IN the spring of 2010, North Shore Rescue began conducting a new yearly training exercise that has an interesting twist.
The operation, dubbed Snowman, involves the rescue of approximately a dozen people caught in an avalanche in some remote corner of the North Shore backcountry.
"Basically, half the victims have died, and the other half are all critically injured, " says Tim Jones, team leader for the volunteer group that provides life-saving services for people who venture into the North Shore mountains. "We have to then get into triage and evacuation."
The unique part of the exercise has to do with the identity of the victims. North Shore Rescue conducts Snowman with a particular group in mind: snowshoers.
It's not a random choice, and it's not some far-fetched scenario that'll likely never happen. In fact, Jones says he's surprised something like this hasn't happened here already.
"Knock on wood. We haven't had this happen yet. But from what we've observed, we can't understand why. We're planning for a worst-case scenario that actually has some validity."
Long considered the domain of fur traders and forest rangers, snowshoeing has exploded in popularity in recent years. But that growth comes at a price, and people may end up paying with their lives if calls for snowshoe safety in the backcountry go unheeded.
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Snowshoeing is often called the fastest-growing winter sport, and a trip to any local sporting goods store bears that out. For several years, North Vancouver's Mountain Equipment Co-op has been selling and renting snowshoes, and business just keeps getting better, says Steven Legault, a product team leader and snow sport specialist at the store.
"Every weekend, we're selling out of snowshoe rentals," he says. "It's a hugely popular sport and it's growing quite quickly."
There are many reasons why people are falling in love with snowshoeing. One of the main reasons is the price: The sport is a massive bargain when compared to the dollars it takes to get set up on skis or a snowboard. A nice pair of snowshoes can be bought for $200 or less or rented for $10-20 at locations around the North Shore.
It's also an activity that is accessible to a huge portion of the population because of its relative ease.
"Almost anyone can do it, from those who are just starting to build their physical fitness all the way up to elite athletes," says Legault. "The barrier to entry is definitely a lot lower (than for skiing or snowboarding)."
Legault also points out that snowshoeing can provide a good workout, and it doesn't have to be an all-day time drain like snowboarding or skiing can be with their long runs and even longer lift lines. And unlike those skill-testing sports, snowshoeing is great for large groups because everyone can keep up.
"It's super popular with families," says Legault. "You're travelling at a lower speed than some other activities; you can kind of keep that group feel. Definitely it can be quite social."
Those points are all true, says North Shore Rescue's Jones, adding that he himself dabbles in the sport and finds it a great winter activity. But many of those same points are the impetus behind NSR's growing concern about the safety of snowshoers on the North Shore. The success of the sport, says Jones, is part of the problem.
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It's all a numbers game, according to North Shore Rescue: The more people who are heading out into the backcountry, the more likely it becomes that there'll be trouble.
"On the North Shore we've got three mountains and three million (potential visitors). Do the math," says Jones. "People really think that because they're so close to civilization that nothing bad can happen to them. That's just not the case."
For many years, skiers and then snowboarders were the usual suspects for North Shore Rescue during wintertime, but snowshoers are now adding to their workload. Jones estimates that their winter work is now divided almost equally between the three sports. And some of the things that make snowshoeing popular are also the things that make it of particular concern for rescuers.
The Snowman training exercise is based on snowshoers because there are large groups of them crawling all over the mountains in areas both safe and suicidal, and some are unprepared for the dangers of the backcountry.
"You'll see huge groups of different people," says Jones. "Climbing groups, social groups, school groups; you name it, they're out there. . . . It's these backcountry areas that people are getting into on snowshoes - sometimes it's very significant numbers - and they run into trouble. We've had to rescue several people. We've had fatalities in the backcountry areas."
It's the large groups that scare NSR the most, particularly when there are avalanche warnings like the one issued for the Sea-to-Sky region after a heavy snowfall two weeks ago. In most ski or snowboard rescues, it's just one or two people in danger. With snowshoeing, that same rescue could be for an entire church choir or Grade 10 class.
"It could be a group of very experienced snowshoers who are caught in an avalanche caused by a very inexperienced ski tour," says Jones. "Don't just blame the snowshoers, they're now just part of the hazard triangle of what causes an avalanche - slope, snow and humans."
The North Shore doesn't get as many avalanches as other areas of the province, but one would be enough.
"The only thing with the snowshoers is there are these large groups of snowshoers that are clumped together," says Jones. "That's what we based this Snowman scenario on - one of these social groups gets caught in an avalanche."
There are other hazards that are directly related to the type of terrain found in the North Shore mountains, particularly the gullies that lie just outside many of the popular trails and recreational areas. A common pattern for people who get lost in the North Shore mountains is that they find their way into a gully and start heading down, believing it will take them back to civilization. This is almost always a bad idea. Most get stuck; some fall over cliffs or waterfalls and die.
