Ignoring the SOS in the snow

This story really upsets me.

A skier died while she and her husband spent more than a week lost in Canada’s Rocky Mountains as their distress signals twice failed to prompt searches, police said on Wednesday.

Part of the tragedy is that the couple skied out of bounds at the resort they had been staying  and were totally unprepared for any trouble – only a couple of bars and nothing else in the way of survival gear. But of course they didn’t anticipate any problems; they were off on a little adventure before they headed back home to Quebec. Unfortunately the mountains can be a dangerous place for the ill-prepared.

But the real tragedy is what occurred after the couple realized they were lost.

A helicopter spotted an SOS distress symbol carved into the snow two days later, but authorities did not launch a ground search after checking with the resort and other area businesses and finding no indication that anyone was missing.

The couple had spent the night at the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, but had checked out of their hotel rooms before going to the mountain to ski.

The SOS was also spotted by a pilot on February 21, but again no search was launched because authorities thought the incident had already been investigated.

I wonder who thought that the SOS signal that was spotted in the snow was a natural phenomenon and chose not to investigate further. That may be a bit harsh, but surely an internationally recognized emergency signal stamped out in the snow would call for a follow-up look.

But instead the question asked was whether anyone had been reported missing and when the answer was “no”, apparently that was enough to put the report in the ‘complete’ file and left there even when a second report came in from another helicopter pilot.

I also wonder why apparently neither of the pilots took a closer look once they saw the SOS.

I watched a press conference on CBC TV this morning where an RCMP spokesman went through the details of what happened once the first report came in. I was waiting for him to say that protocol had been followed which is often the official excuse for screwing up, but to give him credit that was never said. I think he recognized that the whole process had gone sideways early in the game.

As usual, when you are sitting on the outside and not privy to all of the detail it is difficult to know where the blame, if any, lies. But it seems to me that someone, early on, should have stood up and said, “lets take a closer look at this”.

If that simple and logical approach had been voiced, a tragedy may well have been averted.


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