S.O.S. (Saving our Skins): Five Tales from Coast Mountain Search and Rescue

When accidents happen in the Coast Mountains, Search & Rescue members risk their lives to save others, no matter what. To honour the dedication and work of our local teams Mountain Life has compiled a few of the more gnarly rescue tales from the past forty years. Remember, anyone can try to be extreme and do crazy stuff but putting your life on the line to haul a stranger’s ass out of a dangerous predicament is the real deal. —Todd Lawson

 

She lost her chute but not her skis. Photos courtesy of Wayne Flann and Squamish Search and Recue

 

  1. Searching in a Squall, Whistler Mountain, January 1972.

A sudden storm came roaring up the valley leaving a whiteout in its wake. It swallowed Whistler instantly, shrinking visibility to zero, like a blanket pulled over the peak. Then the bad news broke. Four skiers were missing on Whistler Mountain, last seen in late afternoon at the top of the Alpine T-Bar. Without haste a “completely unorganized” search party was formed involving more than 100 people – and not one radio.

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“We managed the Highland Lodge at the time,” said long-time Whistler local Cliff Jennings, who was one of the first on scene. “When the skiers went missing, a snow squall hit so hard we couldn’t see the highway which was only 25 metres away.” With zero communication, zero visibility and zero organization the search was running on hope, but the brave 100 were hell-bent on finding the lost four. Up the mountain they went, relentlessly the storm pounded down.

The only positive was that the 1972 tragedy resulted in the formation of The Whistler Search & Rescue, whose unflinching members have been an integral part of mountain rescues ever since.

Jennings wasn’t scared. He knew the mountain very well by then, but worried about other searchers trying to negotiate the ghostly terrain. “It was amazing that nobody [in the search party] was seriously injured,” he said. Amidst the fury of blowing snow and wind, Jim McConkey noticed he was suddenly traversing in an area with much less snow, indicating a recent avalanche. Even the efforts of one hundred dedicated humans can’t reverse an avalanche – the storm gods had claimed four more.

The bodies were found under the cornices in what was then known as the Back Bowls (now Harmony Bowl). Heavy snowfall hindered the retrieval and it was another two days before the bodies came down the mountain. The only positive was that the 1972 tragedy resulted in the formation of The Whistler Search & Rescue, whose unflinching members have been an integral part of mountain rescues ever since. Cliff Jennings has been a Whistler SAR member for 39 years.

 

  1. Out on a Limb, Blackcomb Mountain, April 16, 1988.

Rescuing people safely using helicopters requires three key elements: ingenuity, bravery and skill. All three of these were called upon during a daring rescue when a female parapanter lost control just off Gearjammer and slammed into a snag 70 feet up a tree and helplessly tangled her lines with the chute flapping below. Lucky for her, Wayne “Wango” Flann came to the rescue.

Flann was the expert of the ingenious – but still mostly untested – helicopter longline rescue technique or HETS (Human External Transport System) and he’d been practicing the art for more than a year. This, however, was to be his first live rescue, and the first-ever performed on Blackcomb Mountain. Flann needed to be sharp.

“The big concern was flying in there because I thought the old snag was gonna snap off,” said Flann, who started training with HETS as a paramedic in 1987, and has been a SAR member for 15 years. “In those days we were using a Bell 206 helicopter, not the greatest machine for longlining. I had to fly in and secure the chute with rope so it wouldn’t get re-inflated by the prop wash and possibly break the tree with the woman falling to the ground. When I secured her to my harness while still attached to the tree, it wasn’t a great feeling.”

Flann wasted no time. He cut the cords and the heli pilot, who had now lost some feeling in his feet from hovering for such a long time, yanked them upwards. The high-flying rescue took just over 20 minutes and the subject had no injuries other than a sore arm.

“At least I got a six-pack of beer out of it,” said Flann, who has since performed 75 missions in 24 years using the HETS system.

The next day the tree was felled to retrieve the chute and it blew apart upon impact.

 

 

  1. The Day the Doctor Almost Died, Callaghan Creek May 10, 2006.

The Callaghan Creek is a Class V whitewater run with serious consequences. Dangerous drops lurk around corners of the creek’s rocky walls, where boat-sucking “hydraulics” hold paddlers under the grasp of immense power.

As an expert whitewater paddler, Dr. Mark Heard knew all about river consequence when he slid into the creek just past 5:00 pm. Heard and his crew of seven (two of whom were also doctors along with his 19-year-old son) had previously run the Class IV Soo River in Pemberton and were “on their game.” Heard paddled confidently into the creek’s first waterfall drop, a 10-footer known as Horseshoe and was sucked into a cave, trapped inside what kayakers call the “room of doom.”

