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Lost and Found

Whistler Search and Rescue — 40 years of unwavering dedication to saving souls in the mountains

Drama in real life

Embarking on a road trip, Alberta-based Dr. Mark Heard, along with his son and a group of friends, paddled their white water kayaks on numerous rivers before their arrival in the Whistler area in May 2006.

The group of six decided to paddle Callaghan Creek that fateful day.

One of the very first waterfalls encountered in the creek has a bad undercurrent and "a couple of guys went over without consequence and then I went over the drop and got caught. The real story starts with me being caught underwater in a cave for several minutes," said Heard.

The doctor quickly lost consciousness and was submerged underwater for somewhere between six and eight minutes, before floating out face down. One of the other paddlers tried to get him to shore, but when he got out of his boat Heard floated away so another paddler grabbed him. At this point Heard had gone another couple hundred metres downstream.

Finally they got him to shore and two of the paddlers, who were both anaesthesiologists, started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and administered adrenaline. They were just about to give up when he made a gasp for air and started breathing, but remained unconscious.

In the meantime, the call for help had been made.

Heard credits Whistler SAR for being a critical component in saving his life.

It was eight o'clock at night when they arrived by helicopter, and nearly dark.

With Brad Sills on the radio as the communicator, Scott Aitken at the end of the long-line and Fiona Dercole shining a flashlight down into the canyon, they managed to manoeuvre the helicopter into place to pull Heard out. The doctor, meanwhile, was having seizures and was combative, making him a very difficult patient.

It was a very hazardous situation for the rescuers and there's no question the helicopter pilot was pushing the limits of visual flying, says Heard.

He was transported to Whistler Healthcare Centre and then transferred to Vancouver General where the doctors were doubtful that he would survive. But despite the odds, he woke after four or five days and after a significant recovery period, went back to work as an orthopedic surgeon and still kayaks today.

"The key part of the Whistler story is the SAR team pushing the limits," he said. "That made all the difference — those guys saved my life and I'm here talking to you because of it.

"I'm forever grateful — they deserve the accolades."

Brad Sills remembers vividly the rescue mission from which he very nearly didn't return. A 37-year veteran on the Whistler Search and Rescue team (known as SAR), he is no stranger to the dangers of the work. But, as he admits, there are times when we are all prone to the unpredictable nature of the mountains.

The year was 2007 and a unique rescue situation was unfolding on Mt. Seymour — one where the rescuers themselves needed to be rescued. Members of the North Shore SAR group were stranded in extreme avalanche conditions with an injured party, and having been hit by a couple of slides, they were in a dire situation.

Sills, along with Whistler SAR, the Ministry of Highways and Whistler Blackcomb ski patrol, responded to the call for help.

Using explosives to stabilize the slopes so they could control a safe and direct descent down to where the group was stranded, and set up a rope rescue system to haul the party back up, Sills and the others were working in an area in excess of 300 metres.

"We try to mitigate all our risks and we certainly don't take uncalculated risks," said Sills of the incident, "but it is a hazardous environment that sometimes we find ourselves in. The dynamic environments that we are in quite often change and you might not fully comprehend what that change is going to do."

The conditions that day were nasty.

"It was ultra-low visibility — you couldn't see your ski tips," he said.

Sills describes how at one point he lingered a little too long and the group got away in front of him and when he continued pursuing the tracks which he thought belonged to who he was assigned to follow, he was, in fact, following a person designated to trigger the avalanches and check to ensure they didn't go into the main chute, where the rescued people waited.

This was when disaster struck.

"I got off into the chute and got taken out in an avalanche and rode it a significant distance down a creek bed," said Sills, describing those terrifying moments caught up in the fast-moving avalanche. "And just before I was about to plunge off a cliff, some great force reached out and plucked me from it and stopped me. I have no explanation for it — it just happened."

This brush with death had a profound effect on him.

Sills came home that night and told his wife about it. She is also a veteran in dealing with her husband's countless rescue operations over the years, but she understood this was different than any other mission.

"So every year on that day, we celebrate my re-birth," he said, adding that the incident has served to reinforce his commitment to the SAR team.

