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Missing in the backcountry

Jonathan Jette, Rachael Bagnall and others remain lost in the mountains
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Jonathan Jetté and Rachael Bagnall had just days left together before an upcoming yearlong separation.

With such a short time left they chose to spend it in the Sea to Sky backcountry - a place they loved.

It would have been a bittersweet weekend.

In the last blush of summer, with alpine flowers basking their final bloom and snow covered peaks to herald winter's fast approach, the couple couldn't help but think of their upcoming year apart, with Rachael in South America and Jonathan at his home in Vancouver. Though they had only been dating for a few months, Jonathan and Rachael had found in each other a certain soulmate, someone else who loved doing the same things - rock climbing, hiking, camping.

On the drive up the highway, the dark ragged peaks beckoning them away from civilization and into the beloved backcountry, there is little doubt that in the back of her mind Rachael was likely running through those last items on her to do list. Jonathan would also have been thinking about the upcoming trip, and about all the things he wanted to do for his girlfriend while she was away to mark the milestones of that year in a special way - her birthday, Christmas, Valentine's Day.

They left Vancouver early, before 7 a.m., stopping at Tim Horton's in Squamish for a coffee and a hot chocolate. Then on through Whistler, Pemberton and towards Birken.

Jetté parked his car at the Spetch Creek Forest Service Road. From there it was about a five-hour hike into the heart-shaped Valentine Lake, nestled under the majestic peaks of Saxifrage and Cassiope Mountains.

That was one year ago, Saturday, September 4, 2010. Rachael and Jonathan have not been seen since.

It's a case that has perplexed seasoned searchers, stymied the RCMP and left a devastating void for the couple's families and friends.

Now, all that remains are the unrelenting possibilities, the scenarios that play over and over again - the "what ifs." That's why Jetté's family was back searching last week, looking for some answers, doing something, anything, to set their aching hearts and minds to rest.

But they didn't find what they were looking for.

Camping at Valentine Lake under a blanket of the night sky, the answers, like the stars, seem maddeningly within reach.

"They're never ever completely over, those ones," says Dave Steers who led the initial search with Pemberton Search and Rescue (SAR) last fall, referring to missing cases in the backcountry.

"And while you may suspend the searching on the scale that we were doing it at, it comes up in your mind every now and then: is there something else we can do?"

Steers wasn't a part of the latest search but last September he led a crew that spent more than 2,000 volunteer search hours looking in growing dismay for Jonathan and Rachael.

It just doesn't happen all that often that two people walk into the backcountry and seemingly disappear off the face of the earth with no clues as to what happened.

 

***

 

The vast majority of Search and Rescue operations in B.C. take place in the southwest region, which includes the Sea to Sky backcountry. From April 2010 to March 2011, there were 407 SAR incidents recorded by the Provincial Emergency Program in this region, over a third of the 1,180 incidents reported province-wide.

Almost always the people are found alive or the bodies are recovered. That's why this case is so difficult.

Rachael was just 25 years old and smart. She was training to be a doctor, part of UBC's Medicine Class of 2011. She was a painter and a pianist, inspired in her art by the beauty of the mountains.

She was heading to Latin American to offer her medical skills to underprivileged communities.

A lifetime of potential was ahead of her.

Jonathan was 34 years old, a commercial attaché for the Quebec government. Though he was in business, at heart Jonathan was a philosopher, always soul-searching and looking for meaning and purpose in this life.

Both were adventurous, always looking to get the most out of where they lived.

"We never found anything; nothing to prove that they were there," says Steers.

"It was like they were never there."

 

Searching one year later

 

One year has passed.

For eight days at the end of August this year, volunteer searchers and paid professional mountain guides combed the area again, looking for any clues to the disappearance of the couple.

The toll of this past week is written all over Miguel Jetté's face as he nurses a beer at The Pony in Pemberton on the eve of the last day of the search. It's in the cracks in his voice when he talks about his older brother.

No real concrete evidence has been found... again.

In a way, it's a double-edged sword. Finding them means there is no more hope, as bleak as that hope is. Not finding them, however, keeps hope alive but means there is no peace.

"I wish I could stay," he says. "I wish I could do more."

Jetté and six other family members and friends, including his parents, flew out from eastern Canada in mid-August to search.

While they remain in contract with the Bagnall family, the latest search was spurred on and funded by the Jetté's.

It was important to return, says Jetté.

One of his darkest moments in the last week was coming off the mountain in a helicopter after camping for a few days then having a shower at the family's rental home in Pemberton within minutes of leaving the backcountry. From the wilds to the comforts of home within minutes - it was hard to wrap his head around.

"It was so easy," says Jetté. "I was in the woods right there... I found that really hard, obviously imagining if they would have found them they would have been safe in four minutes."

