Anatomy of a REVSAR rescue

Revelstoke Search & Rescue is one of B.C.’s busiest volunteer search organizations, and winter is their peak season. We asked REVSAR manager Giles Shearing to describe what happens during a typical winter rescue, and for some simple steps the public can take to avoid getting into trouble in the backcountry.

A Revelstoke Search & Rescue long line rescue. Photo: REVSAR

By Giles Shearing

Hi. My name is Giles, and I’m one of six managers with Revelstoke Search & Rescue. REVSAR, as we call ourselves in the SAR world, has been part of the Revelstoke first response scene since 1952. That’s 64 years! Our entirely volunteer organization has evolved over those years to become one of the busiest search and rescue groups in B.C., responding on average to 40 to 60 calls a year, mostly in the winter, and most involving skiers and snowmobilers. The average call goes a little something like this:

It’s 3 p.m. My five-year-old son and I are drinking hot chocolate at La Baguette at gondi bottom after an awesome afternoon of skiing. Suddenly, my pocket sings. I know the ring tone; it’s one I’ve set for when the Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC) is phoning. Mid-story, I ask my son to hold on — I need to pick up.

Revelstoke Search & Rescue members with their avalanche dogs. Photo: Contributed by REVSAR
Revelstoke Search & Rescue members with their avalanche dogs. Photo: Contributed by REVSAR

The dispatcher on the line tells me that BC Ambulance (one of nine government agencies that can request our assistance) needs our help to pick up an injured snowmobiler on Boulder Mountain, possibly a femur fracture. Details are thin. I hang up and notify our helicopter and sled rescue teams using an app on my phone; it notifies everyone at the same time.

My ski partner and I dash to the truck. It’s early January and the light will be gone soon.

A quick stop home, then to the SAR office. It’s been 10 minutes since I received the call.

I start getting some texts. Team members who received my callout are already at our base assembling our long-line rescue kit and getting the sled trailer hooked up. At our base I check in with BC Ambulance, who now have GPS coordinates. The rescue team and I meet to discuss the mission and our rescue heli pilot is notified to prepare the machine.

The ECC is updated with current avalanche conditions and I confirm that we have an avalanche technician who will do the reconnaissance flight. We pull up the GPS coordinates on our big screen TV and one of our sled team members knows the exact area: the Toilet Bowl gully behind the Boulder Cabin.

The team agrees that we can sling a rescuer into the trees to package the subject into a spine board designed for flying below the helicopter.

Our heli rescue team heads to the hanger. The team arrives at the hanger and loads the long line kit into the cheeks.

A heli rescue in progress. Photo: Contributed by REVSAR
A heli rescue in progress. Photo: Contributed by REVSAR

It’s 3:40 now, and the winter sun is arcing closer to the Monashee peaks to the west, and daylight is fading fast. We only have about 45 minutes of flying time left.

The first flight is to locate the subject, determine the avalanche danger and the length of the sling line to use: 100, 150 or 200 feet. (All of our rescue techs are professional avalanche techs.) We find a landing zone close to the subject so the heli can be rigged with 150 feet of line. The rescue tech clips in and we lift hime slowly above the canopy and then lower him next to the injured subject. Her snowmobile friends help her get loaded onto the stretcher for flight. The subject is brought back to the nearby landing zone, repackaged into the heli and brought down to the awaiting ambulance just before light fades. It’s 4:18.

The mission isn’t over. One of the rescue techs had to be left on the mountain because of space limitations in the heli. One of our sled rescue team members heads up to pick him up. Back at the base, equipment is brought to the office, placed on our large drying racks, inventoried and a debrief ensues. Everyone has a chance to speak about things that went well and how we could improve.

And this process repeats again, every few days, for most of the winter.

To volunteer with REVSAR we look for people who can commit to two years, who are well trained and versed in mountain travel and who are able to commit.

Help us help you. Here are four basic tips to avoid triggering a REVSAR search, and what to do if you get into trouble.

1. Turn your cell phone off before you head out into the backcountry for the day. That way if you get lost and need it later there’s lots of juice.

2. Bring the 10 essentials with you: a light, a signalling device like a whistle, fire starter, extra clothes, a pocket knife, shelter, water, food, a first aid kit, a means for navigating like a GPS and compass and a SPOT/InReach, PLB and cell phone. When travelling in winter, add in a shovel, probe and transceiver.

3. Let someone know when you’re going and when you’ll be back.

4. Don’t go downhill if you’re lost. Be visible, build a shelter and stay put.

This story first appeared in the December issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.