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A life on the line

North Shore Rescue celebrates its 50th anniversary of saving lives in the mountains

In winter, the Hanes Valley is an unforgiving place, a black and white moonscape where grey boulders poke out from dustings of snow.

Icy chutes have been scoured from the nearby ridges by landslides and avalanches.

Jeff Yarnold, air operations co-ordinator for North Shore Rescue, sat in the front of the helicopter next to the pilot, scanning the boulder field. He was looking for tracks in the snow, slide paths and signs of recent avalanches.

At this time of year, the valley doesn’t look the way it does in the summer hiking guides. In January, it’s a different country.

This is where missing hiker Liang Jin is thought to have headed before he vanished recently. It’s the same place British tourist Tom Billings disappeared a year earlier.

The hunt for Billings was one of the last major searches conducted by Tim Jones, the long-time leader of North Shore Rescue, who died suddenly of a heart attack on Mount Seymour a year ago this week.

Jones was fierce about the work of North Shore Rescue.

“He threw everything he had at it,” said John Blown, another long-time member of the team. “He’d mow down the entire forest to try to find someone.”

Not being able to find Billings “drove him crazy,” said his son Curtis Jones, 28 — who is also a member of the rescue team.

Curtis remembers chatting with his dad about the search on Christmas Day 2013, about needing more leads to push it forward. They kicked about an idea of videotaping the Hanes Valley and ‘crowdsourcing’ the search online.

“The next morning, on Boxing Day, we were up at 6 a.m., and in a helicopter at daylight flying grid patterns on the North Shore with a video tech,” said Curtis.

In search and rescue work, there’s never a lot of down time.

So far neither Billings nor Liang has been found. The North Shore mountains seemed to swallow them whole. Neither were prepared for the conditions they’d encounter.

Hanes Valley is among a list of names familiar to searchers: Suicide Gully, Montizambert Creek, Crown Mountain, Tony Baker Gully. Places where a person can get into trouble quickly.

• • •

It was around the same time of year — a week before Christmas 2012 — and snowing heavily in the North Shore mountains when snowboarder Sebastien Boucher went missing on Cypress.

The 33-year-old had last been seen ducking under a boundary rope and heading into rugged terrain west of the ski resort.

Members of the rescue team spent two days looking for Boucher without success.

There was deep snow and a high risk of avalanche.

“It was terrible, terrible conditions,” said Blown. “You were literally swimming in neck-deep snow.”

On the third day, there was a brief break in the weather — long enough to send up a helicopter. From the air, they spotted fresh tracks on the side of Black Mountain.

At the time, Tim Jones was in a downtown Vancouver hospital with his daughter Taylor. When the pager went off, Jones ran to the nearest police station, commandeered a squad car and asked to be driven to the airport, where the helicopter picked him up.

A four-man team including Jones, Mike Danks, Blown, and Yarnold were dropped on the mountain with a sling load of about 500 lbs of gear.

But moving it in those conditions was like “pulling a sea anchor,” said Yarnold. “We ended up leaving it there.”

They followed the tracks down into a gully towards Disbrow Creek. When people are lost in the North Shore mountains, they almost always head down — it’s easier, and they think they’ll reach safety that way, heading toward the city and the ocean. What they find instead are dangerous waterfalls and drop offs that end in icy creeks. Heading down is always a bad idea.

As darkness fell and the searchers got closer, they could hear Boucher yelling crazily in the dark at the base of a waterfall.

“He was yelling like a madman,” said Yarnold.

There was no choice but to follow him down.

“When you throw a rope off into the darkness, you hope you can find another rappel station when you get to the end of your rope,” said Blown.
Yarnold — the first rescuer in — was shocked when he suddenly found himself face to face with Boucher, who was still upright and walking. “I said, ‘I can’t believe you’re alive,’” said Yarnold. “He said, ‘Me neither.’”

• • •

High-risk rescues like this are all in a day’s — or most often a night’s — work for members of North Shore Rescue, British Columbia’s busiest and best-known mountain search and rescue team.

The North Shore’s combination of mountain backcountry that pushes up close to a big city has been a recipe for many rescues over the five decades the team has been in operation. This year, the team will mark its 50th anniversary.

Karl Winter, now 75, is one of three founding members of North Shore Rescue and is still on the active call list, although these days, “I don’t go out and crash through the bush,” he said.

Winter had already taken part in his first mountain rescue as a teenager in the Austrian Alps when he arrived in North Vancouver in 1959.

