Mythbusting the Misconceptions Surrounding the Lost and Found Whistler Snowboarder

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A week ago today, a Norwegian girl living in Whistler was reported missing. Julie Abrahamsen hadn’t been seen since the Wednesday before, and her last known location was the Glacier Express chairlift on Blackcomb Mountain, where her pass had been scanned around 11 AM.

These stories don’t usually end well, but incredibly, this one did: she was found by Wedge Creek on Saturday, cold and tired, but alive.

Locally, her return was celebrated in a big way. A local bar and a snowboard shop both reportedly offered to replace her snowboard, which had gone missing throughout the ordeal. Whistlerites were no longer bitter about the warm days that preceded Ms. Abrahamsen’s return – had it been much colder, she might not have survived.

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As the story started to make the waves on national media, it quickly became apparent how little the average person really understands about the situation. The comments sections of these interviews and articles are laden with misinformed accusations that do nothing for Ms. Abrahamsen, the sport of backcountry skiing, or my belief in humanity (seriously – these people get catty!)

It’s time to clear the air on a few things.

Photo Credit: Tourism Whistler/Mike Crane
Photo Credit: Tourism Whistler/Mike Crane

False: Going Out of Bounds is Breaking the Rules

The boundaries of Whistler Blackcomb’s official ski area are typically clearly marked throughout the resort. Staying in bounds means skiing where avalanche control has been performed (otherwise the area is closed) and having access to ski patrol, the paid group of staff that will help you in an in-bounds emergency. There are still plenty of risks involved with skiing in bounds – you can still fall into creeks, get buried in a tree well, hit a tree – but generally, skiing in bounds in safe.

But skiing out of bounds is not against the rules. If you ski beyond the boundary, you’re on your own – you’re expected to have the gear and knowledge necessary to hold your own out there — but you have not broken any rule or law, Whistler Blackcomb-related or otherwise.

True: If You Go Out of Bounds, You Should Know What You’re Doing

Here’s where Ms. Abrahamsen erred: if you’re heading out of bounds, you need to know what you’re doing. That means that you should have the right gear with you (including your avalanche safety gear), plus backcountry knowledge and an understanding of the terrain you’re heading out in. You should also have a few equally well-prepared buddies with you.

False: Julie Abrahamsen Should be Banned From the Mountain For Life

Riddle me this: Whistler Blackcomb officially sells backcountry tickets, which an individual can purchase, allowing them limited access to  the in-bounds chairlifts to ascend the mountain and to access the backcountry. Whistler Blackcomb knows that some skiers will use the resort to access the backcountry, and since they’re not breaking any rules (see above), they allow it.

Julie Abrahamsen did not break any of Whistler Blackcomb’s rules. She wasn’t even found on Whistler Blackcomb — if she had been found, say, in on the Black Tusk, would we ban her from Whistler Blackcomb?! Remind me why she should be banned from the mountain?

True: Search and Rescue Crews are Exposed to Danger

There’s no doubt that the true heroes in this story are the people involved in the rescue, including Whistler’s Search and Rescue team.

Let’s talk a bit about Whistler’s Search and Rescue. The crew is comprised of a team of volunteers – they don’t work for Whistler Blackcomb (although they sometimes work with them as a separate organization), and they don’t get paid. These men and women go through a rigorous selection and training process so that when they’re needed in an emergency, they’re ready to respond.

The SAR team’s search missions can involve dangerous elements and situations, but this elite crew has their wits about them. Like all emergency responders, they take calculated risks and won’t put themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations. So yes, many SAR teams face danger, but they’re equipped with the gear and knowledge to face these situations safely.

What we should all remember is that Search and Rescue teams are a privilege, not a right. If you head out of bounds, you should assume that you’re on your own and that no one will be coming to help you if you’re in trouble.

False: Julie Abrahamsen Should Have to Pay Her Rescue Bill

The British Columbia Search and Rescue Association does not charge for a search or rescue, period, and this case isn’t going to change that. You can read about their policy here, but the idea is that SAR is there to help in emergency situations, and they don’t want people to be scared off asking for help.

These programs are partially funded through government assistance, so some taxpayers are sensitive about their hard-earned dough being used to rescue someone who knowingly took risks, especially – gasp – a non-Canadian citizen. I’m not sure there is a clear rebuttal here – taxpayers are allowed to be concerned about what their taxes cover. But this is an emergency service that’s used only as a last resort and, in this situation, it saved a life.

This Vancouver Sun article, which includes interview snippets with Whistler SAR senior manager Brad Sills, raises some valid points:

“Sills, for one, thought not — some would argue it was just the cost of doing business in a place like Whistler, he said. The resort generates millions of dollars in revenue for businesses and plenty of tax dollars for the government — he felt charging for search and rescue could make skiers less inclined to come here if they or their families could be on the hook for the cost of a search. Plenty of people ski out of bounds, he said, and in a place like Canada, recreating in the great outdoors always comes with inherent risks.

Sills was also willing to cut Abrahamsen some slack for the fact she wasn’t a resident. Yes, she was an experienced snowboarder and alpine skier, but in Europe, you’re never far from a road or a farmer’s field. It’s harder to get lost there. That may explain why she tried to walk out.

Sills, however, had less sympathy for British Columbians who get lost in his backyard — 80 per cent of whom, he said, are from Metro Vancouver. They should know better.”

False: This call prevented Search and Rescue from being somewhere else where they were really needed

It’s unclear why some people feel that a girl lost in the wilderness in the middle of winter is not an actual emergency. Further, to the best of my knowledge, there weren’t any other calls competing for SAR’s services while all this was going on. Let’s go ahead and dismiss this bizarre complaint – emergency situations like this are exactly why SAR members volunteer their time.

False: Julie Abrahamsen is irresponsible saying she’d return to the backcountry

Several news outlets have reported that despite this ordeal, Julie Abrahamsen says she would return in the backcountry in the future. Pearl-clutching commenters are up in arms about this supposedly irresponsible statement, but let’s take a look at what is actually said in one Huffington Post article:

“Julie Abrahamsen, the Norwegian snowboarder who spent three icy nights in the Whistler backcountry before being rescued, says she’d consider going out of bounds again.

Abrahamsen, 21, told CBC News that she’s “too enthusiastic when the powder is there on the mountains” and acknowledged what she did was stupid.

She said she learned a lesson and would go into the backcountry again — as long as she had the right gear, and was accompanied by two people who know the area, reported CBC.”

Heading out with proper gear and with suitable touring mates – it sounds like Ms. Abrahamsen knows what her mistakes were, and knows how to remedy them. I would add proper avalanche education to the list of tools, but let’s be clear – she’s not being “selfish”, “foolish”, “spoiled”, or “inconsiderate”, as commenters have suggested.

Note: Julie Abrahamsen turned down my request for an interview.

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