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JAMES: North Shore Rescue safety messages still so relevant

“Call Tim Jones.” – Jan.
James

“Call Tim Jones.”
– Jan. 18, 2014 voice message


That short voicemail message, so eerily reminiscent of the man who left it, still echoes even though advanced life-support paramedic Tim Jones was felled by a massive heart attack the following afternoon as he hiked down from a training session at the North Shore Rescue cabin on Mount Seymour.

In the hope Tim’s messages will reach a few of the foolhardy souls who continue to frustrate the overworked volunteer team he taught so well, I am releasing the column I wrote just one day before he died.

• • •

On a foggy mid-January Saturday that began with avalanche warnings throughout British Columbia, longtime North Shore Rescue leader Tim Jones sat at the other end of the phone to tell me about the work of his volunteer team.

With planes already flying overhead to check out the snow-covered mountainous terrain, Jones cautioned he might need to drop the conversation should he receive a call-out.

On par with previous years, the 40 active members of the NSR team answered 85 calls for help in 2013. Although 97 per cent of the call-outs could be classified as true accidents, that doesn’t mean the people involved had taken every precaution to keep safe.

Of significance is that an increasing number of international visitors, new Canadians and others from outside the Vancouver area were numbered among those who experienced trouble when they ventured into unfamiliar territory.

That ongoing increase in the number of enthusiasts who come to enjoy British Columbia’s unspoiled beauty and outdoor adventure is welcomed with open arms.

But as some have discovered to their cost, there is a downside for anyone who gets lost because they’re unfamiliar with the terrain, overconfident about their skills, fails to heed well-publicized advice, and/or makes a deliberate choice to go out of bounds on trails and ski hills.

During the last week of November 2013, the NSR team was especially challenged by three incidents that involved four individuals who ventured into the hills barely 30 minutes as the crow flies from “downtown” North Vancouver.

The circumstances around the first of the four, Thomas Billings, highlights some of the major frustrations of search and rescue teams everywhere: the failure on the part of an adventurer to let someone know where they are going and when they expect to return.

Billings, a fit 23-year-old tourist from Oxford, England, was last seen in East Vancouver on Nov. 25, 2013. Unfortunately, although Vancouver police were alerted, it was nine days before tips from the public suggested the man had planned to hike some North Vancouver trails.

So when NSR initiated its search on Dec. 4, the trail was already cold, literally. Overnight temperatures were dipping well below freezing and snow had fallen to cover whatever tracks there might have been.

Despite a few promising tips and helicopter assistance over several areas popular with hikers and snowshoers, Billings has never been found. The official search was ended in mid-January 2014, but that doesn’t mean the NSR team stopped looking.

“There’s a grieving family back in England,” Jones said during our conversation. “They need to know what happened to Tom.”

Media coverage of that event was non-stop over Christmas; it continued until the search was officially ended. But that wasn’t enough to deter two more people from asking for trouble in the same area, even though NSR members on the Billings search had seen and warned them against continuing their trek using one pair of snowshoes between them.

Those two survived but their foolhardy behaviour drove Jones to contact the youths’ parents.

The third incident began late in the afternoon on Dec. 6, 2013, and again involved a British tourist — a female hiker lost on Mount Seymour — a few kilometres east of the Billings search area.

With darkness approaching, NSR personnel had difficulty maintaining contact to establish the woman’s exact location. Luckily, her flashlight was spotted by Talon Helicopters pilot Kelsey Wheeler, who relayed her position to the searchers.

“Thankfully, the woman was well prepared with many of the 10 essential pieces of equipment,” Jones said. (northshorerescue.com/education/what-to-bring/)

Fast forward to September and October 2015.

Current NSR leader Mike Danks says his volunteers are “beyond the point of exhaustion” after three weeks of non-stop rescues, many of which required longline rescues and helicopter transport.

“It’s times like this I wish Tim was here to demand more help from the province,” he told reporters.

My guess is that, pulling no punches, the man I spoke with that foggy January day almost two years ago — the man still so caring about the grieving of Tom Billings’ family — would be telling irresponsible hikers in no uncertain terms to “Smarten up! Have a word with yourself and stop putting other people’s lives at risk!”

After 16 years with the multi-disciplinary Perinatal Programme of B.C. and later in various endeavours in the growing high-tech industry, Elizabeth James now connects the dots every second Wednesday on local, regional and provincial issues. She can be reached via email at rimco@shaw.ca.

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