That commitment means keeping the memory of those types of experiences front of mind to ensure they don't happen to anyone else.

Birth of a legendary team

So what is it exactly that makes these guys tick, to face treacherous conditions to save lives?

For Sills, his inspiration from the start when he joined up in 1975 was an intrigue about the people that composed the group itself.

"Their selfless dedication to going to help people when they really, really need it — it grabbed my heart strings and has never let go."

Let's turn back the clock to 1972, where the Whistler SAR journey began.

In that year an avalanche occurred on Whistler Mountain, trapping two couples. When neither couple showed up to meet their kids in the designated parking lots it was clear something had to be done. Simultaneously, a massive snowstorm was brewing, explained David Cathers, member for 39 years and Whistler SAR's current president.

A rescue was launched and there were scores of volunteers, recalls Cathers, more than a hundred in fact. But while they were brimming with enthusiasm to help they lacked experience and inadvertently ended up hampering the rescue by getting into trouble themselves.

Cathers said the situation — in which sadly the couples perished — highlighted the need for a search and rescue team in the small community, known as Alta Lake at the time.

Cliff Jennings was there, too.

"There was absolutely no organisation, no communication," said the SAR founder. "We were amazed that nobody got killed or hurt on the search."

After the incident, he and a few other locals got together and decided to start up a search and rescue group.

It was humble beginnings.

"The first few years, we were pretty disorganized," recalls Jennings. "But at least we had some radios and got pagers and gradually built over time."

Originally called Alta Lake Search and Rescue, by 1978 they became known as Whistler Search and Rescue.

Forging new partnerships

"Given the fact that we live in the mountains, I guess it's no surprise that we have always been involved in fairly technical mountain rescues, and so I guess the biggest change was that for the first 20 years, not only was the group completely self-financed, but... the entire team's inventory rescue cache, as it were, was composed of personal equipment," explains Sills, Whistler SAR's current manager, describing the journey the organization has taken over the past 40 years.

Helicopters were a rarity in those years as well.

"When we first started a helicopter was a real gift — we didn't have access to them so everything was old school, hiking and climbing into the situation and then extricating the person on foot, so it meant long stretcher evacuations through really tough terrain," Sills says, stretching out the word "long" to emphasize his point.

After the Ann Marie Potton incident on Whistler Mountain in 1994, that all changed.

Potton, a recent university graduate from Ontario, had moved to Whistler for a year. An avid outdoors person, she spent an active winter skiing and a summer hiking, and thoroughly embraced the Whistler lifestyle.

On Thanksgiving Day, she took the lift to the top of Whistler Mountain and was never seen alive again.

"This triggered a seven-day search, which at the time was the largest search ever in B.C. history," said Sills. "We had well over 125 people every day ... it was very intensive, and yet at the end of seven days it yielded no results."

He added that it was an extremely emotional situation for everybody who was involved.

The following year, some unusual animal activity was noted in Glacier Bowl. SAR attended and found Potton's body — turns out she had been severely injured and crawled under a rock to seek shelter, and had likely died there that night, hidden from view.

An ice storm had ensued, which would have encrusted her in a layer of ice, sealing her body from scent and making it virtually impossible, even with dogs and infrared, to find her.

Since that incident, said Sills, the collaboration between Whistler SAR and a number of other emergency responders in the valley strengthened.

"Our relationship with the RCMP certainly improved exponentially, and the trust, the working relationship, became very much integrated afterwards.

"I think it was a wake-up call to everybody that this was an internationally recognized ski resort, and that the level of response had to be commensurate with that kind of reputation."

SAR now has a strong network of responders that can get to rescue scenes, well-equipped, typically in fairly short order, including Whistler Blackcomb ski patrol, guiding outfits and backcountry lodges.

Another unforseen change following the incident came from within the financial structure of the organization.

Jennings, who was the group's treasurer at the time, points out that SAR's annual budget prior to the Ann Marie Potton search was $4,000 a year, and the following year it was $40,000.

"What happened is it raised our profile," Jennings said, meaning a lot more organizations were willing to raise money for the group and they enhanced their skills in obtaining government funding.

