In the outdoors, safety is key to making the most of adventures in the mountains and on the trails. Search and rescue teams play an important role in ensuring the safety of everyday explorers, hikers, and outdoor-lovers—especially if things take a turn for the worse.
Weather or terrain can get out of hand suddenly, but the pros at Squamish Search and Rescue and the Norwegian People’s Aid are trained and ready for the worst. Squamish SAR team member Nathalie White and Norwegian People’s Aid team leader Odd Harald Johansen show what it takes to keep the mountains safe and why it matters to them.
In this short film, we gain insight into Nathalie and Odd’s daily lives—wearing their uniforms and responding to distress calls, in contrast to home and family life. Despite being on call at any moment and often needing to deploy in diverse or challenging conditions, both express a steadfast love for their SAR roles. To deliver the utmost precision and care on missions, it’s important that both Nathalie and Odd feel at ease with their surroundings and mission protocols. That means working together with a skilled team of individuals they can trust and relying on their training and gear.
What drew you to Search and Rescue?
White: I joined Squamish Search and Rescue in 2014. At the time, I worked in a gear shop in Squamish and one of my good friends who I worked with was a member of the team. On the quieter days, we would spend the day chatting about his rescues that he had done over the weekend. Hearing these stories of helping people was so inspiring, and it made me want to join. It made me want to be a part of that, too.
Johansen: I have been volunteering with the Norwegian People’s Aid for six years but have worked as a volunteer in other areas, like labour unions, politics and sports, almost all my life. It’s quite rewarding because everybody appreciates the work you do, especially as a volunteer in the Norwegian People’s Aid. When you can rescue an injured or missing person and bring them back to safety, it’s quite rewarding.
Can you describe the type of training that goes into being part of a Search and Rescue team?
White: The initial training as a member in training, MIT as we call them, is a huge commitment. Our training lasted a year and it’s quite time-consuming. You will sacrifice personal and family time, but it’s so fulfilling that it doesn’t really matter.
The training is also ongoing. There is so much to be learned as a member of a search and rescue team, and there is always room for improvement. They provide all the training so there’s no limit really. There’s always room for growth, and that’s really inspiring.
What is it like being a Search and Rescue team member specifically in Squamish/Tromsø?
White: Squamish is such a beautiful little town. Although it is growing quite rapidly, there is still a core group of people who spend their time outdoors. We all kind of know each other and there might come a day where you might get called out to help someone that you know and to be able to help bring them back to their families at the end of the day is really rewarding.
Johansen: Here in northern Norway, the seasons change dramatically and the weather changes quickly. You can go outside and it’s calm with almost no wind, and suddenly ten minutes later, it’s a full winter storm with winds and snow blowing in your face. It can go from high visibility to low visibility, where it’s difficult to see even two meters in front of you. A lot of hikers don’t anticipate the darkness and as the dark settles, it gets colder quite quickly, and they don’t have jackets and headlamps because it was sunny and warm when they started the hike. That’s something we see quite often.
Can you describe what it’s like to go on a Search and Rescue mission?
White: I think of it as, “There’s a job that needs to be done.” Every situation is always so fluid and different, and you have to be quick on your feet and think about the next step and what is the best possible way to deal with this.
There’s someone out there that’s hurt or lost and is most likely scared and needs help. There’s no one else to go get them. I try not to look at the overall big scary picture of the mountains and the elements and all that. Sure, you take that into consideration, but we don’t put ourselves into unnecessary risk or danger. Everything is calculated and well thought-out. You have the skills, you have the knowledge, you’ve done the training, you know what needs to be done and so when you’re out on these calls and on these rescues, it all kind of just clicks in.
Johansen: I can be sitting at the dinner table and eating dinner with my wife and kids, and all of a sudden, I have to focus on another person out there who is in need of help. So, when the alarm goes off on the phone, I start a process preparing myself for what’s coming, and then I go into a zone, a mental stage where everything else is gone. The only focus is to get there safely and quickly to that person in need.
How does it feel being part of a team and what role does trust play in it?
White: I can’t say enough good things about the team. When a small group of people are put together in these stressful situations, it really brings everyone closer together. When you’re out in the field, you count on your teammates. They have your back, and you trust them. They’ve been doing this for years and they’re incredibly well-equipped, and we all want to be there. We love being in those elements, that’s where we thrive. We’re all there for the same reason. There are no egos, it’s just we go out there in order to help people. That’s what brings us closer together.
Johansen: When we are preparing for a search and rescue mission, the team means everything to me. I rely on them to do their job and they rely on me. It’s important to me to know that I have their support and that I have their trust and that they believe that as a group we are able to accomplish the mission we have. We are only people, normal working citizens – doctors, carpenters, store managers – but when we meet up for a search and rescue, we are the same. We are men and women helping others. We have the same jackets on us, the same equipment, and we are capable of doing the same things outside in nature.
What inspires you to live and work in the mountains?
White: I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, but I always had this pull to the mountains, even though I had never really been around them. When I was 19, I made the big move out west by myself with maybe $500 in my pocket and as soon as I made it to Squamish, I looked around and I knew that it was home.
My favorite thing about stepping outside and walking into nature is that magical moment where you step out of the shade, step out of the shadow and the sun comes out and illuminates everything around you. To me that’s always a moment that makes me stop what I’m doing, look around and take it all in. Everything is just heightened – the sounds, the smells, the steam coming off rocks or the sun reflecting off the moss, it’s almost like a spiritual experience. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than in the mountains. It’s where I’m meant to be.
Johansen: I love being outside in nature because it’s a sort of calm that you don’t get anywhere else. You can go outside and it’s only me and nature, there’s nothing else. It gives me peace of mind to be outside and I never get tired of watching how nature changes up here. Being outside in nature, it helps me clear my mind of everyday stress. I can go outside and really be in the moment. Whether it’s flowers budding in the spring or birds returning from the south back to northern Norway, it all adds up to the sense of belonging here in this area. It gives me so much to be able to be here, feeling a connection to nature and the environment around me.
Text provided by Helly Hansen.