Missing in the mountains
The Anne Marie Potton search was a watershed for Whistler Search and Rescue
By G.D. Maxwell
Preface: This is a story about Whistler Search and Rescue. The narrator is no one particular member of the SAR team but is, rather, a fictional composite of the personalities of all members interviewed. SAR wouldn’t have it any other way. Separately they are rugged individualists, but as a team, egos are "checked at the door" and all meld into a working, cohesive whole with a single goal: find whoever’s missing. It would be impossible to tell their story through any one person’s experience.
On a warm, late summer Saturday in September, after a Whistler summer where warm weather never really gained a solid purchase, the town was full of activity. Tourists and weekenders were up for one of the last weekends before the new school year took solid hold and kept them away until skiing started. The village and Valley Trail were packed. Whistler Mountain buzzed with 2,400 sightseers gawking at the views and playing in the snow that had survived summer’s miserly heat.
Some of them no doubt noticed the large birds circling off Whistler Peak and some fewer, those with keen powers of observation, might have caught a glimpse of a coyote or two within the confines of Whistler Bowl. By late morning, the unusual animal sightings had come to the attention of a couple of mountain workers.
Then the light bulb came on.
At the end of an unsuccessful search the previous fall and again after additional searching in the spring, Whistler Search and Rescue had briefed the mountain’s managers and staff to be on the lookout for abnormal animal activity once the weather warmed up. Scrambling into the bowl and hiking to where the coyotes’ attention seemed to be concentrated, the decomposed and partially consumed remains of a person were discovered. Dressed in green stretch pants, a dark green plaid shirt and a blue turtleneck, the clothes and description were a match and it appeared the mysterious disappearance of Anne Marie Potton had been solved. A positive identification through dental records confirmed it some days later.
Brad Sills, who had been operations manager during the search, called to let me know Anne Marie had been found; the search was over. All that was left to do was to learn as much as possible from what could be pieced together through the discovery of her body. Why hadn’t she been found last October after she disappeared and upwards of 120 people had scoured the mountain every day for a week? How had she turned up in a location we’d searched at least three times by air with heat-detecting infrared gear, maybe four times with dog teams and innumerable times on foot? What happened?
News of the discovery swept me back to the previous October. Monday, October 10, 1994, was Canadian Thanksgiving and all the plans for stuffed turkey dinner had been put on hold. A hiker was missing on Whistler Mountain and had been since late in the day on Saturday, already not a good sign. Dave Cathers had taken the call Sunday afternoon from the RCMP after mountain staff had failed to turn up any trace and the Mounties had determined a search was in order. Dave had searched along Singing Pass by helicopter during the afternoon but weather was already getting nasty and no sign had been found.
So when Monday morning rolled around I was already beginning to fear the worst. Search and Rescue work in what we call operational periods: 12 hour spans of time. We were already into our second operational period but more ominously, we were into Anne Marie’s fourth. And what we knew was not encouraging.
We search for signs, for clues, not for people. What we had so far in the way of clues was less than skimpy. She’d last been seen by a co-worker around 2:30 Saturday afternoon. She was going hiking, maybe to Singing Pass, maybe the Musical Bumps or maybe the peak area, which in itself didn’t make a lot of sense given the timeframe for last ride down. Her season pass had been scanned at the base of the mountain and she’d failed to meet friends Saturday evening. She’d been reported missing Sunday morning.
According to her employer at the Mad Café and her friends, she was reliable; it was unlikely she’d just flaked off and headed for the city on a lark. She was blond, 5’8", in good physical shape, lightly dressed and carried no food or water with her. She had degrees in political science and geography from Western in Ontario and was comfortable in the outdoors. She’d lived in Whistler since the previous fall and had an extensive network of friends. She was an instant local, one of our own.
We had no last-seen point and no fixed itinerary. Nadine Nesbitt and Leigh Edwards, summer patrollers/guides, were positive they’d heard two calls made by a female on Sunday afternoon coming from somewhere around Harmony Bowl or maybe from the Singing Pass area. And that was it; not much to go on.
To make matters worse, Saturday proved to be the last reasonable weather day. Conditions deteriorated overnight and by late Sunday afternoon it was snowing in the alpine and raining lower down. The wind was up and the temperature was down. Indian summer had segued into winter at the worst possible moment.
