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RISK AND RESCUE
Record snowpacks and ill-prepared trekkers
collide with fatal consequences on Vancouver's
By Shawn Blore
It was snowing on the North Shore on January
27, 1999. It had been snowing or sleeting
or raining all week. The snowpack on the
mountain peaks had reached more than 400
centimetres - a new record. But then, British
Columbia's Lower Mainland gets a lot of precipitation
in the wintertime. Folks tend not to pay
it too much heed.
In the North Shore city of West Vancouver,
24-year old Mark Monahan awoke with an urge
to do some hiking. He had a friend in from
Toronto, Rory Manning, a fraternity buddy
from the his days at the University of British
Columbia. Now that he was back for a visit,
Monahan reckoned a quick trip up the nearby
peaks was in order to remind Manning what
he was missing living back East. They opted
for the shortest, steepest trail, the Grouse
It's a popular destination. More than 100,000
hikers take to the trail each year- up to
1,000 a day on summer weekends, perhaps a
a quarter that umber in winter. Starting
at a parking lot just a 15-minute drive from
downtown Vancouver, the Grind rises 800 vertical
metres through a mixed forest of cedar and
hemlock to a restaurant complex at the top
of Grouse Mountain. Perhaps nowhere else
on Earth is there such extreme geography
so close to a major city.
Take the Skyride hack down, as most
do, and a round trip takes less than
It's the perfect mid-week shot of nature
- a double wilderness latté, with trees.
With slopes of more than 45 degrees,
also quite a workout. But to 42-year-old
Ed Lau, the Grind is the world's most
cardio machine - Nature's Stairmaster,
calls it. A shift engineer at a brewery,
Lau hits the Grind two or three times
more in summer. On Wednesday, January
with nothing on offer in Vancouver
day's rain, Lau decided to make the
drive over the Lions Gate Bridge to
For Ken Rutland, the Grind is even
The 35-year-old transit cop makes his
in North Vancouver, 10 minutes from
parking lot. In the same area are 41-year-old
Masoud Shekarchi, 69-year-old retiree
Seamans and 32-year-old sales clerk
Bhatia. None knows each other, except
to say hello on the trail. But all
that morning to make a trip up the
MANNING AND MONAHAN pull into the Grouse
Skyride lot at around 11:30. The 300-metre
rise from sea level has turned the
rain into a billowing curtain of thick,
snow. Sheltered inside Monahan's car,
finish a coffee and set off about the
Ed Lau's headlights sweep across the
The wind is now gusting hard. As Lau
out of his car, the snow hits his face
swirls past him to dot the seats of
In response, Lau turns and fishes out
umbrella. He's wearing only a thin
cap, nylon tear-away pants and a long-sleeved
T-shirt. Into a small pack he tosses
shell, a spare T-shirt wrapped in a
bag, some water and, at the last minute,
a cellphone. It's extra weight, he
but what the hell, it's storming pretty
Lau's equipment - or lack of it - is typical
for a Grinder. At least he has boots and
crampons. Rory Manning wears only running
shoes. Karim Bhatia, still on his way up
the Capilan9 Road, has on shorts. None carries
warm clothing, fire-making equipment, first
aid, or even much in the way of food.
As Lau's boots crunch across a footbridge
at the bottom of the trail, he hears
Centennial foghorn downtown droning
rendition of 0 Canada. It's 12 noon.
Tim Jones is also on the way to Grouse
but he plans to ski, not hike. A paramedic
by profession, Jones is the team leader
the volunteer North Shore Search and
(SAR) squad. Like similar groups around
province, the North Shore team is called
out at the discretion of local police,
after a worried relative reports someone
missing. What sets North Shore Rescue
is its territory - rugged peaks nearly
metres high, which begin their ascent
the urban limits of greater Vancouver.