After eight days with roughly 14 searchers at different times throughout the week, the task of finding the couple seems as monumental as ever.

A few new pieces of evidence, like some nail clippers, were found and sent off to the lab for DNA testing. An old fire pit near the Peq Creek area, which flows into the Mount Currie new site, was also discovered.

That's about it.

"We go around the different scenarios in our head up there," says Jetté. "It's a real mind-bender because... there are so many possibilities."

Mountain guides, pros like John Furneaux who has been to Mount Everest three times, were hired by the Jetté family and searched crevasses and other technical, hard-to-reach areas. Nothing came up.

"Despite the fact that we have not found them, we have found where they are not," says searcher Timothy Lee. "And that data is important."

It will go into RCMP and official search records for the future, even if no major search is launched in the near-term. If a new clue does come up, this data could inform future searches.

Lee isn't connected to the family but his fiancé was a nurse at the Valemount Health Centre and knew Rachael who was a third year medical student doing her residency.

This case spurred him to join SAR in Abbotsford and he was instrumental in leading and organizing this latest search.

Living side by side on the mountain with Jonathan's family members, plagued by the same mosquitoes, eating the same dehydrated fare, it was a reminder for all the searchers about why they were there - to help this family find some closure.

Though that didn't happen, the experience drove home just how difficult it is to find someone in the backcountry.

"It does give everyone a very good appreciation for what the difficulties are in the terrain and the realities of why it is that they are so hard to find," says Lee. "It's not walking (Vancouver's) Stanley Park. You're in the wilds and you're faced with a lot of kilometres of very dense bush that people could disappear into very easily..."

Hard to imagine back in Longueuil, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal where Jonathan's parents own a restaurant that they still work hard in every day.

Jonathan was their first son, born in 1976, followed by Miguel four years later.

"For my parents it's much more important to find them," says Jetté.

"My mom has a big feeling that she doesn't want to leave them there."

The most frustrating thing, says Jetté, is that at one point they must have walked close to where they are, and yet they still haven't found them.

With no physical leads to go on, the mind runs wild: Did they get buried in a rockslide? Did they walk over a cliff and the searchers missed that spot? Were they attacked by an animal or animals? Did they hitchhike out and run into foul play?

"Sometimes you wonder if they're even there," shrugs Jetté. "I know it's a big mountain but still..."

 

No Stone Left Unturned

The RCMP computer file on the Jetté/Bagnall case is some 193 pages long and counting.

Whistler RCMP Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair clicks on the file this summer, scrolling through DNA consent forms and witness interviews to pictures of sunglasses and an errant boot print. Though he delivers the stats with the detachment of a seasoned officer, LeClair too has been touched by this file.

Hard not to be.

In his five years in the top job at Whistler this is the first time he has been unable to find someone in the backcountry. And a lot of people get lost around Whistler. LeClair developed a backcountry and ski area missing persons protocol because the police deal with so many missing people who get lost off of Whistler Blackcomb.

"I'm always hopeful," he says of this case. "I haven't given up."

Listening to the police brief, it seems as though every possible stone has been turned over in search of clues.

The search area is 175 square kilometers, or more than five times the size of Whistler Blackcomb's skiable terrain.

There are rolling alpine meadows next to Valentine Lake where hikers could walk around in flip-flops.

There are steep mountainous routes in the high alpine, complete with crevasses, which require crampons and ice picks to explore.

And there is the dense, wooded lower mountains with hidden vertical cliff bands and overgrown bush.

At the height of the search in the days immediately following the call to action on Sept. 8, set in motion by Bagnall's sister Elizabeth when the couple were a few days late, up to 50 searchers a day were scouring the area around Valentine Lake and its surrounding peaks, including police and SAR workers from around the province.

It began with a helicopter search. Police then found Jetté's car parked 1.2 km up the Specht Creek Forest Service Road.

"The area around their vehicle was searched," says LeClair.

Nothing untoward was found.

Police dog and handler teams were called in, as were avalanche rescue dog teams.

At the same time RCMP were doing the background check: what were their plans? What was their hiking experience? What was their relationship like?

It all checked out.

Police looked through their homes, cracked Facebook accounts, checked cell phone records, scrutinized computers, examined bank accounts.

Jetté last used his bank card at the Tim Horton's in Squamish at 7:42 a.m. on Sept. 4. The empty cups were found in his car.

No red flags were raised anywhere.

By mid-September the weather was starting to turn a little.

"We were limited sometimes by the weather," admits LeClair. "So that was a factor from time to time. We had a lot of good searching opportunity though and we kept the search going."

They found a pair of women's sunglasses near Valentine Lake. A lead that could put Rachael at the lake at some point? It didn't pan out.

Another hiker contacted the police, described the sunglasses in detail as a pair she lost while hiking in the area.

