TRAINING TERRAIN  Volunteers brace themselves against a wash of snow as an RK Heliski helicopter lifts off at the Columbia Valley Search and Rescues March 5th avalanche scenario near Panorama. Photo by Greg Amos

TRAINING TERRAIN Volunteers brace themselves against a wash of snow as an RK Heliski helicopter lifts off at the Columbia Valley Search and Rescues March 5th avalanche scenario near Panorama. Photo by Greg Amos

By Greg Amos

Special to The Pioneer

History repeated itself for Columbia Valley Search and Rescue earlier this month in a large-scale avalanche rescue scenario based in part on an actual incident near Panorama in 2012.

This years exercise, held just out of bounds on the Jessies Monster run adjacent to Panorama Mountain Resort on Saturday, March 5th, involved co-ordinating between multiple East Kootenay search and rescue groups, who brought their own personnel, expertise and equipment to bear on a mock scenario that involved nine missing skiers after a large spring avalanche on the steep slope.

Its a very large scale accident that isnt entirely common around here, but its something that we want to be prepared for, said Columbia Valley Search and Rescue president J.C. Morel, who took on the role of search manager in the incident. That was the idea with having multiple burials and having multiple agencies involved in it as well; not just our local group, but groups from all over the East Kootenay.

The fictional incident arose a week after a heavy snowfall during a Purcell Mountains avalanche forecast of considerable danger in the alpine and treeline elevations, and moderate danger below treeline. A southwesterly wind had loaded the steep upper slopes of Jessies Monster when a group of four skiers wearing avalanche beacons were buried. An additional five skiers were seen in the runout zone further downslope.

The 19 volunteers taking part, including members from the Columbia Valley Search and Rescue, Panorama Fire Department, Panorama Ski Patrol, and search and rescue members from Cranbrook, Fernie and Trail, began their search in the afternoon and had located the first four buried skiers within 20 minutes. Volunteers used companion rescue methods (using beacons, probes and shovels), Recco Advanced Rescue Technology, and the keen nose of Summit, an avalanche rescue dog in training, for the Columbia Valley group.

RK Heliski provided transport to and from the search site, allowing the group to practise packaging and loading a victim for helicopter transport. Panorama Fire Department member Thomas Dolezal who took part in a real rescue effort after an April 1st, 2012 avalanche on the same run swept an Invermere woman 200 to 300 metres downslope and over a cliff, causing serious injuries had a chance to experience the rescue from a victims point of view.

I got to experience being wrapped up in a proper mountain rescue vacuum pack, and feel what it was like to get taken down, and how precarious it could actually be if you were completely broken and in agony, he said.

The weather during the scenario varied from cloudy to heavy snow to bright sunshine, posing some questions as to whether a helicopter would be able to extract the victim. The practice also offered a chance to explore the minor unexpected hitches that could prove costly in a real rescue.

You can practise in smaller scenarios, but until you get on the skis and on the snow theres always little technical issues that you dont think will happen, said four-year Columbia Valley Search and Rescue member Andrew Brennan, who led a probe line aimed at finding skiers buried without beacons.

We had radio issues today; I had a transceiver issue personally as it automatically reverts back to send mode when you are searching, but not moving enough.

Mr. Morel, who has worked in search and rescue for 11 years (as a ski patroller and avalanche forecast team member at Panorama Mountain Village, and also as a local search and rescue member since 2008), said several volunteers on March 5th had never taken part in a rescue scenario before.

To have them come out and see how rescues are performed is a huge learning opportunity for everyone involved, he said. Every year Ive done some sort of organized rescue training and practice. After getting more experience over the years, you start to fill more of a chief role; getting that kind of experience personally is really valuable.

The Columbia Valley Search and Rescue co-ordinates an avalanche rescue scenario in February or March every year. Last years scenario took place in Paradise Basin (in the Toby Creek Adventures snowmobiling area), and was held on the Elmo run at Panorama the year prior. The idea is always to explore a scenario within the groups typical terrain, which spreads as far north as Spillimacheen and south to Canal Flats, west to the height of land in the Purcell Mountains and to the Alberta border in the Rockies.

The Columbia Valley Search and Rescue team is always looking for new members those with backcountry experience and interest are encouraged to apply by sending an email to columbiavalleysar@gmail.com.