Based on what little was known, I was assigned Monday to search the cliffs along Harmony Ridge and out toward the Musical Bumps. Probing the sheer drops below the Horseshoes, I couldn’t help remembering how this all got started. It’s hard to imagine Whistler without a Search and Rescue group, but in the early days there was none. It wasn’t until four weekend skiers failed to pick up their kids at the Creekside parking lot one stormy Saturday afternoon in 1972 that it even became an issue.
When it was finally clear the missing skiers weren’t going to show up, an impromptu group of volunteers set out to assist the mountain’s ski patrollers searching for them. There was no organization and, truth be told, probably more danger of one of us getting into trouble during the search than there was of finding who we were searching for. Sunday was another stormy day; it wasn’t until Monday when conditions cleared and Jim McConkey noticed a shear line and avalanche debris back in Harmony, below the Horseshoes, and traversed across the area that the bodies were located.
Though the incident was a sad one, it prompted some talk about organizing a group of volunteers who would provide the manpower to look after eventualities like that. We couldn’t expect to invite people to come play in our mountains without sooner or later having to go find and rescue one who managed to get into trouble.
That early group: Dave Cathers, Cliff Jennings, Bernie Brown, Stephan Ples, John Anderson, Al Schmuck, Roger McCarthy, Brad Sills, Trudy Salmhoffer and a few others, set the tone for what was to come. Distilled to a couple of words, the essence of Search and Rescue was to be teamwork, love of the mountains and high-level skills. Hammered out over the course of meetings at the cafeteria at the base of Whistler Mountain, everyone was of the same mind: if it was I who got into difficulty in the mountains, I’d like to think there would be people like myself who would come out and help.
Once we got the basics in place — organization, call-out procedures — we practised skill sets three or four times a year: avalanche rescue, rope techniques, search tactics, crevasse extractions. Our equipment didn’t amount to much and everyone involved was expected to outfit themselves... at their own cost. This was truly a volunteer effort.
Our size had grown from about a dozen to maybe 20 and we had a cramped office in municipal hall by the time Anne Marie Potton wandered away, but not much else had changed. The training was more formalized and rigorous and the qualifications to even apply had gotten steep, we had a whopping budget of almost $4,000 per year — most of it a municipal grant-in-aid — but our cache of "equipment" still consisted of five ropes, one belay pack, two radios and a tent. Not even enough for a good camping trip. Everything else was someone’s personal gear. That would soon change.
There’s an axiom in search and rescue: People can't fly; if they passed through someplace, they left signs. Toe digs, rolled rocks, disturbed vegetation, kick marks, something. There’s another almost Holmesian rule about searching: When in doubt, do what a "rational" person would do in the same circumstances. If that doesn’t turn up anything, do the opposite because at that point, they could be anywhere.
By the close of Monday, I was into doing the opposite because there was absolutely no sign, no last-seen point, no nothing. So I wasn’t surprised to find out Brad had punched the mutual aid button during the afternoon. Search groups in British Columbia are set up in a mutual aid system; when there’s a major search, other groups around the province send volleys. We were expecting help to arrive overnight and the next day.
Teams from Pemberton and the North Shore Search and Rescue in Vancouver showed up first. Later, teams from Powell River and Interior towns joined in. By the end of the day Tuesday, better than 120 people were searching the mountain, still without any clue of where they should be looking and with no trace having turned up.
When we met the guys from North Shore, I’m not sure who was more surprised: we at the wealth of equipment they brought with them, or they at the dearth of equipment we had on hand. The first thing they did was call down to the city and have a lot of gear shipped up: clothes, radios, repeaters, climbing equipment, everything we either didn’t have or had supplied individually up to that point in our existence. We all had similar experience in the mountains — maybe we even had an edge on them since so many of us actually worked in some aspect of mountain recreation or travel — but we’d never mounted a major search. They had... twice... unsuccessfully.
Ironically, that’s pretty typical in big searches. The probability of finding a person goes down with the passage of time and also with the number of searchers involved. It’s axiomatic: you get more people out searching because the person you’re looking for is probably somewhere you’re not going to find them. Up until this search, it was also thought you start small and build up the number of searchers as time passes. For the first time in B.C., we were taking a different tack: the search would be ramped up right away; time and weather were working against us. By Tuesday, a small army of searchers and a larger army of volunteers from the community — people who knew Anne Marie and people who only knew someone was missing — were getting involved. The media were in on the act and Anne Marie’s father was on his way out from Ontario.
