Friday July 11, 2014

Powder, peace and quiet a lure for out-of-bounds skiers

Fresh powder and an escape from the crowds is what likely prompted seven skiers to venture out of bounds at Sun Peaks Resort in nine days, an avid skier said Wednesday.

"That's the draw; to get away from the crowds and busyness of the ski hill," said Phil Sigalet, who has himself ventured out of bounds at the resort.

"There's definitely softer snow."

Sun Peaks ski patrol, Kamloops Search and Rescue and the RCMP made quick work of finding the most recent lost out-of-bounds skier on Tuesday afternoon.

The patrol was monitoring the west bowl when it noticed tracks going under the boundary rope and heading west just before 3 p.m.

"Particularly on that side of the mountain that's unusual," said Christopher Nicolson, Sun Peaks Tourism president.

Patrollers followed the tracks into the backcountry as far as they could but weren't able to find the skier. So they reported the incident, triggering a search and rescue hunt.

At around the same time, a man reported that his son - a 24-year-old Ontario man - hadn't linked up with his family by noon as anticipated.

Search and rescue called RCMP, which dispatched a helicopter and quickly found the missing skier in the backcountry.

The helicopter pilot was challenged with finding a landing spot, but the skier was found and returned safely to the village by nightfall.

Nicolson said the man was in good condition. He gave "kudos" to the patrol for its quick action, but reminded skiers it doesn't mean they can be careless.

"We're obviously really concerned about our guests' safety," said Nicolson. "But I don't want to suggest that people going into the backcountry can rely on (ski patrols) - they shouldn't. If going into the backcountry, they should be self-reliant."

It's the seventh skier to get into trouble in the Sun Peaks backcountry in nine days, which is "very unusual" for the resort, said Nicolson.

There's more snow at Sun Peaks than in many other areas, which could be a contributing factor, he said. The resort is also busier this season than last, with more people coming from out of town.

Sigalet has skied out of bounds at Sun Peaks on several occasions. If well prepared with a compass, digital avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe - plus knowledge of the area - it can be quite safe, he said.

"If you go with someone who knows where they're going, there really is very little risk," he said. "People shouldn't be scorned for going out of bounds when they are well prepared."

However, the ropes are there for a reason, said Sigalet. The mountain can get socked in with low cloud and the terrain is heavily forested. Those unfamiliar with the area can easily become disorientated and lost.

"You can't go as a newcomer to the area and think you're going to be OK," said Sigalet. "There are very few ski areas that don't have this issue."

One of the seven missing skiers was a woman from Seattle.

Kamloops Search and Rescue spokesman Alan Hobler said his volunteers usually track down two out-of-bounds skiers a season at Sun Peaks.

As to why there are more this season? He said every case is different.

"I don't think there's anything attributing to this cluster of call-out," said Hobler. "But, if there's more people, there's more probability of people going out of bounds."

Sun Peaks Resort may look at taking action to address the increasing instances of missing out-of-bounds skiers, said Nicolson.

"We're still in the height of our season so we'll think about boardroom meetings after the New Year."

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