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By Shawn Blore

Bob Herger photograph

Record snowpacks and ill-prepared trekkers collide with fatal consequences on Vancouver's North Shore.

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 Grind.

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 hikers do, and a round trip takes less than an hour. It's the perfect mid-week shot of nature - a double wilderness latté, with trees.

With slopes of more than 45 degrees, it's also quite a workout. But to 42-year-old Ed Lau, the Grind is the world's most scenic cardio machine - Nature's Stairmaster, he calls it. A shift engineer at a brewery, Lau hits the Grind two or three times a week, more in summer. On Wednesday, January 27, with nothing on offer in Vancouver but another day's rain, Lau decided to make the familiar drive over the Lions Gate Bridge to the mountains.

For Ken Rutland, the Grind is even more convenient. The 35-year-old transit cop makes his home in North Vancouver, 10 minutes from the Grouse parking lot. In the same area are 41-year-old Masoud Shekarchi, 69-year-old retiree George Seamans and 32-year-old sales clerk Karim Bhatia. None knows each other, except perhaps to say hello on the trail. But all decide that morning to make a trip up the Grind.

MANNING AND MONAHAN pull into the Grouse Skyride lot at around 11:30. The 300-metre rise from sea level has turned the Vancouver rain into a billowing curtain of thick, wet snow. Sheltered inside Monahan's car, they finish a coffee and set off about the time Ed Lau's headlights sweep across the parking area.

The wind is now gusting hard. As Lau steps out of his car, the snow hits his face and swirls past him to dot the seats of his Volvo. In response, Lau turns and fishes out an umbrella. He's wearing only a thin cloth cap, nylon tear-away pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt. Into a small pack he tosses a nylon shell, a spare T-shirt wrapped in a Safeway bag, some water and, at the last minute, a cellphone. It's extra weight, he thinks, but what the hell, it's storming pretty bad.

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 the Centennial foghorn downtown droning out a rendition of 0 Canada. It's 12 noon.

Tim Jones is also on the way to Grouse Mountain but he plans to ski, not hike. A paramedic by profession, Jones is the team leader of the volunteer North Shore Search and Rescue (SAR) squad. Like similar groups around the province, the North Shore team is called out at the discretion of local police, usually after a worried relative reports someone missing. What sets North Shore Rescue apart is its territory - rugged peaks nearly 1,500 metres high, which begin their ascent within the urban limits of greater Vancouver.

And yet, calls to the North Shore squad averaged no more than 20 a year from 1965, when it was founded, until 1989. The following year, though, they began to skyrocket. Just why is a matter of debate among the public and SAR members themselves. Some ascribe the increase to a growing population. Others, though loath to say so publicly, blame it on the influx of outsiders too ignorant of mountains to accord them the proper respect. Still others feel snowboarders are the culprit, and the "just do it" attitude that characterizes the new breed of extreme sports.

The only sure thing is the numbers: requests for assistance from North Shore Rescue totalled 32 in 1990. By 1996, the tally had climbed to 50. In 1998, the team responded to 68 calls involving 81 people, eight of whom did not come back alive. By the end of the third week of January 1999, Jones has already been called out four times. Not surprisingly then, all he wanted from this day was some time alone on the slopes and maybe a crack at some fresh powder.

The powder he gets, but not the solitude. The first call to a North Shore SAR member comes just after 1 p.m. Dave Falcon, then Grouse Mountain's chief ski patroller, gets word from Grouse dispatch that there's a hiker stuck on the Grind. The trail lies outside the ski area's boundaries, but in 1996 the patrol agreed to handle the simpler calls. Over the past four years, Falcon has seen everything from abandoned puppies to broken ankles. A stranded hiker is routine. He grabs a fellow ski patroller and sets out to investigate.

Down below, things are grim. Ed Lau is clinging to a tree just a few metres above a sheer drop-off Progress up the trail had been slow; it had taken him an hour to reach the three-quarter mark. The trail steepens here, and a couple of switchbacks later when he took a step, the snow underfoot began to move.

"I tumbled straight down," Lau remembers. "I was sliding, the snow kept coming and I'm thinking 'This is it. I'm going to die."'
Flailing his arms, Lau caught a branch, which broke off but slowed his progress enough for him to grab a small tree. Bruised and scared and soaked with snow, he stood up and took stock. His cap and umbrella were long gone, but his backpack was still there. He fished out his shell and then remembered his cellphone. Who to call? 911? The police? On his season tram pass there is a number for the ski hill. He dialed that.

"I'm hanging on a tree by the three-quarter marker," he told the Grouse receptionist. "Send someone to help me." Lau was calm and said nothing about an avalanche. The woman told him to stay put. He snapped his phone shut, tied the Safeway bag around his head for added warmth and then looked around. The wind was starting to howl, and the snow was falling fast, but his little tree felt solid enough. All he had to do was wait.

And that was when the mountain gave way.

AT 1:20 pm., ski patroller Chris Falcon reaches the head of the trail, just as two male hikers are emerging from the trees. "Anything happening down there?" Falcon asks. A guy with a broken leg, they reply, and some kids messing around yelling stuff Incredulous, Falcon asks why they hadn't stopped to help. "We're cold," the~ say, brushing past him toward the restaurant.
A few metres down, Falcon comes across 69-year-old George Seaman, clinging to a tree. There's been an avalanche, the retiree says. I slid down and bashed into this tree. I think I've broken my leg.