Then, late Tuesday evening, everything changed. Five hikers from North Vancouver contacted the RCMP. They’d seen Anne Marie on the mountain Saturday. They’d taken her picture for her, with her camera, with Black Tusk in the background. They’d talked to her near Whistler Peak and that’s the direction she continued hiking. Finally, we had a last-seen point.
By Wednesday morning, the search had become a military operation. The Quonset hut at Scampland had been converted into operations headquarters. Four or five channels of communication had been established with portable repeaters set up at different points on the mountain. Three or four helicopters were in the air constantly, searching and shuttling crews. Ground transportation had been set up, staging searcher and dog crews from the top of Green Chair and out Highway 86.
I headed up a technical team searching in Whistler Bowl, below the peak. When we arrived at the peak, I tried to imagine what "rational" Anne Marie might have done after she arrived. It was getting late, probably too late to catch the last gondola down but surely that was her goal, after all, she had a date to meet friends and attend a slide show Saturday evening. Standing on top of the peak, there’s just no good route back to the Roundhouse. The only sensible route would be the way she came, the road back to Harmony and Pika’s Traverse. Someone seeking a shortcut might try traversing Glacier Bowl from the saddle below Little Whistler and coming out at the top of the T-Bars; it might seem possible to the inexperienced.
But in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine her heading under the warning rope and down Whistler Bowl, figuring on making Shale Slope and straight-lining the Roundhouse. We’re talking almost 45 degrees of blue ice! With crampons and an ice axe, maybe. More likely with all that and a belay rope.
We spent the rest of Wednesday searching the bowl in horrible weather. The look of doubt that must have been on my face showed on those of the other teams as well. In the bowl with me were a couple of dog teams, crevasse teams painstakingly scouring every opening in the ice, and a few other ground teams. We covered obvious terrain — fall line from the entrance to the terminal moraine at the bottom of Whistler Bowl. Anyone entering the bowl would have slid straight down. It was pointless to look for tracks because over a foot and a half of snow had fallen since Anne Marie went missing. The only possible sign would have been a mound of snow and there was none to be found. At day’s end we reported our findings to Alex Bunbury and he checked our areas off his map.
Awake instead of sleeping early Thursday morning, I couldn’t shake the alternatives. It was clear if she didn’t get off the mountain on Saturday she was dead by now. But maybe she did. There had been, during the fall of 1994, a number of assault incidents, women hitchhiking. Maybe this was a criminal case.
Or maybe we were looking for Fernando. Fernando went missing around Easter of 1975. At least that’s what his friend said after he’d been found wandering down by the railroad tracks near Sproat Mountain. He was hypothermic and told a story about becoming separated from his friend, Fernando. We geared up a search in pretty miserable conditions. Eighteen inches of fresh spring snow made looking for tracks difficult and made slogging through the bush a test of endurance. After a couple of days with no sign of Fernando whatsoever, the guy that had been found, a Mexican national who’d come into the country illegally through the U.S., admitted he had been alone; he was trying to throw the spotlight off himself. For a long time after that, whenever we searched and suspected something was wrong, someone sooner or later would shout, "Where’s Fernando?"
It wasn’t so odd, really. It wouldn’t have been the first time we’d searched for someone who didn’t want to be found. There was the search a couple of summers back when a woman had gone missing from Brandywine Falls campground. Her husband said she’d gone for an early morning hike while he caught a few more winks. Again with North Shore, we searched the cliffs and down along the river with no luck. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when the RCMP searched her apartment and found all her stuff missing, the story became clear. She’d run off with another man, disappeared.
A bit like the 18 year old valedictorian from California. She got lost on the mountain over American Thanksgiving. Turned up in the Pem Ho with a logger she’d met. Her mother still doesn’t believe it.
But that wasn’t the case here. This one seemed destined to have a tragic ending. Judging by the number of her friends who turned out to help search, Anne Marie didn’t seem to fit the profile of someone who’d flake off. She’d touched a lot of people in the year she’d been here.
Her father supported that impression. George Potton had spoken to us early Wednesday morning and again at the end of the day. He was a large man with dark hair and a warm smile. He was genuinely as warm as his smile and he let us know how much he appreciated everything that was being done. A man with powerful political friends back in Ontario, George could have been a royal pain in the ass. He could have been like some family members who storm in and belittle the efforts and brains of local searchers, who huff and puff and threaten legal action.