The Ann Marie Potton incident was also a catalyst for one of SAR's female members to join. Paige Bell was good friends with Potton and was involved in the search efforts.

She joined SAR in 1996 and has not looked back.

"I do feel it's really important... I don't want to give it up."

Happy endings

When you have literally thousands of rescues on record over 40 years, it's quite a process to mull over them all to select the "special" ones, yet there always seems to be a few which stand out to the SAR members interviewed, when the question is asked.

Jennings chuckles as he shares a favourite tale.

"One of the ones that had a bit of a humorous twist to it happened about 20 years ago," he said.

The team was called in on a search on Whistler Mountain after a snowstorm came up.

At that time SAR was continuously dealing with people getting lost off the backside of the mountain and on this particular day two people were reported missing in that area. Jennings was coming up in the chairlift with another SAR member when they heard on the radio that the helicopter crew had found two people, so the search was called off.

It turned out the two people the rescuers brought out weren't the ones that went missing. So the helicopter went back again and found another group, and they weren't the ones that had gone missing either. This was repeated four or five times and on the last sweep, they picked up the original two people that had gone missing.

"So we lost two and found 13," said Jennings, adding that he and his partner heard it all unfolding on their radio and "we were laughing our heads off. And everybody was OK, so it was a good story."

For Sills, his happy ending story occurred closer to home.

Back in 1990 or thereabouts, SAR was involved in a search for a missing six-year-old girl who had left her mother's house on Westside Road in Whistler. She was gone about three hours when her mum alerted the police.

SAR searched for her well into the night but could not locate her, said Sills, prompting the thought that perhaps their activity with flashlights had scared her and she might be hiding.

The RCMP sergeant huddled with the searchers and suggested they drive their cars down the road a little bit and park and not make any noise. He stayed behind and after they all left, he called out her name once in the dark, heard her crying and found her.

"She was hidden in underneath a tree and she was so scared that her mum was going to be mad at her, so she was hiding from us."

It was really cold that night, Sills said, so it was really rewarding to find her safe and sound.

In Whistler we do have a lot of happy endings, says Bell, and quite often they are simple — people get lost, they spend the night out and SAR finds them the next day.

"I think we're lucky that way in that a lot of our rescues are successful."

Bell says some of the rescues that stand out for her are searches for local people — it isn't a common occurrence but it definitely happens and it serves as a really good reminder that it can happen to anyone.

"If people with a strong background need the service, then I think anybody can use it — it's important to have it out there," she said.

Skill building, SAR style

Becoming a member of Whistler SAR is an intense commitment. The 25-member team of volunteers is comprised of highly trained personnel, and considering the enormous diversity of rescue situations they may face, their skills must reflect that demand.

We've run the gamut, Sills explains — from Alzheimer's patients walking out, missing small children, drowning, water rescue, flat ice rescue, swift water rescue, crevasse, avalanche, high-angle rope rescue, long-line rescue, general search and medivacs.

Whistler SAR trains 44 weeks out of the year, on Tuesday nights. Broken down into modules of training, in autumn they focus on first aid and then move into patient packaging and broken ground transport, which is stretcher bearing over rough terrain. In winter they cover hypothermia, avalanche theory and avalanche practical, and then come spring, it's all about rope rescue, swift water rescue and helicopter long-lining.

The helicopter long-line rescue consists of a static line from which the rescuer descends, employed in places where it's too forested, or too steep to rescue a person by land. There is a rescuer at the end of the line, one or two in the helicopter as spotters, plus the helicopter pilot. It's the most extensive and expensive training undertaken annually by the group.

"Whistler SAR is one of the few teams in the province where the entire team is certified," said Sills. "That's just a measure of the commitment that the members have made to the team."

Most SAR teams have a huge turnover rate and so to train somebody, it's very expensive, and if people aren't staying, it's a wasted investment, he said, whereas in Whistler SAR, the average member stays more than 10 years.

"The single biggest factor is that we are a very active team so if you join, you will be used — sometimes more than you wish," he laughed.

Joint training sessions also transpire regularly with SAR's canine partners, the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dogs Association (CARDA).

