A rise in the popularity of outdoor activities in North America, fueled by social media, has resulted in more people venturing into the backcountry to hike, camp, ski and snowshoe. As a result, the city of Vancouver has seen a spike in the number people who get lost, and sometimes killed, in the adjacent Coast Mountains. The most common cases involve hikers who head into the mountains ill-prepared and who get lost, or stranded, after dark.
Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue (NSR) is at the frontlines of this growing rash of distress calls. The group, made up of over 50 volunteers, each with years of training and outdoor experience, works to save lost and injured people on the slopes and peaks above the city. Its members are revered for risking their lives (some of them dangle on ropes from helicopters to pull people out of dangerous terrain), and for making sacrifices in their personal and professional lives to be available to do the work.
North Shore Rescue says nearly all the emergencies it responds to are preventable using common sense and available information. It frequently urges members of the public heading into the mountains to pack what it calls The Ten Essentials. Yet the number of distress calls continue to rise, stretching the organization’s resources to breaking point. NSR says if that trend continues, it won’t be able to handle all the calls it gets and more lives will be at risk.
I spoke with North Shore Rescue’s intrepid team leader, Mike Danks, about the nature of search and rescue work, the dangers of mountain recreation, and how people can avoid getting lost, or killed, while travelling in the backcountry. (above photo: Grant Baldwin)
How did you get into all this? Describe the moment you knew this would be your life’s work.
My dad was part of the rescue team for as long as I can remember. I recall waking up some mornings and not finding him in the house – because he got called out to a rescue in the middle of the night. I was always curious to know what he was doing exactly.
As I got older he started to bring me into the mountains with him. The rescue team held their training sessions on Tuesday nights and they’d always need someone to act as the subject of rescue. That person would lie in a stretcher, or be taken into the woods for the rescuers to find. I played that role regularly, and it became part of my life.
After I turned 19 I told my dad that I’d like to join the team. When I signed-up it was an eye opener because you become part of a really large group with a lot of big personalities. You instantly find yourself part of a network of friends who have similar interests including recreating in the backcountry. That, to me, was pretty inspiring.
In the early days when your dad was part of the team, North Shore Rescue had a different focus. It used to be a Cold War civil defence unit tasked to work in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
That’s right. Some of the founding members of our team, who still remain with us, worked on that mandate. It was a partnership with the fire department to respond to various large-scale disaster scenarios, including a nuclear attack on Vancouver.
The mountain rescue team evolved from that because the group was made up of talented, like-minded individuals with strong outdoor skills, who really wanted to help the community. When it came to extracting people lost in the mountains it seemed logical that these were the people to respond. North Shore Rescue emerged out of those efforts and it paved the way for the creation of other search and rescue teams around the province.
What sorts of people are attracted to join the ranks of North Shore Rescue – and how are they chosen?
We get a wide variety of people interested in joining the team. Most people think that we only want the most rugged mountaineers who can execute the most difficult tasks. In reality, the people we need most are those who are available 24/7 and who are able to sacrifice the time away from their families and jobs to provide a service to the community.
We have a very diverse group of people including accountants, lawyers, carpenters, physicians, nurses, policemen, firefighters, and engineers. I think that gives us strength as a team. If we just had a group of mountain guides, they probably wouldn’t be around when the bell rings. They’d be out guiding trips away from the community. The varying schedules provides us very good coverage. It also gives us a wide range of experience, skillsets and mileage as to who goes on certain calls and what their strengths are. The more seasoned mountaineers can work with the people who don’t get out as much but have the time to commit and build up their skillsets.
Typically we get lots – hundreds – of applicants and we weed through those to find people that can strengthen the organization. People have to understand that it’s not what North Shore Rescue can do for them – it’s about what they can do for our team. We try to give applicants a big reality check about the minimum number of hours they have to put in.
It seems like every other year another record is broken for the number of rescue calls made. Why so many in these last few years?
When our former team leader, Tim Jones, passed away in 2014 that marked the beginning of the spike of rescue calls for us. We attribute the high number to social media. That’s had a big influence on the amount of people that are getting out into the backcountry.
We have an increase in population in Vancouver, too. It’s become trendy for people to recreate in the outdoors. We’re seeing large groups, especially people new to Vancouver who have come here from elsewhere, getting out to enjoy the mountains. When they become lost and stranded it’s not intentional. They’re just naive.
Here on the North Shore you can be remote very quickly. You can take a bus to Grouse Mountain, ride the tram up, and within an hour’s hike you’re quite remote and have no cell signal. Ninety percent of the calls for overdue hikers involve people who don’t have a headlamp. It’s a lot of inexperienced people who are getting out there.
Is there something particular about the Coast Mountains that makes them physically more treacherous than other ranges?
I don’t think so. It’s more about the people. If you look at the Kootenay region of British Columbia, you don’t find people there who are naive about travelling in the mountains. Whereas in Vancouver you have people who are coming from the downtown core that have never set foot on a mountain before. They see the Grouse Grind on social media and just go there without adequate preparation. We have people going on the Grouse Grind in flip-flops. There are people there in business suits and dress shoes. We have women going up in high-heels while carrying little flashy button purses. Meanwhile none of these people understand how unforgiving the mountains can be.
