January 17th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 3
Backcountry rescue
Local emergency crew spearhead search and rescue operation to find man lost in backcountry
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Crowsnest Pass Backcountry
Pass Herald Reporter
It was hovering just above 0 degrees on the night of January 7 when a man recreating near Tent Mountain became separated from his friends and was caught in a Level 1 avalanche, prompting local emergency services to engage in backcountry rescue efforts.

It was a positive outcome after a tense night, both for the Lethbridge man and for all crew that were dispatched to help him.

But had weather conditions been different, like the frigid cold temperatures of the following week, the outcome may very well have been different, says Fire Chief Jesse Fox, whose crew were first in organizing and participating in the search and rescue efforts.

The victim, a Lethbridge man in his early 40s, was recreating in the Crowsnest Pass backcountry on a timber bike with three friends. He became separated from the group and fell down “a very steep embankment in very harsh terrain,” says Fox, who adds that the man was unfamiliar with the area.

One of the man’s friends had advised local RCMP that the man was lost at approximately 9 p.m. but at the time, the man refused aid when contacted by RCMP.
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“He said he was fine and asked us not to send anyone for him. We kept communication lines open, but cell phone coverage in that rea is extremely spotty,” says Fox.

It was several hours later when the man contacted the RCMP and requested aid.

“Fast forward close to midnight, he was making a call saying, ‘If somebody doesn’t come get me by morning, I’m going to be dead,’” says Fox.

Local RCMP and members of Crowsnest Pass Fire/Rescue banded together at the Blairmore fire station to begin search and rescue of the man.

“We had a general idea of where he was based on a cell phone location. When RCMP pings the cell phone, it can give you a 5-mile radius, so it’s not exact and we weren’t able to get a ping off him at that location. So what we had him do was turn his location services on his phone and give us GPS coordinates off of the phone so we had an idea. It wasn’t pinpointed, just a general idea of where he is,” says Fox.

Once a general area of interest was established, a team of four qualified crew members trained in search and rescue went out on a side-by-side with tracks to the location.
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Captains Michael Taje and Trent Fraser and firefighters Mark Cnossen and Damian Dillabough searched all through the night, both on foot and in the OHV, until the man was found the following day. That’s approximately eight hours of combing through very steep, very challenging terrain.

“It was a very dangerious rescue. It was high-risk, it was nighttime, it was very unforgiving terrain with extremely high to low elevations,” says Fox. “Avalanche conditions are prevalent.”

About a dozen other members of RCMP and Fire/Rescue continued to provide auxiliary support from the Blairmore fire station, helping with operational planning and logistical support.

By morning, several other agencies had joined in the search efforts, Pincher Creek’s SAR, AHS, Sparwood S&R and several members of the Crow Snow Riders. A helicopter was dispatched from Fernie to search for the man by air that took off at first light, around 8:30 that morning.

The man was found by the helicopter crew shortly thereafter at 8:55 a.m. in a Type 1 avalanche. He was picked up and transported to the Blairmore Ranger Station, where Alberta Health Services was waiting to take him for evaluation at the hospital. He was treated for hypothermia, but pronounced in stable condition.
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“He was cold and happy that the night was over,” says Fox. “There were a lot of organizations involved and it was a really good collaborative effort to help this person who got himself in a jackpot. Our teams do such a good job because of their training and because they care about this municipality. It’s a lot of selfless action in high-risk environments.”

Beyond weather conditions and tracking difficulties, the biggest challenge was safety. With nightfall and high-risk avalanche conditions, there was a big risk to crew.

“I learned a lot from the experience, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” says Fox. “We always want to encourage people who come to recreate in our backcountry to be prepared and have survival gear with them for when when things go wrong.”

This was the first search and rescue operation of the year.
January 17th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 3
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