Search experts from Parks Canada were called in to do a comprehensive overview of the search efforts to date to make sure nothing was missed.

They made some recommendations; more searches with dogs were done in the early morning when the cold air is coming down from the mountains to the creek area in the hope of being able to detect human scent.

It was unsuccessful too.

After the official search and rescue efforts were called off, police got a tip that witnesses in the Mount Currie new site had seen smoke in the area above Peq Creek in the days the couple would have been camping.

"It was a heavily wooded area and it was below an area where somebody might hike," says LeClair.

The theory was they could have fallen and survived.

The RCMP climbing team went in by helicopter, set some fixed line and repelled down to search the area below the tree line.

At the same time dog teams searched the area from the bottom up.

Another disappointing outcome.

The official search was called off in October, more than a month after they were reported missing. There was snow on the ground at that time.

A few months later in December another witness in Mount Currie reported some unusual bird activity in the area while chopping firewood. After the long wait for the snow to clear, police met the witness on the ground and, in coordination with a helicopter, GPS'ed the area of the activity. It was then searched with teams.

Again, nothing.

"When you ask me what my thoughts on this are," says LeClair, "it's a catastrophic slip and fall accident, either below tree line where we have not been able to find them or they've gone into a crevasse somewhere in the alpine area."

 

Jonathan and Rachael

Jonathan and Rachael weren't new to the backcountry. Pictures of the couple together show them enjoying earlier trips to places like Semaphore Lakes, also north of Pemberton.

They met at a climbing gym. Both were fit. Both young. Both with so much to offer.

Jonathan ran the Grouse Grind three times a week and was competitive in climbing. Rachael grew up in Prince George, and had been hiking since she was five years old.

"They seemed like a really good fit together," recalls Jetté, who spent time with them just weeks before they went missing when they met him in Canmore for the weekend.

Attempts to reach the Bagnall family were unsuccessful but a memorial fund at UBC has been set up in Rachael's honour: "to help spread Rachael's enthusiasm for the arts among future generations of physicians, that they may be more expressive, understanding and compassionate."

Searches of where they each lived in Vancouver revealed to police that they both had large backpacks to cart their gear and had at least one ice axe and climbing helmets. But no rope or other climbing gear. They relied on a book called Scrambles in South Western British Columbia to plan their trip.

"They had some experience and we extensively investigated what their experience was," says LeClair.

"They were equipped for basically doing a scramble as opposed to doing any kind of technical ropework."

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the flaw to the weekend adventure was that they did not pack a map, compass or GPS.

All agree that it's possible to get off track on the walk into Valentine Lake where the pathway veers sharply uphill and to the left, but the natural inclination is to continue on. That way would have led to cliffs but it would have been possible to turn around at any time.

The other perplexing part of being lost, says Steers, is that eventually they would have found some form of civilization. The Duffy Lake Road runs along the eastern side of the area, the road to Birken is on the west, Cirque Mountain borders the north and the south eventually comes down to the Mount Currie new site.

"While it is a big area it's not like they would have struck out and travelled for day and days and days in the wrong direction," says Steers. "They would have come to something, most likely civilization - a road, a power line, a logging slash, a logging road, fairly easily.

"There's not a lot of ways to go wrong. That was what was so perplexing about the whole thing. Where could they have gone wrong?"

Searchers this year tried to clear the path to ensure future hikers don't go the wrong way. No one wants this to happen again.

Using a weed-whacker in places, they scrubbed a wide path from the road on the way to Valentine Lake where Rachael's family has put up a simple wooden cross.

Camping there, just like Jonathan and Rachael may have done, gives some insight as to why the couple was in the backcountry in the first place.

"It still remains a very beautiful place so you gain a bit of an appreciation as to why they went there and be able to come to terms with where they rest... I think that helps," says Lee.

But the sheer vastness of the landscape also drives home the point that they may never be found.

They may, of course, be together.

Jetté says they found a piece of paper in Jonathan's apartment outlining the things he wanted to do for Rachael while she was on her trip. Love letters never sent, mementoes never opened.

What is needed now, says Lee, is time and the right circumstances.

"The passage of time may reveal answers," he says.

But as time marches on, other milestones are reached - Jonathan's birthday on July 31, the one-year marker of the day they went missing, an upcoming birth in the next few weeks; Jonathan would have been an uncle.

"It's going to hard to go back home for sure," says an emotionally and physically drained Jetté. "But I can't wait to see my wife... and there's a baby."

After the search the Jetté family held a memorial for Jonathan in Vancouver. Bagnall's memorial was held in Prince George in November, and another at UBC in early December.

The Jetté's flew home on Monday, still not knowing what happened to their beloved son, brother, nephew, friend.

Before getting on the plane, Jonathan's mom posted on Facebook:

"Ce n'est pas fini. It's not over."