It’s the combination of accessibility and the lack of experience. That’s why we’re so busy.
Also there seems to be no physical or cultural transition separating the urban and backcountry zones near the city. Where one ends, the other begins.
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. And accessibility creates an illusion of relative safety.
From the top of Grouse Mountain you can enter the Haines Valley which is one of our deadliest areas on the North Shore. It’s very remote. You’re in very mountainous terrain. If you wander off the trail there you’ll end up in very steep gullies or cliff bands almost immediately. Making a wrong move there can be fatal.
Again, the Internet also has a huge role to play in this. A lot of people see pictures of beautiful peaks on social media and just flock there without thinking it through. Take St. Mark’s Summit for instance. Social media made it insanely popular. There’s an iconic photo of the area, taken in the summer, which shows the peak with a really great view of Howe Sound. Blog posts say how easy the hike is. But that photo may be posted in the beginning of winter and people don’t understand that there’s snow on the trail and to hike it you have to cross several avalanche paths. They can’t be avoided. And people have no idea that’s the case. With a little bit of snow on the ground it makes it more challenging.
What are the biggest challenges in the field that North Shore Rescue members face? Give us an idea of how difficult the work can be.
A good example is a recent call which came in on Family Day at 9:58 in the morning. Most of our members were sitting down having a late breakfast with their families. Right away we knew it was bad because it involved a person who just called 9-1-1 and there’d been a spot beacon activation as well. It was for a person who was clinging to a tree above a cliff band near the summit of a peak. They’d been involved in an avalanche and their friend was missing. And that’s really all the info we usually get. We call that a Code Alpha: a potential avalanche burial where time is of the essence to save lives. And the ball starts rolling from there.
In the past if we got that call we’d rush over there no matter what. We’d travel through whatever terrain and conditions presented themselves. Now it’s a very different world. We have to get an avalanche forecaster to assess the conditions, the snow’s stability, and to evaluate the route that we’re going to take. On that Family Day call two aircraft were scrambled to respond. We had a ground team that went in. Unfortunately, when that ground response got to Tim Jones Peak they decided they weren’t going to proceed past that point because it was too dangerous.
Meanwhile we had both families sitting at the top of Mount Seymour at our search and rescue station desperately seeking information and trying to understand why we couldn’t get into that terrain. Finally when we got in with a chopper we were able to pluck one of these guys off with a fixed line below the aircraft. The next day we weren’t able to do anything because there was low cloud, and we still couldn’t access the area by ground. The family of the second man knew that their son was still in there. They didn’t know his condition. And they were desperate for us to go in, regardless of the conditions.
The point I’m trying to make is that once we have an activation like that, it is a multi-day event. Even over a week later, I was still talking to the coroner service, and I was still liaising with the family. We also met afterwards with all of the members involved in recovering the man’s body – to check in with them and make sure their mental health was sound. When you look at some of the people going in on these calls, that’s not what they do for a living everyday.
So the work involves quite a lot more than just the core rescue event.
Yeah. And these things in the background are what people really take for granted. The public sees us long-line somebody out by chopper and they think, “Ah, look at that! It must be fun hanging from that rope!” They don’t think about dealing with the family and trying to explain to the mother, “We’re doing everything we can to get your son out, but I want you to understand that your son is probably deceased.” It’s a horrific thing and they don’t want to believe that. The parent wants to hold on to the tiniest fraction of hope that he is somehow going to dig himself out.
There’s also all of the stuff that happens behind the scenes that keeps us ready for the calls: the training, the fundraising, all of the political issues from within the team. Every organization has challenges and everyone wants to be the long-line rescuer. But not everyone can be that person. And that causes huge issues. The calls are just the tip of the iceberg.
You are constantly plugging what you call ‘The Ten Essentials’ – things to bring on an outing. Besides not following those, what are the most common mistakes that are repeatedly made by people that get into trouble?
Cellphones are one. People think their phones are going to work anywhere. That’s a big mistake. Those that are fortunate enough to get a cell signal tend to have very low battery when they need help – because they’re using their phones for their map, for their light, and their calls. We’re pushing people to use satellite SPOT devices. They give you the best chance of calling for help from anywhere. They can be tethered to your cellphone, so you can actually send a text to say that you’re OK – or that you’re lost and need help.
The other really big mistake people make is not doing the research about their hike to make sure that they’re physically fit enough to do it – and that they have ample daylight hours to complete it.
A third rule to remember is to always tell someone where you’re going – and what time you’re expected back. And this is a big one. If you look at the recent fatalities that we’ve been dealing with: it’s all for tourists to Vancouver who went and did the Haines Valley hike. They went up there and didn’t tell anybody where they were going – and they never came back. We still haven’t found any sign of Carl Couture, who went missing last year at Halloween.
Because these people don’t tell anyone where they’re going, we find ourselves anywhere from three days to 2 weeks behind them. And that puts us at a massive disadvantage.
How do you eventually find out where a hiker has gone, if they didn’t tell anyone?
