hypothermia, one for frostbite. The two were released later that morning and are recovering from their experience.
“The conditions were perfect in the sense that there were clear skies [and] the JRCC crew were not on another mission… as it is not their mandate to do this,” Jephson says. “Phenomenal skills of the search and rescue technicians, we’re very fortunate that in B.C. we have that resource so close to us.”