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North Shore Rescue mourns founding member, 'a mountain of a man,' Karl Winter

Winter served the team for 57 years
Karl Winter pegleg films web
Karl Winter is interviewed in the 2020 Knowledge Network documentary Search and Rescue: North Shore. He died on Dec. 31, 2021.

It’s hard to estimate how many people are alive today because of Karl Winter.

Winter, one of the founding members and a lifelong mainstay of North Shore Rescue, died Dec. 31.

“Karl was just a legendary man. He was a mountain of a man,” said North Shore Rescue team leader Mike Danks.

In 1965, Winter, along with brothers Gerry and Dave Brewer, was among those who answered an ad in the North Shore Citizen that sought volunteers for a civil defence team. During the Cold War, the authorities wanted a trained group ready to deploy if a nuclear attack led to collapsed buildings.

The attack never happened, but in 1968, however, they were tasked with finding a young mountaineer who died in a fall from Goat Mountain.

“It took us two days to recover the body,” said Gerry Brewer. “It made us realize that we have to take a more serious approach to mountaineering and mountain rescue.”

Winter was already a world-class mountaineer, and he was able to introduce skills and practices he acquired in his native Germany.

“Everything that we did was done the hard way. There was no helicopter. No skidoo. You trudged around all night ‘til you found the person,” Brewer said. “Today, they do in three hours what we did in two days.”

Over and above carrying out hundreds of missions in the North Shore backcountry and beyond, Winter helped drive the team to adopt new equipment and practices, developing the team into what is now one of the busiest and most sophisticated volunteer search and rescue outfits in Canada.

In the field, he routinely carried injured people and incredibly heavy gear through difficult terrain on his back.

“His physical stamina and strength is unmatched in anyone I've climbed with,” Brewer said.

Winter summited, or at least attempted, many of the major mountain peaks in the world, where he often was pressed into service to help aid in rescues of strangers in unfamiliar territory.

“It seems that if you have the skill, you’ll be in demand no matter where you are,” he said.

His generosity extended beyond rescues. When he returned from a trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, he marshalled as many surplus rescue supplies as he could and paid to have them shipped to the poorly equipped Tanzanian mountain guides. After climbing in Nepal, he and his wife Mary took in a young Nepalese man and sponsored him to become a Canadian citizen.

“That's the kind of person Karl was. He gave far more than he ever got,” Brewer said.

As a rescuer, Winter felt compelled to help, knowing how unforgiving it is to be injured, stranded or lost in the bitter wilderness, Brewer said.

The one time he was in need of rescue himself, Winter and three other climbers were just shy of the peak of Denali when they were caught in a ferocious storm. He volunteered to climb down to a lower cache of supplies and return with gear that would help keep them alive until the storm passed and rescuers arrived from Anchorage.

“He was very empathetic for the circumstance that people find themselves in when they went missing or had an accident,” he said. “Because we've had the accidents. We've had the experience. We know how overwhelming it is to a person. … It didn’t matter the time of day, day of the week – birthdays, anniversaries. If the bell rang, he was always there.”

Having such a committed volunteer for a dad meant he wasn’t always around, said his son Greg, but Winter shared his love of outdoor adventure to his family.

“It just was like that from Day 1. … I kind of respected him for that,” he said. “He just was a driven guy, and nothing really stopped him in his pursuits.”

Greg followed in his father’s crampons, serving with North Shore Rescue from 1999 to 2017.

Winter remained a North Shore Rescue member in good standing for 57 years. When he was no longer able to go out “bushwhacking” as he called it, he oversaw construction and maintenance projects, did administrative work, public events and fundraising, and mentored new members.

“He wouldn't look for any credit. He was incredibly strong. He was patient with everyone,” Danks said. “There is no one that will be able to replace Karl.”

In his professional life, Winter installed massive sliding doors for industrial operations, where he used his mountaineering skills, sometimes dangling 40 feet off the ground and welding parts together.

He and Mary were also internationally recognized breeders of St. Bernards, a dog popularly associated with mountain rescues in the Alps.

Greg said his father was never one to boast about his accomplishments around the home, and he’s been astounded by the stories coming out now from his friends and colleagues.

“I'm just blown away by the outpouring from the community,” he said. “It's been pretty shocking and pretty amazing.”