For five full minutes Heard remained under the tumbling whitewater until the river finally set him free. His doctor pals sprang to action, administering chest compressions and CPR, while his son built a fire and another ran upstream to call 911. It was now past 7:00 pm and the canyon was too deep to carry Heard out – they would have to wait for a rescue. Soon after, Whistler SAR member Scott Aitken was lowered from a longline into the scene, the pilot and spotter aided by the fire’s light.

With the evening light, and Heard’s life, fading fast, Aitken hooked himself and a totally incoherent, thrashing Heard into the ARP (Aerial Rescue Platform).

“He was as close to dead as you could get,” said Aitken, a SAR member since 1995. “Luckily he was paddling with two other doctors and they had an epinephrine kit, so they banged him with a shot.”

With the evening light, and Heard’s life, fading fast, Aitken hooked himself and a totally incoherent, thrashing Heard into the ARP (Aerial Rescue Platform). They were extracted using radioed directions by Aitken to veteran pilot Peter Murray of Talon Helicopters.

“By the time we got him into the ambulance he was thrashing so badly we couldn’t keep the oxygen on him,” said Aitken. “It was really close to the envelope.”

Dr. Heard was airlifted to a Vancouver hospital minutes later, and spent the next 11 days in the ICU. He lived to tell the tale.

 

A glimpse at the power of Callaghan Creek. Photo: Phil Tifo

 

  1. When Hell Freezes Over, Mt. Seymour, January 17, 2007.

Snowshoes and sidehills are a dangerous mix – just ask Scott Morley.

Morley was snowshoeing across a steep slope when he suddenly fell, hurtling a thousand feet down into a ravenous gully. On the treacherous slide down he racked up an impressive list of injuries: dislocated shoulder, broken nose, wrist and ribs, lost teeth, multiple lacerations.

Both snowshoes were gone and the tumble even knocked off one of his boots. Darkness and hypothermia were closing in and Morley was all alone, no doubt thinking about his wife and three children.

Up above the fall, his buddy Simon Chesterton ran back to call 911 and soon after a big bird took to the sky. The pilot flew two North Shore SAR members to the subject’s location. They kept him alive overnight.

“We headed to Seymour at 4:00 am the next day,” said Jack Hurtubise, one of a team of Blackcomb Ski Patrollers called in to help. “The plan was for us to conduct explosive avalanche control down the slope so SAR could rig up a multi-rope haul system to drag him back up to the trail.”

In less than 12 hours, 40 centimetres of “Coast Mountain snot” fell over a melt-freeze crust, resulting in hair-trigger avalanche conditions – definitely a no-go zone for anyone but experienced avalanche technicians.

“When we were done with explosives we went to meet the guy at the root of this,” said Hurtubise. “He peered out from the bivy-sack and asked, “Are you the guy making all the noise?”

More foul weather meant Morley and crew had to spend another hellish night in the cold, all sharing one improvised bivouac kit. On day three, the weather abated just long enough for pilot Peter Murray to expertly hover “on a fine line between cowboy and hero” while Morley was manhandled (“Vietnam style: load and go”) onto the helicopter and flown to safety. He said from his hospital bed that he owed the rescuers his life.

 

  1. Shocked on Serratus, Tantalus Range, August 6, 2010.

It only takes one wrong move before the numbing shock sets in.

On a balmy morning last August, an elderly, mountain-experienced Canmore couple left the Jim Haberl Hut en route to climb Alpha and Serratus peaks high in the Tantalus Range. In the col between the two summits, Jack Jackson (name changed) started to cross a steep snowy slope and stopped in the middle to clean his glasses.

He was roped together with his wife Jill not far behind. They were both wearing crampons, but the 70-year-old Jackson lost his footing and plummeted down the slope, bringing his beloved 67-year-old wife with him for the scariest ride of their lives.

“At 6000 feet, Chambers and a total crew of 14 Squamish SAR organized a tricky longline rescue over terrain filled with loose rocks and boulders balancing atop smooth granite slabs.”

Two hundred feet later the pair (both members of the Alpine Club of Canada) came to a stop in a rocky creek bed. The velocity of the fall and the rugged terrain had ripped holes in their clothing, lacerating them several times. Jack had six broken ribs and his wife fractured her T3 and T4 vertebrae. Had the rocks not arrested their fall they would have fallen off a cliff to certain death.

They managed to crawl out of the creek, where Lady Luck, Father Time and Mother Nature were waiting. Just past 9:00 am, two other climbers who witnessed the fall immediately called 911. Other than a smoky haze in the air, flying conditions were perfect.

“They were definitely in shock when we reached them,” said Katy Chambers, training coordinator for the Squamish SAR. “Even though it was summer, it does get below freezing at night – I don’t think they would’ve survived if they didn’t get rescued that day.”

At 6000 feet, Chambers and a total crew of 14 Squamish SAR organized a tricky longline rescue over terrain filled with loose rocks and boulders balancing atop smooth granite slabs.

Both victims survived the ordeal, just one of 51 rescue tasks performed by Squamish SAR in 2010.

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