feature 209 

It was a crisp Sunday morning in October when Anne Marie Potton was reported missing. The series of events which followed not only unified Whistler, but drove home the necessity of having a strong, well-trained pool of volunteers to take part in search and rescue efforts. Over the course of the Potton search, hundreds of people showed up to comb the alpine on Whistler Mountain in the hope of finding the missing 24-year-old. So many, in fact, that search organizers had to turn people away on some days. Small business people, waiters, waitresses, cooks, accountants and real estate agents — faces from all walks of Whistler life could be seen heading up Whistler Mountain in the backs of pickup trucks as the search intensified and the first substantial snow of the season fell. Potton is still missing, but the spirit and dedication of the local searchers proved that volunteer search and rescue programs are essential to mountain towns. Brad Sills is one of those folks. Sills is a search manager with the Whistler Search and Rescue. The organization has been around for 24 years — Sills has been around for 18 of those. He says the military is responsible for air searches, the Coast Guard looks after sea searches and ground searches are co-ordinated by the RCMP. Using the Provincial Emergency Program as a framework, Whistler Search and Rescue has 22 volunteer members, who are trained in Wilderness First Aid and search techniques. Their mission — get into the bush as fast as possible to look for missing hikers, skiers and snowboarders. Sills says although there are not as many dollars available for paid search organizations any longer, money is not a big factor because plenty of locals are willing to volunteer for search training. "There is a long-standing tradition in B.C. of volunteer search and rescue organizations being the best way to find someone lost in the area," Sills says. "The local people know the area better than anyone else, it is only logical that they should be the ones working in search crews." Vincent Massey knows the trails, trees and alpine on Sproatt Mountain like he knows his own backyard — actually it is his back yard. An avid mountain biker, trail builder and outdoorsman, the local potter was called to volunteer for a search when someone went missing on Sproatt seven years ago. "When I go hiking I don't hike on the trails. I hike in the bush. People don't get lost on the trails," Massey says. It's this type of bush knowledge that makes people like Sills and Massey invaluable when it comes time to head to the hill in search of a missing person. Massey and Sills agree as more people come to Whistler in all four seasons, the necessity for the local search and rescue squad will increase. "Eighteen years ago we used to go on probably six searches a year," Sill says. "This year, we'll probably be over 20, that takes a lot of commitment." So next time you're thinking about going for a hike, think about who you would like to have searching for you in the bush around Whistler. Then think about calling Whistler Search and Rescue and volunteering.

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