By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
The Free Press (Fernie, B.C.)
Dec. 7, 1994

The chilling call rolled across the hill through the icy air.

“I’ve got a body here,” a searcher yelled matter-of-factly after digging through several feet of snow. “He’s dead.”

Calls similar to that one echoed around the avalanche site for most of Saturday afternoon. And despite the fact that no one was really dead, the words posed a grim reminder of the potential for disaster on our mountains.

The “disaster” was actually an avalanche rescue exercise hosted by Island Lake Lodge Dec. 3. About 50 people from Fernie Snow Valley, the Provincial Emergency Program, Cranbrook’s Sno-Much-Fun Cat Skiing, Island Lake Mountain Tours and other organizations braved temperatures around -20C to take part in the day-long program. Last year, a similar exercise was hosted by Sno-Much-Fun.

The rescuers tackled four simulated avalanche scenarios — from buried skiers to swamped snowmobilers — that tested their safety, first aid, search, organization and communication skills and demanded different rescue strategies.

Under strict direction from search leaders, rescuers scoured a mountainside with transceivers (devices that send and receive radio signals), long metal probes, shovels and a sniffer dog to find simulated victims.

According to organizer Steve Kuijt, the exercise was held with a clear purpose in mind: “To get everybody in the rescue field working together in preparation so we don’t become the problem….It’s a preparation for hopefully what doesn’t happen.”

Rather than make the exercise a competition, the emphasis was on cooperation, Kuijt said.

“It’s not for ‘who’s best,’” he explained. “The idea is to try to save lives by getting our rescue procedures smoother. If we’ve already worked together once, then all the better.”

Accident-site commander Gord Ohm said the exercise went well but there were some problems. For instance, communication trouble pointed out the need for more radios, Ohm said.

He added that the fact that a number of searchers with probes passed directly over a buried simulated victim without finding him underlined how much care has to be taken in a search.

Base leader Brian Johnston said the exercise pointed out the need for snowmobilers, cat skiers and other outdoor adventurers to wear transceivers in case they are caught in an avalanche.

Because the odds of survival while buried under snow are reduced to 10 per cent after 10 minutes, wearing a transceiver may be one’s only hope of being found alive, Johnston said.

Kuijt said the exercise was a success and that the rescuers’ level of confusion lowered as the day went on.

“That’s why it’s so important that we practise.”