Whitehorse Daily Star

Response time to avalanche drama stirs concerns

Kevin Daffe and three other backcountry skiers, including his wife, Kathleen, knew there was an avalanche risk when they went skiing in the mountains near Fraser last Sunday.

By Chuck Tobin on January 12, 2018

Kevin Daffe and three other backcountry skiers, including his wife, Kathleen, knew there was an avalanche risk when they went skiing in the mountains near Fraser last Sunday.

But with their experience in the backcountry, and having all the recommended safety gear, they felt they could have a successful day by avoiding the areas where there as an elevated risk.

They were wrong.

Daffe readily acknowledges they made a mistake.

And he hopes that by posting an account of what happened on a mountain climbing site, others can learn from their error.

What he’s concerned about now is how their emergency distress signal – a confirmed medical emergency – did not receive what he believes should have been a quicker and more appropriate response.

After carefully climbing up into the area off the South Klondike Highway, the skiers decided conditions were too unfavourable, and they planned their route out, Daffe explained in an interview with the Star this week.

As Jeff (his surname wasn’t provided) made his way down, he triggered a small avalanche shortly before 2 p.m. that pushed him up against a tree, resulting in a serious leg injury and puncturing a lung.

They knew the situation was dire.

The injuries were serious, potentially life-threatening. Kathleen is an emergency room nurse.

After being carried off the mountain eventually, Jeff was taken to Whitehorse by ambulance and medevaced to Vancouver, where he remains.

Daffe recalled they triggered the emergency SPOT locator beacon at approximately 2 p.m.

They moved Jeff a short distance to an area where they thought would be optimum for a helicopter rescue.

Oli (surname not provided) continued the descent so he could make his way to the Fraser border station to use the phone to confirm their distress call had been received.

They confirmed with the Carcross RCMP by telephone at 2:50 p.m. that they had a medical emergency on the mountain.

Another group of skiers was in the parking lot, but Oli advised against them coming to assist because of the avalanche risk, and he believed help was on the way.

Oli then skied – skinned – back up the mountain to return to his friends.

They waited.

They were expecting helicopter assistance.

There was no wind, the skies were clear and flying conditions were ideal.

Nothing came.

As daylight faded and the chance of an air rescue diminished, the group decided they couldn’t wait any longer.

They had to begin moving Jeff, dragging him by pulling, using his backpack straps, one or two steps at a time.

Oli returned down to the parking area at Fraser at around 4 p.m. to round up more help.

The RCMP had arrived from Carcross.

By chance, members of the Special Operations Medical Extraction Team had just finished a training exercise in the area and were in the parking lot when Oli arrived.

They had heard of the emergency from the other group of skiers.

And it was their call to Whitehorse that mobilized additional resources, including a basket stretcher.

Oli and the two members of the special team reached Kevin, Kathleen and Jeff at 5:20.

They continued taking turns pulling on his backpack to drag him through the snow.

The basket stretcher from Whitehorse didn’t reach them until shortly after 7 p.m.

Kathleen said all those who assisted were great. Their help is deeply appreciated.

Once members of the special team made Whitehorse aware of the situation at around 4 p.m., additional resources and the stretcher were mobilized in 10 minutes, Kathleen told the Star.

She said Yukoners should be thankful to have such a skilled rescue team available, a team that can extract the injured from the toughest of situations.

They certainly are thankful, she added.

She said the question remains, however, why there was not a more immediate response to a medical emergency on the mountain that was confirmed with the RCMP at 2:50 p.m., 50 minutes after the SPOT was triggered.

Kathleen said they are not trying to assign blame nor find fault.

Something fell through the cracks, and it’s fair to seek an explanation, she said.

Daffe said he wants to emphasize the importance now of being prepared to handle emergencies in the backcountry on your own.

Coralee Reid of the RCMP explained by email this morning the Carcross RCMP detachment received a call from border services at 2:50 p.m. indicating someone had come by to report an injured man.

He reported they had triggered an emergency distress signal, and “that a search and rescue chopper should be coming on its own.”

No further information was provided, Reid explained.

The Carcross RCMP officer then departed for the scene.

While en route, the officer learned the Atlin RCMP had been notified and were dealing with the matter, as the incident occurred in B.C. Emergency planning was underway, but a chopper had not been dispatched.

Reid said once at the scene, an assessment was conducted, including an assessment from an avalanche expert.

It was decided a helicopter would not be used, and that extraction by foot would be the safest for all parties, she said.

Comments (16)

Up 2 Down 4

Brainy on Jan 16, 2018 at 9:46 pm

I'm embarrassed to be part of the human race when logic has escaped so-called educated people. They deserved their up-comings - the rescuers did not. And then they have the gall to criticize their saviors?

Up 0 Down 2

You're in B.C. but you want the help from the yukon? on Jan 16, 2018 at 3:23 pm

You should talk to lower post about this problem.

Up 8 Down 3

Jonny on Jan 16, 2018 at 1:30 pm

It seems to me most of the comments here completely miss the point. The point is an emergency call went into RCMP at 2:50PM and that the ensuing response was chaotic and took a long time to summon help. Something in the system failed and we now have a chance to figure out what and why and to enact positive changes so it doesn’t happen again.

In my mind this has nothing to do with back country skiing or the Darwin awards or nature ‘thinning the herd’. Winter outdoor recreation is an integral part of the Yukon and its people and to suggest that Yukoners stay home and stop taking risks is absurd and embarrassing.