And yet, calls to the North Shore squad
no more than 20 a year from 1965, when
was founded, until 1989. The following
though, they began to skyrocket. Just
is a matter of debate among the public
SAR members themselves. Some ascribe
increase to a growing population. Others,
though loath to say so publicly, blame
on the influx of outsiders too ignorant
mountains to accord them the proper
Still others feel snowboarders are
and the "just do it" attitude
characterizes the new breed of extreme
The only sure thing is the numbers:
for assistance from North Shore Rescue
32 in 1990. By 1996, the tally had
to 50. In 1998, the team responded
calls involving 81 people, eight of
did not come back alive. By the end
third week of January 1999, Jones has
been called out four times. Not surprisingly
then, all he wanted from this day was
time alone on the slopes and maybe
at some fresh powder.
The powder he gets, but not the solitude.
The first call to a North Shore SAR
comes just after 1 p.m. Dave Falcon,
Grouse Mountain's chief ski patroller,
word from Grouse dispatch that there's
hiker stuck on the Grind. The trail
outside the ski area's boundaries,
1996 the patrol agreed to handle the
calls. Over the past four years, Falcon
seen everything from abandoned puppies
broken ankles. A stranded hiker is
He grabs a fellow ski patroller and
out to investigate.
Down below, things are grim. Ed Lau
to a tree just a few metres above a
drop-off Progress up the trail had
it had taken him an hour to reach the
mark. The trail steepens here, and
of switchbacks later when he took a
the snow underfoot began to move.
"I tumbled straight down,"
remembers. "I was sliding, the
kept coming and I'm thinking 'This
I'm going to die."'
Flailing his arms, Lau caught a branch,
broke off but slowed his progress enough
for him to grab a small tree. Bruised
scared and soaked with snow, he stood
and took stock. His cap and umbrella
long gone, but his backpack was still
He fished out his shell and then remembered
his cellphone. Who to call? 911? The
On his season tram pass there is a
for the ski hill. He dialed that.
"I'm hanging on a tree by the
marker," he told the Grouse receptionist.
"Send someone to help me."
was calm and said nothing about an
The woman told him to stay put. He
his phone shut, tied the Safeway bag
his head for added warmth and then
around. The wind was starting to howl,
the snow was falling fast, but his
tree felt solid enough. All he had
And that was when the mountain gave
AT 1:20 pm., ski patroller Chris Falcon reaches
the head of the trail, just as two
are emerging from the trees. "Anything
happening down there?" Falcon
A guy with a broken leg, they reply,
some kids messing around yelling stuff
Falcon asks why they hadn't stopped
"We're cold," the~ say, brushing
past him toward the restaurant.
A few metres down, Falcon comes across
George Seaman, clinging to a tree.
been an avalanche, the retiree says.
down and bashed into this tree. I think
broken my leg.
As Falcon is putting Seaman in a rescue
a male and female hiker appear. The
tells Falcon she heard screaming and
her toque to another guy grasping a
The second hiker is Mark Monahan, and
has some altogether more dramatic information
He and Manning had been laughing and
most of the way up, but by the three-quarter
mark, the conversation had given way
trudging. They were heading northeast,
slightly in the lead, when something
Monahan to look up. A two-metre wall
was barrelling down on them through
Monahan had no time even to panic before
it hit. All he could see was a haze
Thrashing his arms, he was spun around,
downhill and then smashed squarely
tree. Monahan clutched the trunk in
hug as snow hammered onto his back.
later when it stopped, he had to wrench
free. Then he looked around for Manning.
And shouted. Then louder. No reply.
Setting off downhill through the thigh-deep
avalanche track, he comes across Ed
stuck on a tree some 18 metres off
"Have you seen my friend?"
calls. As they stand there yelling
forth, other hikers begin coming up
Mark Monahan demands the same of each:
you seen my friend? There's been an
I've lost my friend." Only transit
Ken Rutland offers to help. He tells
to stay put, so rescuers will know
to start searching. Then he descends
if he can find Manning.
Minutes later, as Lau and Monahan are
what to do, gut-wrenching screams come
from below. Lau flips open his phone
begins frantically dialing the ski
SAR team leader Tim Jones' cellphone
at 1:30 p.m. Given the number of calls
he's not exactly surprised. The shock
a minute later, when the dispatcher
Grouse Mountain ski patrol gives him
details from the peak - an avalanche
Grind with injuries; one or more people
missing. I'm five minutes away, Jones
her. With that, he guns his Ranger
Road to the Skyride base station.
