polo brand shirts A life on the line
Jeff Yarnold, air operations co ordinator for North Shore Rescue, sat in the front of the helicopter next to the pilot, scanning the boulder field. He was looking for tracks in the snow, slide paths and signs of recent avalanches.
At this time of year, the valley doesn’t look the way it does in the summer hiking guides. In January, it’s a different country.
This is where missing hiker Liang Jin is thought to have headed before he vanished recently. It’s the same place British tourist Tom Billings disappeared a year earlier.
The hunt for Billings was one of the last major searches conducted by Tim Jones, the long time leader of North Shore Rescue, who died suddenly of a heart attack on Mount Seymour a year ago this week.
Jones was fierce about the work of North Shore Rescue.
“He threw everything he had at it,” said John Blown, another long time member of the team. “He’d mow down the entire forest to try to find someone.”
Not being able to find Billings “drove him crazy,” said his son Curtis Jones, 28 who is also a member of the rescue team.
Curtis remembers chatting with his dad about the search on Christmas Day 2013, about needing more leads to push it forward. They kicked about an idea of videotaping the Hanes Valley and ‘crowdsourcing’ the search online.
In search and rescue work, there’s never a lot of down time.
So far neither Billings nor Liang has been found. The North Shore mountains seemed to swallow them whole. Neither were prepared for the conditions they’d encounter.
Hanes Valley is among a list of names familiar to searchers: Suicide Gully, Montizambert Creek, Crown Mountain, Tony Baker Gully. Places where a person can get into trouble quickly.
It was around the same time of year a week before Christmas 2012 and snowing heavily in the North Shore mountains when snowboarder Sebastien Boucher went missing on Cypress.
The 33 year old had last been seen ducking under a boundary rope and heading into rugged terrain west of the ski resort.
Members of the rescue team spent two days looking for Boucher without success.
There was deep snow and a high risk of avalanche.
“It was terrible, terrible conditions,” said Blown. “You were literally swimming in neck deep snow.”
On the third day, there was a brief break in the weather long enough to send up a helicopter. From the air, they spotted fresh tracks on the side of Black Mountain.
At the time, Tim Jones was in a downtown Vancouver hospital with his daughter Taylor. When the pager went off, Jones ran to the nearest police station, commandeered a squad car and asked to be driven to the airport, where the helicopter picked him up.
A four man team including Jones, Mike Danks, Blown, and Yarnold were dropped on the mountain with a sling load of about 500 lbs of gear.
But moving it in those conditions was like “pulling a sea anchor,” said Yarnold. “We ended up leaving it there.”
They followed the tracks down into a gully towards Disbrow Creek. When people are lost in the North Shore mountains, they almost always head down it’s easier, and they think they’ll reach safety that way, heading toward the city and the ocean. What they find instead are dangerous waterfalls and drop offs that end in icy creeks. Heading down is always a bad idea.
As darkness fell and the searchers got closer, they could hear Boucher yelling crazily in the dark at the base of a waterfall.
“He was yelling like a madman,” said Yarnold.
There was no choice but to follow him down.
“When you throw a rope off into the darkness, you hope you can find another rappel station when you get to the end of your rope,” said Blown.
Yarnold the first rescuer in was shocked when he suddenly found himself face to face with Boucher, who was still upright and walking. “I said, ‘I can’t believe you’re alive,'” said Yarnold. “He said, ‘Me neither.'”
High risk rescues like this are all in a day’s or most often a night’s work for members of North Shore Rescue, British Columbia’s busiest and best known mountain search and rescue team.
The North Shore’s combination of mountain backcountry that pushes up close to a big city has been a recipe for many rescues over the five decades the team has been in operation. This year, the team will mark its 50th anniversary.