But he wasn’t. He was a cheerleader. Our spirits rose with his and crashed when his did. His emotions were communicated in his hang-dog eyes and the encouragement in his voice. When BCTV started rampaging with their typically dumb-ass second guessing, he read them the riot act, told them we were out busting our butts in unspeakably nasty weather trying to find his little girl and if they didn’t have anything positive to say, don’t bother saying anything.
By Thursday, and certainly by Friday, it was getting pretty hard to find anything positive to say. While no one spoke it, everyone knew we were into a recovery search. The weather was killer, there was still no sign, and Alex’s big map of the mountain was showing fewer and fewer areas that hadn’t been searched to a high probability.
Whistler Mountain covers 64 square kilometres. It takes 40 people eight hours to search one square kilometre to 80 per cent probability, that is to say, 80 per cent certainty that if someone was there we’d have spotted them. Eliminating the unlikely areas and focusing on the realistic areas, given the last known point, we were approaching 90 per cent probability in many of the most likely areas.
And weather was working against us. There is an inherent danger in any search and rescue operation. While the probability of finding a victim diminishes with time and number of searchers, the probability of one of the searchers getting hurt increases. We were running out of places to search, running out of weather to search in, and beginning to gravely concern the search and mountain managers that someone was going to get hurt if we kept it up.
Saturday, October 15, a week after she’d disappeared, a meeting was held in Whistler council chambers. The seven people charged with different responsibilities attended as did Anne Marie’s family. Presentations were made of everything that was known to date. Brad went over the chronology of the search, documenting what had been done on an hourly basis from day one, what areas had been searched, how many times, to what degree of probability. At the end of four and a half hours all the searchers were of one mind: they would do whatever else the family wanted done to find Anne Marie.
The family decided there was nothing left to do. It had all been done. They accepted their daughter and sister was either dead or missing.
Sunday the searchers met in the Fire Hall. We were all gathered around the pool table. One of the North Shore managers spoke first, announcing the search was being called off. Close friends of Anne Marie who’d been involved in the search started crying immediately; some protested.
But then George Potton spoke. He thanked everyone effusively. He spoke like a gracious father of his daughter, his love for her, her love for Whistler. He said Whistler was the most generous and sympathetic resort community in the world. He assured everyone the family of Anne Marie was at peace with the decision to suspend the search. He made strong men and women cry.
When I finally saw the spot where she was found, I realized we’d probably searched within 20 or 30 feet of Anne Marie. She had headed down the blue ice of Whistler Bowl. She had lost her footing and slid. She broke her leg in the fall. Somehow, she came to a stop and managed to crawl over to a rock band that forms a lateral moraine about a third of the way down the bowl on skier’s left. She dragged herself maybe 150 metres along the rock band until she either passed out from pain and shock, ran out of strength or realized it was straight ice below her from there to the terminal moraine and gave up.
Then she melted into the glacier and died. Her body froze rapidly and rain that fell before turning to snow covered her body with a thick layer of verglas, hermetically sealing her into the mountain and eliminating any trace of scent, which is why the dogs who passed close by failed to catch her scent. Snow that fell before anyone imagined to search the bowl covered her body and since she’d melted into the glacier, no telltale mound of snow even gave her tomb away. She was probably dead hours before anyone reported her missing.
The Anne Marie Potton search was a watershed for Whistler Search and Rescue. Among the things learned working with North Shore SAR was how to work the reimbursement funding paid by the Provincial Emergency Program. While the province provides no direct funding for search and rescue, it reimburses certain expenses whenever there’s a search. The high profile of Anne Marie’s case and the strong support of the community of Whistler — local restaurateurs donating meals, increased donations of equipment and money — and the personal choice of SAR volunteers to forego some direct reimbursement, allowed much of those funds to go back into the organization to purchase turn-out gear and other technical equipment.
It also heightened the professionalism of SAR members, flushed out several new members with extremely high skill levels, raised the profile of SAR both within the community and across the province — this search was the largest ever conducted in B.C. — and set the stage for what would be, in the next ski season, a nightmare of searches, some 15 call-outs in a two month period.
As long as people play on the mountains and in the backcountry around Whistler, they’re going to go missing and they’re going to get hurt. It’s a hard reality to seriously consider coming to harm in an environment I love so much, but it’s comforting to know if I do, there’s a crackerjack group of people just like me who will ride to the rescue.