Ron Royston, a SAR search manager,
page just as he's sitting down to lunch
a client at the exclusive downtown
City Club. A senior partner in an accounting
firm, Royston has to juggle carefully
professional and volunteer roles. Fortunately,
this client is understanding, because
pager is registering Code Alpha -avalanche
with live burial. Within minutes, Royston
is on the road, a flashing yellow light
his car roof, weaving through traffic
the North Shore.
Francois Brault beats him to the scene.
years old, Brault works as a mechanic
BC Rail. In age and occupation, he
of North Shore SAR volunteers. For
SAR members tend to be guys. Guys who
being outdoors and have flexible bosses
wives who are either understanding
departed. They tend to work in the
trades, as firefighters or paramedics,
be self-employed - fields where absences
can be accommodated. As a chartered
Royston seems a bit of an anomaly,
was a ski patroller and part of a mountain-rescue
group long before he became a CA.
Ask them why they do it - volunteer 15 hours
a week or more, put up with the danger and
the disruption - and they'll tell you they
like the outdoors, the camaraderie, working
toward a shared objective. They also like
the drinks at Sailor Hagar's after training
sessions, the trips outside of SAR work;
They like the toys.
At the squad's garage, a new recruit
over at the command vehicle -a modified
van bristling with radio relays, satellite
communication links, a parabolic ear,
belly sling, parachute flares, pelican
night-vision goggles, stretchers, helmets,
ice axes and more than 500 metres of
static line. "Look at that,"
says. "Who wouldn't want to be
In the Skyride parking lot, that vehicle
- North Shore One -~ is now the centre
a buzz of activity. Search manager
is working the radio channels and cellphones,
talking to police and media, putting
mutual aid calls to neighbouring SAR
trying to evaluate what kind of equipment
and manpower he's got on hand and just
much he's going to need. Up on the
Jones' team of three has just plucked
Lau from his tree and brought him out
the trail. It's 2:30 p.m.
Lau looks cold, so they give him a
and a pair of gloves and have him hop
and down on the spot. Clearly, he'll
They rope him to a tree and tell him
then start descending again, to see
doing the screaming.
After a short scramble, they come to
lip of a narrow, steep-sided gully.
far side, about 15 metres above them,
a shivering Karim Bhatia, buried to
in snow. A few metres below is Masoud
encased to his neck and screaming when
isn't shivering. Both his thigh bones
snapped. Tending him is Ken Rutland.
Rutland had found Shekarchi with his
twisted around at impossible angles.
to him, just sticking out of the snow,
a sock-clad foot. Scooping snow away
his hands, Rutland uncovered Bhatia,
his airway choked with snow. He wiped
snow out of his mouth and immediately
took a breath. And regained consciousness.
Then he too began to moan in pain.
There were two more small avalanches.
times the snow knocked over Bhatia,
buried Shekarchi. Both times Rutland
them out, getting colder all the time.
was beginning to wonder if they would
freeze to death when he heard the metallic
clicking sound of rescue gear coming.
was 2:45 p.m.
Posting himself as an avalanche lookout,
team leader Jones calls Rutland out
gully, and sends in patroller Falcon
the danger. From Rutland he learns
two victims are hypothermic and delirious,
but also breathing - as a rescuer that's
what he cares about most. As for Rutland,
he looks cold, but not hypothermic
- a fleece
he'd brought by accident had done him
Jones files him under extra manpower,
volunteer. As for Manning, he's nowhere
Falcon brings back word that the gully
safe for now. He begins a scuff search,
for visual clues like hats or gloves,
long flexible probes into likely looking
places. He's joined a few minutes later
others from the North Shore team. All
moving at a frenzied pace.
The chances of finding a buried victim
decrease from about 75 percent alt~
to slightly more than 30 percent at
to under 10 percent after three hours.
you're looking for a breathing human
speed is of the essence.
Almost immediately they get hits. They
a pack. They find a boot, torn from
They find an umbrella. Of Manning,
there's no sign.
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