Monday, April 19, 2004

Backcountry Skiers Rescued from Blizzard on Spearhead Traverse

Backcountry Skiers Rescued from Blizzard on Spearhead Traverse

Skiers trapped in the Whistler alpine wilderness for six days.

March 19th, 2004

Geoffery Orr, 29, and Michal Opolsky, 26, from NorthVancouver, B.C., had planned to ski the Spearhead Traverse, a major alpine tour that crosses 18 glaciers between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains. They had expected to complete the traverse in four days but low visibility and spring storms trapped them on the mountains for nearly a week.

Tuesday 16th March 2004
After three days of touring the two skiers became disoriented in heavy cloud on the glaciers and at one point were alarmed to find their ski tips hanging over a void. They cautiously attempted to backtrack to their last know position, make camp for the night and wait out the poor weather. They had previously advised friends to allow them one extra day to finish the tour before calling search and rescue.

By Tuesday evening when the pair had not returned to Whistler family friends became worried.

"We negotiated for 18 hours and finally made the call to Search and Rescue at 7 p.m. on Wednesday," said Andrea Rodman, Orr's girlfriend. "We spent all night waiting and finally came up to Whistler to help."

Wednesday 17th March 2004
On Wednesday bad weather rolled into the mountains as a late spring storm dumped heavy snow onto the mountains. Avalanche conditions and visibility were so bad that mountain guides suspended all heli-skiing operations in the range.

Orr and Opolsky finished building their camp just before the major storm hit. Huge quantities of snow began to fall, followed by high winds, loading all of the mountain slopes to a dangerous avalanche condition.

"The toughest part was finding a place to pitch our tent," Orr said. "Once we were in the tent, it was like World War 2 because 150-km/h winds threatened to flatten us. We were worried of being buried alive, but as soon as the snow piled up, the wind would pick up and completely unbury us."

Thursday 18th March 2004
At the Whistler SAR Base searchers prepared for a major rescue mission. It was known that the pair had only enough food and fuel for three to four days and by Thursday evening six days had already passed. Heavy storms continued to pummel the mountains and only one brief helicopter sortie was completed. There were still no signs of the missing skiers.

On Thursday evening mutual aid SAR teams of alpine�skilled searchers were called in from Pemberton SAR, Squamish SAR, Lions Bay SAR, North Shore Rescue, Central Fraser Valley SAR, RidgeMeadows SAR and Surrey SAR.

Creating Assignments using the
'Incident Commander' software

A computer network running the 'Incident Commander' software was installed at the Whistler SAR Base to manage the incident. Mission briefings, field assignments, digital images and maps of the Spearhead Range, portraits of the skiers, weather reports and waypoint routes of the entire traverse, for navigation in a whiteout, were all incorporated into the computerized Incident Action Plan.

Avalanche control experts and mountain guides from the Whistler ski resort offered their assistance in assessing the avalanche conditions and preparing for an alpine style rescue attempt should the weather clear.

Meanwhile high in the alpine the storm was raging. The embattled skiers began digging out their buried equipment, rebuilding their camp and rationing their remaining food and fuel. They ate just one meal of cold oatmeal for breakfast and only the cold alpine air for �dinner� in the evening.

Outside their camp 50 to 60 centimeters of snow fell within 24 hours, greatly increasing the risk of an avalanche.

"Wind slabs were created, making the backcountry very susceptible to human-triggered avalanches," said Brad Sills of Whistler Search and Rescue. "The skiers were last spotted on Platform Glacier on Sunday, which is a heavily glaciated area with wide crevasses due to a low snowpack."

Friday 19th March 2004
On Friday morning search teams attempted to fly over the Spearhead Traverse and land at various locations, to assess the snow stability along the route. Unfortunately heavy clouds obscured most of the higher mountains and passes and, shortly after midday, all of the aerial searching was called off.

With the air searching halted search teams were then assigned to ground deployments at lower elevations, to examine the main exit routes out of the range, including the toe of the main glaciers.

Late on Friday afternoon the clouds parted briefly, permitting the helicopters to continue their searching. With little remaining fuel one of the helicopters found a gap in the cloud and began to search two high probability alpine passes. As they flew over the Tremor / Shudder Col they spotted two skiers below. Landing quickly they identified the pair as the missing skiers and rapidly bundled them into the helicopter. Once the area was clear a second helicopter landed and collected all of their equipment. As the clouds rolled back over the mountains the helicopters transported the skiers back to the Whistler town-site, to waiting friends and a host of local media.

Michal Opolsky & Geoff Orr

"The hard part was the waiting in zero visibility and hearing the choppers overhead. We wanted to get out of there so bad, but we knew it was not the time to go anywhere," Finally when the clouds parted briefly and the helicopter landed. "I thought, 'Oh my God, it's blue sky and we are going home,'" Orr said.

Despite their six day ordeal neither skier suffered any significant injury, although both were thirsty and hungry. Their wise decision to stay put in their shelter and wait out the bad weather was a major factor in the eventual safe recovery.
"We are just excited to be back and be among family and friends," Orr said. "There was no room for bad decisions."