Inside North Shore Rescue’s team base, volunteer Bryan Burgess pulls the ripcord dangling from strap of his backpack. Within a couple of seconds, his head is enveloped by a massive orange pillow inflating behind his head.
It’s a test of the team’s newest gear intended to protect them from the terrifying prospect of being caught in an avalanche.
“It lets you float on top of the snow and then also it can create an air bubble around you under the snow … so you don’t get as compacted by the snow, which then can suppress your breathing and eventually asphyxiate you,” Burgess said. “It provides you with a larger safety factor while skiing or recreating.”
And thanks to a generous donor who funded the purchase, North Shore Rescue is now the only team in the province to issue avalanche bags to all of their members, which they’ll be encouraged to take with them even when they’re headed into the mountains for fun.
Although avalanche bags have been on the market for years, older models used heavy compressed air cylinders for inflation. Arc’teryx’s Micon LiTRIC model, which North Shore Rescue now has, uses a small fan powered by a rechargeable battery.
North Shore Rescue team leader Mike Danks said he feels “a massive relief” knowing that every one of his volunteers now has that added layer of protection.
“The metrics don’t lie. Increasing your chance of survival by 50 per cent is huge,” he said. “Whenever we send people into these situations, you have to consider their family, their commitments to other people, their well-being. It’s something that wears not only on the search manager or the avalanche safety officer, but everyone on that team.”
There have been calls in recent memory when Danks said he wished his members could have had the bags ready to go, including one in 2017 when a skier was caught in a slide on Hollyburn Mountain.
“They were buried up to their chest. The weather conditions were really poor that night,” he said. “We had teams that had to go into that area. They were very aware of the immediate hazard above….You have to roll the dice sometimes to save a life, so they put themselves in harm’s way to get him out of that immediate hazard area as quickly as they could.”
Because of unusual avalanche risk conditions, the winter of 2022-2023 was a record year for deaths in the mountains of British Columbia. To buy an individual bag costs about $2,000, but it’s cheaper than a funeral, Danks notes.
The donor, who has asked only to go by his first name Ken, said he was “a little bit overwhelmed” to learn the impact his donation was having. He sought out North Shore Rescue to make a donation because he regularly goes for hikes on mountain trails and wanted to make the famous rescue team’s members safer.
“I was very pleased that I could help in such serious rescue work. People are always exposed to danger,” said Ken. “This is a good feeling.”
But Danks cautioned, better technology is no replacement for local knowledge and proper training to stay out of harm’s way.
“I have to reinforce that you never want to get caught in an avalanche and it’s all about ensuring that you’re not in avalanche terrain when the hazard is high,” he said. “Learn about avalanche safety. Learn about how to use a transceiver, a probe and a shovel and get to know avalanche terrain so you can avoid it.”
Even with the bags, sometimes the risk to rescuers’ lives may be just too great to venture after someone, he added.
“That’s someone’s son, that’s someone’s daughter. We always want to do everything we can to save them,” he said. “But there may be a point where we say we cannot come and rescue you.”
This story was included in a special North Shore Rescue print feature that ran in the Jan. 24 edition of the North Shore News. Other stories from the feature include a look back at the career of legendary team leader Tim Jones 10 years after his sudden death, a report on new technology that lets North Shore Rescue locate out-of-service cellphones, and a look at the team's biggest advancements and achievements of 2023. You can also read the complete digital edition of the print feature here.