Ascent Helicopters was ‘essential’ for Tour Divide 2022 rescues in the Elk Valley, according to Simon Piney of Fernie Search and Rescue. (Courtesy of Simon Piney)

Ascent Helicopters was ‘essential’ for Tour Divide 2022 rescues in the Elk Valley, according to Simon Piney of Fernie Search and Rescue. (Courtesy of Simon Piney)

‘It’s a miracle there were no fatalities’ in Tour Divide race: Fernie SAR head

Fernie and neighbouring search and rescue groups rescued 15 people in a span of days

It’s a ‘miracle’ there were no fatalities as the Tour Divide bike race passed through the Elk Valley, according to Simon Piney of Fernie Search and Rescue (FSAR).

According to Piney, FSAR and neighbouring SAR groups rescued 15 people from June 12 to 15.

“It is truly a miracle, quite frankly, that there was no fatality this year. We’re still amazed by that,” Piney said.

The Tour Divide bike race began on June 10 and stretches 4,418 kilometres from Banff to New Mexico, with over 200 riders according to bikepacking.com.

The race passed through the Elk Valley in the midst of prolonged rainfall, flooding, and snow in Elkford.

“It was a developing problem that we could see developing,” Piney said.

“We sought to try and discourage racers from heading out.”

READ MORE: ‘Risk of hypothermia is extreme’: Fernie SAR rescues several people since start of 2022 Tour Divide race

Most of the rescues took place in the wilderness surrounding Fernie, and involved advanced stages of hypothermia.

There were also a few cases of trauma. In one instance, a person’s bear spray blew up on his handle bars, and he went off road, getting seven broken ribs and a head injury.

One person got lost and was eventually found in Northern Montana. That individual sustained a ‘significant head injury’ while in Canada, according to Piney.

The majority of the rescues were done via helicopter, which Piney said was often the difference between life and death.

FSAR teams up with Ascent Helicopters for their rescues, which Piney said was ‘essential in rescuing people.’

They also had backup teams on the ground in most cases, as there wasn’t total confidence they would make it in by air due to hazardous flying conditions.

“It would be hard to emphasize how difficult it was to get to people,” he said.

“I think there might have been a little bit of an impression you just press your SOS button and a helicopter gives you a ride back to Fernie. And I can’t tell you how hazardous the flying conditions were at elevation.”

Piney was active on social media with safety messaging as the race passed through the area.

He said SAR were becoming ‘a bit of a magnet’ for concerned families, parents and spouses, who were sending messages asking them to check on their loved ones.

“We were just flat out, either responding to SOS calls, or responding to concerned family members facing distress calls on behalf of racers.”

According to Piney, there were elements of the race that were organized, but emergency communication and planning was lacking.

“It creates the sense of an organized race. But when things go wrong, seemingly the people that have (organized the race) are not available to help with safety messaging, getting a message to riders and so on.”

“It’s almost the worst combination of all worlds,” he said.

“There are no permits, there’s no insurance, there’s no safety plan, there’s no liaison of SAR groups. And yet on the other side… there are strict race rules, there’s a specific route to follow and so on.”

He said the situation was ‘possibly an accident that’s been waiting to happen.’

“There are things that are not worth dying for. And this did get out of control, there’s no doubt about it.

“And as I said, it’s a miracle there were no fatalities.”

Over $4,000 worth of donations were made to the FSAR the week the race passed through the region, which Piney said will be shared among the neighbouring SAR groups in Sparwood, Elkford, and Cranbrook.

“We will ensure that these generous donations are put to the best use for all our groups,” reads a Facebook post attributed to Piney in a Tour Divide group.

He said in the post that they are very grateful for the comments, support and donations they received.

“It is humbling and we are happy that we were able to get everyone out alive.”

The Free Press attempted more than once to contact the Tour Divide organizers for comments, but received no response before publication.

BikingEmergency PreparednessfernieSearch and Rescue