At that time, when authorities needed help in the mountains, they called on Vancouver Mountain Rescue, a loose-knit group of local mountaineers.

The team had come into its own after members found the wreckage of a horrific plane crash on the steep slope of Mount Slesse in 1957.

In the early days, there wasn’t much formal structure to searches, said Winter. “There were just a bunch of guys who went out searching” — mostly bushwhacking. “There weren’t a lot of trails on the North Shore mountains in those days.”

A few years later, Winter answered an advertisement posted by the civil defence co-ordinator for the North Shore, seeking volunteers. It was the age of the ‘Diefenbunker’ and few mountaineers showed up for the first meeting. But the need for wilderness searches quickly became more pressing than protection from nuclear fallout. “That’s how we formed North Shore Rescue,” said Winter.

In the early days, search equipment was rudimentary. They didn’t have headlamps and their rain gear was poor. “You just brought a whole bunch of clothes and when you got soaking wet you would just change if you had to,” he said.

They had no radios that worked in the backcountry.

Climbing ropes were made of hemp, which were stiff and difficult to handle as soon as they got wet.

“You had to be tough and in good shape,” said Winter. “You had a very heavy pack when you were out looking for people.”

• • •

Today, there are about 40 volunteer members of North Shore Rescue, who get called out to about 100 rescues a year.

Members of the team are trained in first aid to international trauma life support level — a higher standard than any other team in the province.

Heading into a rescue, they are always well-prepared — with pre-packaged “go packs” of supplies ready to toss into the helicopter at a moment’s notice.

“That was my dad’s modus operandi,” said Curtis. “When they jumped out of that helicopter, they brought the kitchen sink with them — hypothermia kits, tents, stoves — the whole nine yards.”

• • •

Mike Danks, the 38-year-old leader of North Shore Rescue, has been part of the team for 19 years.

His dad, Allan Danks, was a team member and search leader when Danks was growing up.

“I’d wake up in the morning and my dad wouldn’t be there. My mom always said, ‘He’s gone to help someone.’ We always understood that.”

Curtis, another second-generation member of the team, grew up around his dad’s work on North Shore Rescue. “By the time I was 16 I had done my first helicopter-based rescue,” he said.

When he formally joined the team, he knew his dad’s expectations of him were “extremely high . . . That’s what I was always working with and towards.”

“He shredded me a few times,” he said, referring to the legendary dressing down Jones could give team members who fell short of his standards. Jones had reasons for “The Shred”: any lack of attention to detail in the backcountry could quickly turn deadly. “He didn’t care about you unless he shredded you,” said Curtis.

As team leader, Tim Jones pushed North Shore Rescue towards increasing the use of helicopters during backcountry search and rescue because he knew it saved lives.

Peter Murray, owner of Talon Helicopters, grew up on the North Shore and has been flying searches with the rescue team — along with other Talon pilots — for the past 25 years.

Talon pilots fly AStar and TwinStar helicopters for the work — powerful, light and manoeuvrable machines that can get in close to the mountains.

The key to flying for backcountry search and rescue is to be able to read the wind around the mountains, said Murray, and be comfortable getting in tight and close — not 1,000 feet up.

“You have to hover low and slow almost at a walking pace. Otherwise you can’t see things,” he said.

North Shore Rescue also pioneered the longline rope rescue system that sees searchers — and injured patients — winched in and out of difficult terrain suspended on a 200-foot line beneath the helicopter.

“You need to have very good mountain flying skills,” said Murray. “One out of 100 helicopter pilots do the work we do.”

Those pilots, working with the rescue team, have saved many lives in the mountains.

In 2007, a ground search team from North Shore Rescue reached climber Chris Morley on an exposed and dangerous slope near Theta Lake, suffering from broken bones and hypothermia.

The men dug snow caves and spent two nights huddled together listening to avalanches crashing down on slopes all around them.

When a break in the weather finally came, the helicopter pilot hovered just long enough for rescuers to literally throw Morley inside.

“I was out on the skid as we flew into the lake,” said Curtis. “They basically threw Chris Morley at me. I had him in my arms in a bear hug and fell back into the aircraft.”

• • •

North Shore Rescue team members range in age from 25 to guys in their 70s.

There are a lot of “A type personalities,” said Danks, but members understand they have to work as a unit.

“You need to have confidence in yourself and you need to be able to trust other people with your life.”

While there’s plenty of excitement, there are also personal sacrifices that come with being on the team. Partners and kids are often ditched at a moment’s notice when the pager goes off.