As Falcon is putting Seaman in a rescue bag, a male and female hiker appear. The woman tells Falcon she heard screaming and threw her toque to another guy grasping a tree. The second hiker is Mark Monahan, and he has some altogether more dramatic information to impart.

He and Manning had been laughing and talking most of the way up, but by the three-quarter mark, the conversation had given way to determined trudging. They were heading northeast, Manning slightly in the lead, when something caused Monahan to look up. A two-metre wall of snow was barrelling down on them through the trees. Monahan had no time even to panic before it hit. All he could see was a haze of white. Thrashing his arms, he was spun around, carried downhill and then smashed squarely into a tree. Monahan clutched the trunk in a bear hug as snow hammered onto his back. Minutes later when it stopped, he had to wrench him-self 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 Lau, stuck on a tree some 18 metres off the trail. "Have you seen my friend?" Monahan calls. As they stand there yelling back and forth, other hikers begin coming up the trail. Mark Monahan demands the same of each: "Have you seen my friend? There's been an avalanche! I've lost my friend." Only transit cop Ken Rutland offers to help. He tells Monahan to stay put, so rescuers will know where to start searching. Then he descends to see if he can find Manning.

Minutes later, as Lau and Monahan are discussing what to do, gut-wrenching screams come up from below. Lau flips open his phone and begins frantically dialing the ski hill.

SAR team leader Tim Jones' cellphone rings at 1:30 p.m. Given the number of calls recently, he's not exactly surprised. The shock comes a minute later, when the dispatcher for the Grouse Mountain ski patrol gives him the details from the peak - an avalanche on the Grind with injuries; one or more people possibly missing. I'm five minutes away, Jones tells her. With that, he guns his Ranger up Capilano Road to the Skyride base station.

Ron Royston, a SAR search manager, gets the page just as he's sitting down to lunch with a client at the exclusive downtown Terminal City Club. A senior partner in an accounting firm, Royston has to juggle carefully his professional and volunteer roles. Fortunately, this client is understanding, because the pager is registering Code Alpha -avalanche with live burial. Within minutes, Royston is on the road, a flashing yellow light on his car roof, weaving through traffic to the North Shore.

Francois Brault beats him to the scene. Fifty years old, Brault works as a mechanic for BC Rail. In age and occupation, he is typical of North Shore SAR volunteers. For one thing, SAR members tend to be guys. Guys who like being outdoors and have flexible bosses and wives who are either understanding or long-since departed. They tend to work in the construction trades, as firefighters or paramedics, or be self-employed - fields where absences can be accommodated. As a chartered accountant, Royston seems a bit of an anomaly, but he 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 nods over at the command vehicle -a modified camper van bristling with radio relays, satellite communication links, a parabolic ear, helicopter belly sling, parachute flares, pelican lamps, night-vision goggles, stretchers, helmets, ice axes and more than 500 metres of 11-millimetre static line. "Look at that," he says. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?"

In the Skyride parking lot, that vehicle - North Shore One -~ is now the centre of a buzz of activity. Search manager Royston is working the radio channels and cellphones, talking to police and media, putting out mutual aid calls to neighbouring SAR squads, trying to evaluate what kind of equipment and manpower he's got on hand and just how much he's going to need. Up on the mountain, Jones' team of three has just plucked Ed Lau from his tree and brought him out to the trail. It's 2:30 p.m.

Lau looks cold, so they give him a jacket and a pair of gloves and have him hop up and down on the spot. Clearly, he'll live. They rope him to a tree and tell him to wait, then start descending again, to see who's doing the screaming.

After a short scramble, they come to the lip of a narrow, steep-sided gully. On the far side, about 15 metres above them, is a shivering Karim Bhatia, buried to his waist in snow. A few metres below is Masoud Shekarchi, encased to his neck and screaming when he isn't shivering. Both his thigh bones have snapped. Tending him is Ken Rutland.

Rutland had found Shekarchi with his legs twisted around at impossible angles. Next to him, just sticking out of the snow, was a sock-clad foot. Scooping snow away with his hands, Rutland uncovered Bhatia, unconscious, his airway choked with snow. He wiped the snow out of his mouth and immediately Bhatia took a breath. And regained consciousness. Then he too began to moan in pain.

There were two more small avalanches. Both times the snow knocked over Bhatia, and completely buried Shekarchi. Both times Rutland dug them out, getting colder all the time. He was beginning to wonder if they would all freeze to death when he heard the metallic clicking sound of rescue gear coming. It was 2:45 p.m.

Posting himself as an avalanche lookout, team leader Jones calls Rutland out of the gully, and sends in patroller Falcon to assess the danger. From Rutland he learns that the 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 good. Jones files him under extra manpower, a new volunteer. As for Manning, he's nowhere to be seen.

Falcon brings back word that the gully is safe for now. He begins a scuff search, looking for visual clues like hats or gloves, pushing long flexible probes into likely looking places. He's joined a few minutes later by others from the North Shore team. All are moving at a frenzied pace.

The chances of finding a buried victim alive decrease from about 75 percent alt~ 20 minutes to slightly more than 30 percent at an hour to under 10 percent after three hours. When you're looking for a breathing human being, speed is of the essence.
Almost immediately they get hits. They find a pack. They find a boot, torn from a foot. They find an umbrella. Of Manning, however, there's no sign.

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