"They have certainly grown along with us," noted Sills. "It used to be that there was one dog in the valley and it was the only one for many years and now we have at least nine."

Perks of the job

There's nothing like a close team connection to keep a group functioning effectively — just ask some of the members who've been involved for nearly 40 years.

"For me it is the relationship between the searchers," says Cathers when asked why he's stayed on for so long. "We all have a common interest and a common bond, to go out there and help people in need, and we are all volunteers, which is a wonderful thing. It's the comradeship and the love of the mountains. Meeting these people and learning from these people... it has been very rewarding that way."

Cathers added, "Everyone gets on and everyone checks their ego at the door."

Bell agrees.

There's definitely a team bond, she says. There's not too much hot-headedness, it's all pretty calm and respectful.

"Whistler's a pretty interesting place," she said. "You have a lot of people doing jobs that maybe they wouldn't do otherwise because they are here for the lifestyle and when I think about the team, it's a reflection of Whistler society — there are lots of really intelligent, talented people that come from various backgrounds in the community. Some people have more of an IT background or an outdoor background ... it really varies and I wonder if that's one of the reasons why people show a lot of respect."

Jennings says for him, "there's a satisfaction in finding people alive and bringing people back out from whatever mess they were in."

Bright future ahead

SAR's ties with the community over the 40 years have always been strong.

"The Whistler community is hugely supportive of SAR — I think everybody is very cognisant of how necessary it really is and so I can't ever recall being turned down for any resource that I need, generators, avalanche dogs, whatever it is, the community has always responded very favourably," says Sills.

As for volunteers, SAR is very much a reflection of the people that are participating in outdoor activities, he says, "and I can't see there ever being a shortage of volunteers. The training is second to none, you get to hang with people that are in the industry — it's a very gratifying environment to be part of."

And at the end of the day, it's reassuring to know that this dedicated team of volunteers — with an impressive history stretching back 40 years — continues to come to the aid of people in trouble in the mountains — after all, they're just as likely to be the guy or girl sitting next to you on the chairlift on Whistler Blackcomb, loving the outdoor lifestyle as much as you.

According to Sills, Cathers and others, the common errors made by people who end up getting rescued are lack of preparation, lack of knowledge and exercising poor judgement.

To avoid this, SAR advises the following steps be taken as precautionary measures:

• know the winter's snow pack layers

• know the recent snowfall and type

• know the current Canadian Avalanche Centre and the Whistler Blackcomb forecast

• know the day's weather forecast — snowfall, temperature and visibility

The minimum you should have with you in the backcountry is:

• a 457 kHz avalanche transceiver (on your body)

• a knowledgeable partner

• a shovel / probe

• knowledge of the terrain and your ability

• avalanche knowledge

• basic first aid and survival equipment

• food / water

• a charged cell phone, VHF radio, or satellite phone

• navigation equipment

How a rescue unfolds — in the hot seat of a SAR manager on duty

When an incident occurs, the RCMP is contacted first. It notifies the SAR manager and the gears click into action.

The manager contacts the PEP communication headquarters to obtain a task number. That number means all expenses for the search are covered.

Reviewing the information being presented by the Emergency Coordination Centre in Victoria, the manager tries to size up the situation and obtain any missing pieces of data at that level. Once the manager determines that in fact this is a situation that the team can be of assistance in, they move to call out the team on pager. The message would include a general profile on what the incident is, the approximate location and how many people are required. The message goes out simultaneously to all SAR members and they call in or text their availability.

Most of the incidents SAR responds to require helicopters so the manager checks availability with their aviation provider, Blackcomb Aviation, and then determines the size of the teams, who the team leaders are and then briefs the team leaders collectively.

Next the manager opens up the search operations room — and at this point the team leaders take over all of the logistics and operations, with the SAR manager supporting them.

"There are a number of radios that transmit up to the top of Whistler Mountain where they are re-broadcast on the repeater and put out, so we can have radio communications in most of the areas that we service, right from our base," said Sills. There is also a mobile truck that holds communication gear, as well as vital equipment, which can be set up at a forward command or a staging area.

And from there the rescue unfolds.