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Three mountaineers still missing after 'complex' B.C. climb

Search and rescue members are on standby and ready to go, but high avalanche risk and inclement weather is impeding the search.

A B.C. ski guide who has summited Garibaldi Provincial Park’s Atwell Peak — the area in which three mountaineers went missing last Friday — says it’s a “fairly complex place.”

Squamish resident Eric Carter, who works as a ski guide with Zenith Mountain Guides, says people have to have specialized equipment, ice axes and crampons (a traction device attached to footwear to improve mobility on snow and ice).

“Then [they have to] use ropes for the most part. Getting to the area takes about a day and then even just approaching it covers complex terrain, including glaciers,” he says.

On Friday evening, May 31, Squamish RCMP said the trio was reported as overdue by a family member. A “significant” search effort was attempted on Saturday. A news release Sunday stated the search had been hampered by “inclement weather conditions.” 

As of Monday afternoon, search and rescue members were not able to safely access the Sea to Sky Corridor. The region is currently under an Environment Canada heavy rainfall warning, with 40 to 60 mm in the forecast. 

“I want to be clear that we have not suspended the search,” says B.J. Chute, Squamish SAR manager. 

Police, meanwhile, are not releasing the names of the individuals and say there are no updates as of Monday afternoon. 

Bad weather impedes search efforts

Chute explains how a helicopter and SAR team attempted to fly to Atwell Peak on Saturday, but efforts were hampered by the weather and the inability to get high into the mountains. 

Local mountain guides were hired to go into the area and assist on the ground operation but were turned around. 

"Those guides along with our search management team deem that unsafe and they were called back again due to the weather and the high avalanche risk in the area,” says Chute.

A drone was also launched in the area but could not get through the weather and needed to be grounded. The 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron helicopter was also called but was unable to get through dense clouds.  

SAR had a team on standby waiting for a weather break on Sunday, but were again hampered and could not get the helicopter to lift off. 

On Monday, SAR members are on standby ready to go should there be a break in weather and avalanche conditions improve. 

“The weather is just so significant that we are not able to get into the area and we don't see that changing today,” he says. “If there is an opportunity, we're certainly ready to go and willing to go.”

Very 'technical climbing terrain'

The mountaineers are believed to have had the appropriate gear to complete the mission of Atwell Peak. 

“These three individuals set out with mountaineering equipment such as ice axes, crampons, ropes, those sorts of things," says Chute. "This is not a simple day hike by any stretch.”

Chute explains that to get into the area, people need significant expertise and training.

Guide Carter agrees.

“It’s entirely technical climbing or technical climbing terrain,” says Carter. “There’s no hiking routes to the summit.” 

Carter climbed Atwell in February during winter conditions. Only a few people summit it every year, he says.

“It's a fairly complex place, even though we can see it right above town,” he says. “It is really remote.”

He adds that avalanche conditions are hazardous with big storms like the one right now.

“The weather and conditions up high are very different from what we've got here in the valley bottom.”

Avalanche activity 'suspected' in area

A significant amount of snow continues to fall in the Sea to Sky Corridor during a June storm.

“It’s still winter in the high alpine with heavy snow falling instead of rain,” says Squamish meteorologist Jason Ross.

Squamish SAR has access to a camera positioned right at the face of Atwell Peak and is regularly checking the weather. 

“It’s so unpredictable with this storm,” says Chute. “We know that there's going to be some significant snowfall with this storm while it's raining and even potentially sunny down at sea level."

Live mountain cameras at Whistler Blackcomb show the Roundhouse Lodge, which is at 1,850 metres, blanketed with snow. Atwell Peak is 2,655 metres. 

“We aren't able to get in and get eyes on it. However, we do suspect that there's been avalanche activity in that area,” says Chute. 

Until SAR can get into the area or fly over it, they’re not able to confirm if an avalanche has occurred at Atwell Peak.

"It's going to be quite stormy, so we are taking it day by day,” says Chute. 

Squamish SAR is rotating team members throughout the day to be on standby.

“At this point, we’re not hopeful that we’ll have that weather opportunity window today or possibly even tomorrow,” says Chute. 

If SAR members cannot see the areas in which they’re crossing or climbing they will not be sent out. 

“It’s just too reckless and too unsafe,” says Chute. 

People wanting to help in the search are being asked to stay away.

"I would strongly advise people to stay out of this area if they are planning on either assisting or in some way thinking that they're helping,” says Chute. 

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