Avalanche Exercise Helps Sun Peaks Ski Patrol Stay Sharp

Posted February 10, 2019

It's every mountain goers nightmare and the absolute worst case scenario: a large avalanche with multiple victims injured, buried, or worse. Luckily such an event is extremely unlikely to occur within the ski area boundary of Sun Peaks Resort due to the hard work of our Snow Safety and Ski Patrol teams, as well as the type of terrain in our resort. Despite a lower risk of occurrence, Ski Patrol regularly practices the skills and procedures required to respond to an incident like this, to ensure that our guests would be in good hands should the unthinkable occur.

On Saturday, January 26, Sun Peaks Resort hosted a successful, large scale on-mountain training session involving 55 members of Sun Peaks Ski Patrol, Canadian Ski Patrol, Kamloops Search and Rescue, Shuswap Search and Rescue, Nicola Valley Search and Rescue, and Kamloops RCMP.

Avalanche Training Scenario at Sun Peaks Resort

The scenario was the brain child of Kit Nilsson, head of our Snow Safety team, who designed the training to be as close to the real thing as possible. Pre-buried mannequins with transceivers attached, an avalanche trained RCMP dog, and even volunteers acting as the injured (complete with mock screams of pain and make-up) helped give a taste of what a real incident of this nature would entail. The training exercise, which was the first of its kind in our local area, ran for a total of three hours, allowing the groups involved to practice various stages of a large scale response effort.

“We like to hope for the best and plan for the worst when it comes to avalanche incidents here in Sun Peaks,” explained Nilsson as the rationale behind the training. “While the inbounds risk is low and the overall understanding of snow science is constantly improving, there’s still an unpredictable element to avalanches. We want to be ready to respond to any potential incidents just in case.”

The Gil’s area of Sun Peaks was chosen as a safe area to practice responding to avalanche events like this, which generally occur in backcountry areas of the province. The deep snow pack and ungroomed nature of Gil’s provides a good stand in for these untamed wilderness areas.

Starting with a call to dispatch, who mobilized the various teams on site, the scenario then began with a bang as members of the Snow Safety team set off explosive charges, simulating the mitigation of any potential avalanche danger to rescuers. Once the area was deemed safe the rescue operation began in earnest, with probe lines, transceiver and Recco searches, and the RCMP dog team all working to locate buried “victims”.

Avalanche Training Scenario at Sun Peaks Resort

Avalanche Training Scenario at Sun Peaks Resort

That’s why we hold scenarios like this. We’d rather learn from mistakes in practice instead of it happening during the real thing.

Avalanche Training Scenario at Sun Peaks Resort

First aid teams then moved in to treat and extract those volunteers playing the part of the injured. As a bonus, the scenario also gave Ski Patrol the chance to deploy a new piece of equipment: a portable, automated CPR machine that was recently purchased by the Sun Peaks Mountain Rescue Society.

Avalanche Training Scenario at Sun Peaks Resort

Avalanche Training Scenario at Sun Peaks Resort

At its conclusion, the groups involved agreed the exercise was a successful addition to their winter training and provided plenty of learning opportunities for the future. The insights gained will assist all parties in working together to respond to any future incidents, whether they occur in Sun Peaks or elsewhere in BC.

According to Nilsson the exercise was “definitely a success.”

“We had identified some areas beforehand that could cause problems in a large, multi-team response like this,” he went on, “and some of those issues did indeed occur. We also had additional things arise, small details like keeping the injured warm for long periods of time in an exposed area and things like that. Now we can put plans in place to address those issues in the future.”

“That’s why we hold scenarios like this. We’d rather learn from mistakes in practice instead of it happening during the real thing.”

Nilsson is hoping to hold more training sessions like this in the future involving even bigger, more complicated scenarios. He’d also like to hold training covering incidents outside of avalanches, such as urban searches for missing people within the Sun Peaks boundaries or backcountry searches for lost skiers. Both of these are situations Ski Patrol have worked on with agencies like the RCMP and Kamloops Search and Rescue in the past.

In addition to training scenarios like this one, our Snow Safety team collaborates with other agencies on a regular basis. Their daily observations of snow conditions and forecasting work here in Sun Peaks are an important source of information that Avalanche Canada uses to help generate its avalanche forecast for the North Columbia region of BC.

We extend a big "thank you" to our Snow Safety and Ski Patrol teams who work hard each and every day to ensure the safety of our employees and guests, as well as to all Search and Rescue volunteers.