Overnight rescue saves out of bounds skier at Alberta resort
February 13, 2023 By Laurie Tritschler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze
A British Columbia man is lucky to be alive after a backcountry avalanche forced a helicopter rescue near Castle Mountain Resort (CMR) over February 3 and 4.
The 34-year-old Nelson resident was skiing solo at the resort Friday, when at around 3 p.m. he ventured out of bounds somewhere along the far north of the mountain’s alpine reach, according to CMR manager Cole Fawcett and Pincher Creek RCMP.
“He made the decision and was consciously aware that he was crossing over the ski area boundary,” Fawcett said, stressing that the resort’s boundaries are “pretty, pretty clear.”
The man was in trouble not half an hour later. In an extraordinary stroke of luck, he was able to find cellular reception and call 911.
Dispatch operators were able to determine his rough whereabouts, leading CMR’s rescue crew to find him halfway down the mountain about five hours later.
“Without him alerting 911, who knows when we would’ve found out that there was someone back there — or if we would’ve found out,” Fawcett said.
A medium-sized avalanche had swept the man down 250 metres of rocky slope, causing non-life-threatening injuries to his back and legs before small trees held up the snarling wall of snow.
Mounties wasted no time phoning in a helicopter rescue, but it was too late to scramble the chopper in the dying light, Sgt. Ryan Hodge told Shootin’ the Breeze.
Rescue teams from CMR and Southwest Alberta Regional Search and Rescue had reached the man by 1 a.m. Saturday, bringing much-needed provisions, including sleeping bags.
The stricken skier was airlifted by Kananaskis Country Public Safety at around 9:30 a.m., and promptly taken to Lethbridge’s Chinook Regional Hospital, Hodge said.
“This is the third helicopter rescue the detachment’s had to put together (in the region) in the last 12 months,” Hodge said.
Fawcett said Castle Mountain’s ski patrol occasionally bails out guests who’ve taken a wrong turn on a designated ski run, but emergency rescues are well outside the norm.
“I’ve been here seven years and I can’t recall an instance where we’ve had to sling someone out on a helicopter,” he told the Breeze. CMR employs between 20 and 25 highly trained rescue personnel every season, but Fawcett repeatedly stressed that they can’t control anything that happens out of bounds.
The rescued skier had travelled so far over the line that he was probably closer to the Syncline Valley than the ski village when rescuers found him.
“But, it doesn’t matter if you’re six feet or 600 feet on the other side of the boundary. That line separates an area that is closely monitored and patrolled from one that absolutely isn’t,” Fawcett explained.
The skier was not equipped with an avalanche airbag, which can keep someone near the surface of a moving avalanche when deployed correctly. Nor was he kitted out with an avalanche safety kit.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered if he had been, because it’s nearly impossible to rescue yourself after an avalanche, Fawcett said.
Fawcett and Hodge praised the rescuers from CMR and Southwest Alberta Regional SAR.