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