We do a full-on investigation. We start by flying over all of the known locations, where people go out of bounds, to check those spots. Meanwhile, we’ll talk to people who have been in contact with the person: a roommate, or loved one from out of town. We’ll usually get the police to go through the person’s computer, or banking information, to see if there are any clues about where they went, or what they purchased. Maybe they used their visa on a bus, or a ticket to go up Grouse Mountain? Grouse actually has got good camera footage of all the people who go up the tram and in through the chalet.
One person who went missing, a young tourist from the UK named Tom Billings, was a real challenge for us because he was in town for a very short period of time before he vanished. He was couch surfing. He didn’t get reported missing for over a week. We had a confirmed sighting of him in the Haines Valley. Some other information also put him there. We put in over 1500 hours trying to locate him – and it turned out that he was actually on Cypress Mountain. So even with all that information we still weren’t able to find him until his remains were discovered years later.
In all your years in the outdoors, what have you noticed are the qualities of people who tend to survive the most difficult situations?
I remember a British scientist we found who had been missing for two days. By the time we reached him on the third day, he was ready to die. He’d become a puddle of a person. The man wasn’t a big hiker and he was completely at a loss about what to do. He had given up.
On the flipside, we had a call for a snowboarder – Sebastian Boucher – who went missing on Cypress Mountain. He snowboarded out of bounds by accident during a huge snowstorm. He was travelling through steep terrain that was absolutely ridiculous. Waste deep snow. But he was unlike anyone we looked for before because he was covering a huge distance through terrain we’ve never seen anyone travel in. On the third day we actually had to start thinking outside the box – flying over places where we didn’t think he was going to be just to look for tracks. It wasn’t until the third day that we spotted more tracks and ended up long-lining him out with the military from Canadian Forces Base Comox.
Sebastian had an amazing will to survive. He wouldn’t accept that he was going to die on the mountain. He just had this drive that you don’t see very often in the people that we rescue.
My observation: survival is in your mind. It’s not whether you’re physically fit, or a mountaineer. If you are determined to survive you will find a way. Obviously in some cases that’s not going to work. Sebastian could have easily curled up and died on the first night and it would have been reasonable under the circumstances.
And in contrast – what are the more common behaviours, reactions and mistakes that people make, once they’re already in trouble, that lead to those tragic outcomes? What are the absolute worst things you want to avoid doing when you get into trouble?
A common thing we see on the North Shore is people who try to self-rescue. In the minds of beginner hikers, they just need to go down, and we really try to discourage this. People know that water will take them down and so they’ll follow a creek. But I can tell you: most of the recoveries, the fatalities, that we have, take place in the creek. The creeks and the gullies lead you into very very treacherous terrain very quickly.
Because water follows a path of least resistance.
Exactly. And that’s the challenge we have on the North Shore. As soon as you’re off the marked trails you’re in very steep gulley terrain. It’s not forgiving for most people.
Travelling in the dark with no light is another one. That’s likely what happened with Carl Couture, the young man who went missing in the Haines Valley. We believe he continued hiking in the dark after he got lost. He had glasses on and may have dropped and lost those. He didn’t know which direction he was going. As people travel down in the darkness they don’t anticipate that a cliff band is approaching. We’ve seen, over and over, people just go over that cliff band.
What have been the biggest discoveries you’ve made while doing this work? Whether about people, the mountains, or yourself?
Realizations about working with others is one. We have the most dedicated group of people. It blows my mind everyday to see the kinds of stuff that happens on our team and how people can be so selfless. And then by the same token you have some people on the team who do very little but have the biggest voices – and it’s usually a negative criticism that will consume all of the positive energy you’re using to move forward and progress.
I’ve also been surprised by the unbelievable demands of the job. I stepped into this position when Tim Jones passed away in 2014, and didn’t anticipate taking on such a role so early in my life. I always recognized that he put his heart and soul into the work. He was incredibly passionate. But I also know it’s what killed him.
Finally, the biggest realization is that my family is my first priority. It took me a long time to accept that there are going to be some calls, or some training nights, that I’m not going to go on because I need to be with my family. I only get one shot at spending time with my wife and kids. I had to go to a counsellor and get them to beat it into my head that it’s okay to take care of myself first.
The issue of funding and money tends to come up a lot. Tell us why funding is so important.
Funding is what keeps us going. We rely heavily on donations within our community. We’re lucky to get funding from our local municipalities – around $150,000 a year. And that goes to administrative costs. We get a little bit from the province to cover things like volunteer meal per diems, and for using our search and rescue stations.
But when you’re talking about buying a long-line rescue kit that costs $100,000 US, all that money comes from community donations and groups that support us. It’s all very expensive and we have to fundraise for it. The challenge that we face – and it’s the same for all the other teams in the province – is getting out and doing these fundraisers. That consumes a huge amount of time that the rescue teams don’t have. Stable funding from the provincial government would make a phenomenal difference to the 2,500 volunteers in the 80 search and rescue teams in this province.
How can people help?
Anyone interested in supporting our work can make a tax-deductible donation on our website. We’re very grateful for any kind of help – and every little bit counts.
Mike Danks is the team leader of North Shore Rescue and is also a firefighter with the city of North Vancouver.