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RISK AND RESCUE
By Shawn Blore
 


Bob Herger Photographd

They concentrate on the area around the boot until other rescuers determine it's Shekarchi's. Then they descend to a connecting gully and dig and probe all the way to where the small ravines join at a frozen waterfall. Nothing.

The search moves to the debris chute above the victims. As more rescuers arrive, Jones sets some to digging a snow platform for the victims in a safe area outside the gully. Hypothermia kits have already been called for. Neither Bhatia's shorts nor Shekarchi's high-tech exercise gear are particularly warm.

The lack of appropriate clothing or survival gear doesn't surprise Jones much. With rescue calls climbing lock-step with back-county usage, he's been meeting a lot of unprepared people in the mountains. Why so many get caught out with so little gear, some think, is simply a matter of geography


FLAT ON TOP and steep on the sides, the North Shore mountains are shaped like a backyard slide. Stray too far from the summit and there's no slowing down till you hit bottom. On other mountains with this shape, the sheer difficulty of making it to the top keeps people from getting into trouble. The North Shore peaks, however, come with a set of easy steps leading upwards. They're called mountain parkways.

Jones thinks it's also a matter of psychology. Hikers on the North Shore mountains have no sense of being in the wilderness because no matter where they are they can usually see the city, shining by the ocean below. As long as I can see the lights, I must be safe, or so this reasoning goes. The grim reality is that the wilderness starts the minute your foot hits the trail. It's something the North Shore and other SAR teams and ski patrols try to convey through school presentations and media exposure - to little avail.

On New Year's Eve, Roy Royston had appeared on the front pages of the local broadsheet, warning hikers to come prepared or stay home. A week earlier on Christmas Eve, the media gave big play to the story of a snowboard instructor who travelled out of bounds at nearby Cypress Mountain and suffocated in the snow of the ensuing avalanche. Jones arrived on the scene just as the frozen corpse was being pulled out.

One month later Jones is at it again, though this time the victims have hope. It's 3:45 p.m. and the hypothermia kits have arrived. First Shekarchi and then Bhatia are carried to the snow platform, stripped naked and placed in a thick, warm sleeping bag. Portable heating units are fired up and placed beside them.

Shekarchi screams the whole time. Jones has morphine in his first-aid kit, but chilled as Shekarchi is, he dares not use it for fear of shutting down his respiratory system.

By now, it's after 4 p.m. Lau and Seamans have been evacuated. Nothing more can be done for Bhatia and Shekarchi until the ropes and basket stretchers arrive. Jones turns his attention back to the search for Manning.

Five rescue dogs have already sniffed over the gully several times, and are now farther up checking the avalanche path. Other teams are doing a perimeter search to make sure Manning did not wander from the area unnoticed. While they search, rescuers notice ominous signs in the adjoining gully. Snow is blowing down. Now and again there are small point releases. And they can hear the groaning sound of snow settling. That gully could go at any time, they inform Jones.

It's about 4:30 p.m., and there have been no signs of Manning. He could already be over the waterfall. Or he could be higher up wedged against a tree. Or, most likely of all, he could be buried somewhere right beneath their feet. According to the statistics, there's still a 10 percent chance of finding him alive. Working in the area, however, has become too dangerous. Jones pulls the searchers out of the gully.

At 4:45 p.m., the snow in the far gully releases. With a scream like a jet engine, some 500 tonnes rocket through, scouring out the area where, just 10 minutes earlier, rescuers had been digging. The task now is to evacuate the victims they have.

What's entailed is mostly grunt work. For a simple rope raise, a pulley is strapped to a tree, and a 90-metre rope is run through and attached to a stretcher. Four guys walk uphill with the stretcher to keep it stable, while at the other end of the rope 12 others move downhill, letting gravity and their weight do most of the work.

By 7 p.m., Bhatia, who ended up with a broken pelvis, a dislocated shoulder and a concussion, is well on his way to the top while Shekarchi, warm now, gets a morphine shot. His screams stop, and a beatific smile comes over his face. They carefully straighten and traction splint his legs, then put him in the stretcher and begin to haul.

Progress is slow. Shekarchi's lost so much blood internally, he has to be placed in a horizontal position and stabilized every 100 metres or so. It's 9:30 p.m. before he reaches the top, 9:50 before he's in an ambulance on his way to the hospital.

At the direction of police, North Shore volunteers flag the entrance with bright yellow tape and the Grind is declared officially closed. That night, another 30 centimetres of snow falls on the mountains.

IT WOULD BE FITTING if it could be said that Rory Manning's death on such a familiar route made Vancouverites more aware of the power of the mountains. Fitting, but false. In the six months following Manning's death, the North Shore rescue team responded to another 30 rescue calls. Three more people died.

Even among those rescued, the pedagogical effect was mixed. Ken Rutland took a mountain safety course, now carries enough gear to survive for 24 hours, and is a volunteer in training with Lions Bay SAR. Ed Lau bought a whistle and now packs extra clothing and food and water. Rory Manning's family filed a notice of intent, the first step in a lawsuit, against the Grouse ski area, the RCMP the regional government that manages part of the trail, the provincial attorney general and various municipalities in the area.

For three weeks following the incident, near constant snowfall closed the Grind even to searchers, and covered the mountains in the thickest snowpack ever seen on the North Shore - more than 900 centimetres by the beginning of April. Not until early May did the snowpack melt back to what it had been in January. Late in May, Tim Jones goes back on the Grind.

Rescue dogs and search teams had repeatedly gone over the avalanche site, from the tree where Manning was last seen to the bottom of the gully into which he fell. But with warmer temperatures and melting snowpack, Jones hopes that some scent may be making it to the surface. A fellow North Shore SAR member has brought along a dog, an untrained house pet on loan from a neighbour.

They start from just above the snow line and walk up the gully to the foot of a frozen waterfall, just below the site of the rescue four months earlier. The dog goes nuts. Jones and his colleagues begin digging and four feet down, they find Rory Manning - still wearing his backpack. His hands are scraped and bloody, but other than that the body shows few signs of trauma. The RCMP and the coroner are called in. Cause of death, the coroner later rules, is suffocation.

From the edge of the snowy gravesite, after most everyone has gone, Tim Jones turns and looks back down towards the city. Between the rocks, over the forest of cedar and hemlock, he can see a golf course, and a shopping mall, some ships anchored in the harbour. Beyond that, he can see the city lights shining on the west side of Vancouver.

Shawn Blore is a writer living in Vancouver

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