“It’s usually when you’re sitting down to a nice birthday dinner or when you’re trying to put the kids to bed,” said Danks, who has three young daughters, aged two, six and eight. “It puts a ton of pressure on the other spouse.”

Yarnold remembers his pager going off during his son’s birthday party one year. Within 20 minutes he was in a helicopter, flying.

What keeps him going is knowing he’s making a difference, said Danks.

“I’ve been on lots of calls when people have given up. They’ve laid down to die.”

Danks remembers one time the team went to find a British scientist who hadn’t even been reported missing. He had been on Mount Fromme for three or four days when his roommate casually mentioned to someone that he hadn’t come home. When Tim Jones heard about it, he immediately mounted a search. They found the man on the mountain, crumpled in a ball.

“He thought he was going to die there,” said Danks.

Not all searches have happy endings. Sometimes there are recoveries instead of rescues.

Calls involving children are the worst.

“It happens,” said Blown. “It’s never because we didn’t do all we could.”

Curtis said his father’s empathy fuelled his drive to help — something he passed on to other team members.
“When a mother is bawling her eyes out because she thinks her son is dead, it’s pretty sobering,” said Blown. “It really motivates you to go out and find that person.”

• • •

These days, the media profile of the North Shore mountains means a wider group of people is heading into the wild. Many take on challenges beyond their abilities and don’t take basic equipment.

People still don’t understand that they will lose cell phone service quickly in the backcountry and that their battery will die.

“I’ve seen people in high heels and thongs and business suits on the Grouse Grind,” said Danks.

And everyone with a pair of Lululemon pants is hiking the backcountry these days.

Yarnold said he’s seen people using an avalanche transceiver “app” on their phone rather than carrying a proper transceiver. “It doesn’t work,” he said. “It only gets you to within 30 metres.”

Blown acknowledges young men are often the subjects of searches. “They’re less risk-averse than the rest of society,” he said.

He’s been asked more than a few times, “How can you go out and rescue these idiots time after time?”

But everybody makes mistakes, he said. “No one deserves to die for a stupid mistake.”

The team has maintained a staunch position against asking people to pay for their rescues, despite occasional public debates.

Blown said there’s no evidence that acts as a deterrent against stupid behavior. But it can make people reluctant to call — further endangering both themselves and those who will be called out to find them.

“We don’t believe we should just leave people on their own,” said Blown.

Team members acknowledge as a unit, they are still adapting to life without Tim Jones, who died at 57 on Jan. 19, 2014.

“He was a force of nature,” said Blown. “He was always motivating people to push the limits.”

When a rescue call came in, Jones was known for deciding what had to be done first and getting permission later.

“If he followed the rule book there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t be here today,” said Yarnold.

Jones led the team to set up its five remote command centres. He also set up backcountry caches of emergency supplies and the team’s system of remote VHF radio repeater stations.

One of his biggest jobs was working tirelessly to raise the public profile of the team, which relies heavily on donations to operate.

While the B.C. provincial government pays for helicopter time during actual rescues, money for training and for equipment — including maintenance of the remote repeater stations and caches — all has to be raised.

The team receives government grants to cover part of its approximately $500,000 annual budget, but none of those are slam dunks.

“We have to go in every year and apply for that money,” said Danks.

The biggest portion of the budget — more than $225,000 — still comes from the public.

Before he died, Jones was aiming to raise $6 million for a legacy fund that would generate enough interest to pay for operations each year. That’s still a goal of the team.

Said Curtis, “If this was a paid service it would be a multi-million dollar a year budget just for the work hours.”

• • •

Danks acknowledged he’s had big shoes to step into.

“It’s been a huge change in my life,” he said of taking on the team leadership — and one he never expected so soon.

Just one day after the public memorial service for Jones last year, Curtis led the team on their first rescue mission without him. It was a milestone moment, said Curtis, and a strange one, but, “If it had been one of us, he would have been making sure we were 100 per cent ready to go.”

That was brought home to him when he went to his dad’s office at the North Shore Rescue’s base of operations, nicknamed “The Embassy”, and found an organizational chart for the team he’d been working on before he died.

“One of the things you would notice is his name was on every aspect (of the organization),” he said. “But he had started crossing his name off of them, and he had started writing in other names.”

It was a reminder, he said, that “North Shore Rescue was bigger than him and he wanted to make sure it continued to be.”

For more information on North Shore Rescue, or to donate to the team go to

Portions of this story appeared in the fall 2014 issue of Mount Baker Experience magazine, based in Washington State. They are used here with permission.