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Polish climbers hit by B.C. avalanche call home for help, spark far-flung rescue

Last Updated Apr 25, 2018 at 2:00 pm MDT

MCBRIDE, B.C. – Two mountaineers from Poland unintentionally sparked an international rescue effort after being caught in an avalanche in eastern British Columbia.

The men were climbing Whitehorn Mountain in the Canadian Rockies on Monday when they were hit by a major avalanche that tumbled them “quite a distance,” said Dale Mason, manager of Robson Valley Search and Rescue.

“I’m amazed that they were even able to retrieve the satellite phone out of their pack. I’m surprised they still had their packs on. I fully expected them to be ripped right off them,” he said from his home in the Robson Valley community of McBride.

But the only call the men were able to make was to a colleague in Poland, said Lukasz Weremiuk, first counsellor at the Polish Embassy in Ottawa.

The colleague in Poland immediately dialled the embassy and Weremiuk picked up.

He said the Polish contact reported that his friends, professional mountaineers and members of the Polish Mountaineering Association, were badly injured with multiple fractures.

“They were in need of assistance, they couldn’t move, they couldn’t descend,” Weremiuk said.

The caller was able to supply vital information that helped launch the rescue.

“We had some kind of approximate location, altitude, side of the mountain, but at some point we were also able to get the GPS co-ordinates from Poland,” said Weremiuk.

That clarified which Whitehorn Mountain was involved, because Weremiuk said maps showed two — one in B.C., the other in Alberta.

He called 911 and the embassy was put through to B.C. Emergency Health Services.

“It was a very unusual routing of the call,” said emergency health services spokeswoman Shannon Miller.

“When I talked to the dispatchers they were like, ‘You know, I’ve worked here a lot of years and I have never had a dispatch call quite like this.’ “

Every call, its origin and details, had to be noted, Miller added, including calls to dispatch three separate rescue teams from the Robson Valley, Jasper and Banff national parks, and two air ambulances from different airports.

“It was a high level of co-ordination by our provincial agency, but fascinating,” she said.

Back on the phone in Ottawa, Weremiuk realized another drama was unfolding at exactly the same time.

A van driver was targeting pedestrians on a street in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring many more.

“So I imagine 911 was really busy at that time, but none of this affected the assistance that we received, ” he said, offering the embassy’s gratitude to Canadian emergency services and, in particular, to emergency services in British Columbia.

The first call from the embassy reached B.C. at about 11 a.m., and the men were rescued and receiving treatment in a Kamloops hospital in just over seven hours, a credit, Miller said, to the well co-ordinated emergency services available in British Columbia.

From his vantage point in the Robson Valley, Mason agreed.

“The fact that it went through Poland is kind of remarkable, but the entire system worked,” he said.

— By Beth Leighton in Vancouver.