This is an opportunity to learn how to be better and coordinate a faster response so that next time, when it may not be skiers but instead might be a car wreck, a bicycle accident or a heart attack, we have a better chance at mounting a quick rescue and saving lives.

Up 7 Down 0

There is a huge fallacy that exists in the minds of most people on Jan 16, 2018 at 10:10 am

That when you call for help, someone is required to be there.

If the dam were to ever break, if a large enough fire occurred, or if there was a large natural disaster; people have this idea that a group of well equipped men are going to jump from airplanes and drop off piping hot meals while insurance rebuilds their homes.

We're nowhere close to that. Now move that into a remote area and the response is even lower. Be glad that you actually have someone to call. Extremely remote areas have zilch. Glad you're safe, don't doubt your ability, but investing money into an infrastructure that's used for thrill seeking... priorities.
You'll have EMS + police response in Whitehorse at greater than 45minutes but you expect back country to be lightning quick?

Up 4 Down 2

Opines on Jan 15, 2018 at 6:20 pm

They were making their way off the mountain when they confirmed conditions were not good - these were not idiot back-country tourists, these were 'seasoned' (experienced & knowledgeable) Yukon wilderness enthusiasts using all their skills to self-rescue, which is what it sounds like they did. Well done!
If it had been me, SARs would have had to do all the work, I appreciate the fact that they exist believe me! Kudo's.
Also kinda wondering what happened to the Avalanche Society, they were excellent at providing accurate conditions information - lost their funding I think?

Up 4 Down 0

ProScience Greenie on Jan 15, 2018 at 11:45 am

Those Spot things are pretty useless compared to the inReach devices.

Skiers should have known better. As bad as their mortal enemies, the extreme sledders. Not sure why either can't be happy playing in the lower and safer slopes when avalanche risks are so high. Maybe lack of oxygen to their brains at higher altitudes?

Up 8 Down 3

Groucho d'North on Jan 13, 2018 at 5:46 pm

Nature thins the herd in many ways. Also a shout out to all the SAR volunteers who do go out to search for those with poor decision making skills, The Mounties, bush pilots and medical techs also play a role in these situations by putting themselves at risk to help others in dire straits. Thanks for your dedication & commitment.

Up 6 Down 3

Juniper Jackson on Jan 13, 2018 at 5:39 pm

Just askin'.. will these folks be required to pay for this rescue as they admittedly decided to take the risk anyway? Or is the taxpayer on the hook? How much does it cost for a rescue like this one anyway?

Up 1 Down 6

warlord on Jan 13, 2018 at 2:36 pm

People who think they can go into Southern Lakes wilderness without any knowledge of Mountain Man the Tagish Lord of the Mountains, are tragically severed from ancient spiritual wisdom regarding safeguards against bad weather and avalanches.

Up 6 Down 1

Woodcutter on Jan 13, 2018 at 1:55 pm

Emergency activated at 2 in the afternoon, darkness expect in less then 3 hours, in the middle of nowhere? Tuff spot for sure . Glad for all it turned out ok. Folks don't get too many second chances like this in life.

Up 7 Down 3

Juniper Jackson on Jan 12, 2018 at 6:02 pm

The telling words here are.. They knew there was an avalanche risk.. so apparently they also knew better than anyone and because they know so much, they went out anyway..

So, now at least one of them is saying.. yeah..I defied advice, went out anyway.. HOW COME YOU DIDN'T SAVE ME FASTER????

"What he’s concerned about now is how their emergency distress signal – a confirmed medical emergency – did not receive what he believes should have been a quicker and more appropriate response. " These folks should consider themselves lucky at anyone went out at all... They are candidates for a Darwin Award.

Up 5 Down 3

BnR on Jan 12, 2018 at 4:37 pm

In this era of instant everything, people, even back country sports enthusiasts who were born here, just seem to expect that their rescuer will just show up right away.
Come on, take responsibility for your rescue. Just because you are by a highway doesn't mean a thing. It's one thing to push things near major centres where rescue could be reasonably expected, and quite another to be so cavalier in the White Pass.
Maybe it's a millenial thing?

Up 5 Down 2

Hugh Mungus on Jan 12, 2018 at 4:10 pm

There is an old saying: “A lack of planning on your part doesn't constitute an emergency on mine.”

Your crew should have never been up there in the first place. Not only did you put your own lives at risk you put the lives of first responders at risk.

Up 3 Down 0

Matt on Jan 12, 2018 at 4:02 pm

Ya'all should try livin' in most other parts of the world. This is actually pretty good response and about as much as can be allocated. Hope the guy is fine and it sounds like he will be.

Up 0 Down 0

Bob Jones on Jan 12, 2018 at 3:45 pm

No link to the mountain climbing site with the account?

Up 5 Down 1

Really?!?!? on Jan 12, 2018 at 3:34 pm

Back country activity comes with risk. SPOT is a find the body device, it should never be thought of as a scheduled helicopter is coming. People need to be responsible and accountable to their choices. I love the back country, go as often as I can. I do have an in reach/SPOT device. I have it to let my loved ones know where to find my body if my selfish decision causes me to parish. I am not naive enough to think by the push of a button a rescue arrives. If you want immediate support stay at the ski hill or stay home.

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