"You really have a very dangerous micro-terrain here on the North Shore," says Jones. "A lot of this area, you have to traverse through and near gullies that produce avalanches or steep snow fields."
One other piece of the snowshoe problem relates to how the equipment works and, more importantly, how it doesn't work. Many of North Shore Rescue's snowshoe calls have resulted from people attempting to traverse terrain that is not suitable for snowshoes. Modern snowshoes are much more advanced than the woven wooden jobs found in Social Studies textbooks, but there are still places they just shouldn't go. Some types of snowshoes have crampon-like features on the bottom, but that doesn't mean they should be used to tackle tricky climbs or steep, slippery descents.
"On steep sections of the trail they'll slip and fall with these snowshoes, because they're not crampons," says Jones. "We get a lot of injuries - and the majority of fatalities for snowshoers - when they've fallen on steep, sort of crusty or icy sections of a descent."
One of NSR's most famous rescues came in 2006 when a man named Chris Morley fell 200 metres down a steep cliff face, landing on frozen Theta Lake in the Mount Seymour backcountry. Some daring helicopter flying got Jones and another rescuer to the scene just before nightfall. The helicopter, unable to land, flew away.
"We spent two days with him before we could get out," says Jones.
The whole situation began with Morley attempting to traverse a steep, slippery section of trail while wearing snowshoes. The snowshoes didn't hold, and Morley went down.
After the rescue, Morley described the moment he lost his footing and tumbled away from his climbing partner.
"I was sliding on my belly; I locked eyes with him; and then I disappeared over the cliff."
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There is one obvious way to take almost all of the safety concerns out of the snowshoeing experience. All three of the North Shore mountain resorts - Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Mt. Seymour - provide extensive snowshoe trails that are affordable and safe with some stunning scenery thrown in.
Snowshoe Magazine, a Denver-based publication, recently ranked Mt. Seymour No. 1 and Grouse Mountain No. 9 on its list of North America's top-10 snowshoe friendly ski resorts.
Mt. Seymour outdoor education manager Janey Chang was so comfortable on her resort's trails that she started a Baby and Me snowshoe program six years ago after her son was born.
"It was fantastic just being able to bring my baby to work," says Chang with a laugh, adding that back then, when the snowshoe craze was just starting to heat up, taking a baby out for a snowy stroll was a bit of an oddity.
"It's not anything unusual anymore; whereas before it was: If you mentioned that, people would think you were a little bit crazy bringing your kid out in the snow and snowshoeing with them."
All three resorts offer a wide range of affordable and safe snowshoe programs for young and old, cardio freaks and party people.
"We have little, tiny snowshoes for toddlers. The youngest child I've seen on snowshoes was two-and-a-half," says Chang.
"It's all safe if you stay in the groomed park," says Jones. Of course, many people choose to leave the safety of the resort trails or skip them altogether and head into the backcountry from one of the many entry points found across the North Shore.
There are a number of factors that send adventurers into the backcountry. Many go in because they are well prepared and well equipped for whatever nature can throw at them. Others are not so prepared, ending up in situations they're not equipped to handle for reasons ranging from naivetÃ© to arrogance to ignorance.
"It's not because they're bad people," says Jones. "A lot of it has to do with they're unaware of the danger. Or peer pressure. . . . People who normally operate safely link up with someone who doesn't operate safely, and they get sucked into it."
If you do head into the backcountry on a pair of snowshoes, says Jones, make sure you know what you're getting into and, more importantly, how and when you're going to get out. And make sure someone you trust who isn't on the trip knows that information as well. The danger can be mitigated if you're prepared.
"Always let someone know where you're going," says Jones. "Always observe trail advisories or winter and avalanche advisories. If you're a snowshoer that's venturing into the backcountry in the local mountains and there's a high avalanche hazard, you probably shouldn't be doing it."
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Jones has one final message for would-be backcountry explorers of all kinds: Bring a phone and keep it charged. And if you do get into trouble, call 9-1-1, stay put and wait for rescue. They won't judge you, just find you.
The North Shore News caught up with Jones for this interview just one day after he assisted in a 40-hour hunt for a missing trail runner. There's no anger in his voice, just a bit of exhaustion.
"I've gotten past (any anger). We're here, people rely on us to rescue people and that's it," he says. "I'm a bit of a Neanderthal, you know what I'm saying? I don't think too much past this - if you did, it would drive you nuts. I keep things pretty basic. . . . The pager goes off; the person is out there. Our job is to get them."
For outdoor survival tips read the Education section at northshorerescue.com or visit the Government of Canada's adventuresmart.ca website.
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