Founding & Early Days
Whistler Search & Rescue Society (WSAR) was founded in 1972 by five Whistler locals: Dave Cathers, Cliff Jennings, Stephen Les, Trudy Salmhofer and Paul Burrows. Following a tragedy in 1972 that took the lives of four skiers in an avalanche on Whistler Mountain, the Whistler community recognized the need for an auxiliary rescue group that would be able to rapidly deploy and save the lives of mountaineers, hikers, skiers, and snowboarders in the backcountry and challenging terrain.
In the organization’s early days, team members were expected to supply and fund their own rescue and avalanche gear required to carry out rescues in both summer and winter conditions. To this day, WSAR members voluntarily perform rescues as a collective effort alongside the RCMP and the community it serves.
WSAR’s first operational location was in the fire hall at Mons Station. In 1986, the WSAR team moved to a small space underneath the Municipal Hall. At that time the team’s gear consisted of four “unreliable” radios and a half dozen rescue ropes.
In October of 1994, everything changed. A young woman went hiking alone on Whistler Mountain and never returned. Many WSAR members and the community knew her. The search lasted for 7 days and involved over 120 local volunteers, including Search & Rescue teams from Pemberton, Squamish, Lions Bay, the North Shore, the Fraser Valley, and Vancouver Island. These other teams had their own rescue gear, team uniforms, vehicles, and other specialized equipment that enabled them to conduct large-scale rescue operations. WSAR had next to nothing. The October 1994 rescue operation was a watershed moment for WSAR; the organization recognized the importance of bringing their quality and standards closer to those of other SAR teams in British Columbia.
Community fundraising efforts gave the team the ability to purchase needed gear and conduct training for new and veteran members. To this day, an annual event known as “Wine’d Up” – WSAR’s largest fundraiser – continues to bring in the much needed funds that help run the organization so it can best serve the community of Whistler.
A New Home
As WSAR grew in membership, responsibility, and partnerships with community organizations, WSAR permanently relocated in 2007 to the municipality’s Public Works Yard building. The new location offers adequate facilities to house gear, team lockers, and a newly acquired rescue vehicle, which was entirely funded by American Friends of Whistler, a partner non-profit organization.
Today, WSAR manages all rescue communications and team training operations from this central location. WSAR is continually grateful for all the support from the municipality, the RCMP and the community fund raising and partnerships that take place throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor.
The Changing Nature of Search & Rescue Operations
With the opening of Blackcomb, the advent of snowboarding, and the construction of the Peak Chair on Whistler in 1998, more and more mountaineers, skiers, and snowboarders were adventuring in challenging terrain. As a result, the number of search operations that WSAR, the RCMP, and the mountain were conducting, was ever-increasing.
Whistler Mountain became more accessible. Skiers and snowboarders were going down the south side from the Peak and getting into trouble in the Cake Hole – a dangerous avalanche chute. One search that initially started for two lost skiers resulted in finding thirteen people who had spent the night in this area. As a result of this, Whistler Mountain changed these upper runs and boundaries to discourage skiers and snowboarders from going into the Cake Hole.
Snowmobile incidents have also been increasing. WSAR members have noticed that the severity of the incidents that occur are getting more challenging as snowmobiles get faster and more durable for extreme terrain conditions.
Fostering a Sustainable Culture of Safety
Whistler is seeing significant increases in visitors and tourists year-round. Increased numbers puts more strain on the WSAR, the RCMP and partner organizations to educate lesser-skilled skiers, snowboarders and mountaineers.
Whistler Search & Rescue, along with the support of the RCMP, Whistler Blackcomb Mountain, partner agencies, and the community, will continue to do what it does best: to foster a culture of safety and preparedness while executing rapid response rescue operations as needed in an effective, highly skilled, and professional manner — no matter the challenge, cost, or condition.