The Triumphs and Tragedies of North Shore Rescue Society

Stories from the group that, for more than 50 years, has braved the mountains looking for the lost and injured.

July 17, 2015

In this jewel of a city, set against the blue-green velvet of the Coast Mountains, the road into death is easily found. From downtown, it’s 46 minutes on the #210 bus, then a 600-metre walk to the entrance of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. That’s where the last cellphone signal, from a tower atop the adjacent mall, fails, as it did for Leon Joy when he decided to head into the park last December. Joy (also called Liang Jin) had studied ocean sciences at UBC for a few years after his family moved from Shanghai; he’d walked the trail several times, gone the seven kilometres to Norvan Falls before, and on this sunny, cold New Year’s Eve day, he felt ready to head farther west through Hanes Valley on a trail that eventually climbs 1,000 metres to the top of Grouse Mountain. He could do a loop and take the gondola back before nightfall. But like too many before him, he never made it.

There isn’t a place anywhere in North America like Vancouver. This city of two million, a shining symbol of 21st-century urbanism, is a speck on the edge of a vast wilderness of deep forest, ice, and snow that extends north for hundreds of kilometres just beyond our skyline peaks. “You think because you’re so close to Vancouver, how can it be dangerous? But you can be in the most heinous terrain and see the lights of Vancouver and you can’t get out,” says Al McMordie, who has volunteered for 36 years as part of the North Shore Rescue Society.

The group turns 50 this summer. It started as a new version of what had been the Mountain Rescue Group but with a mandate to assist a civil-defence system that could be deployed if the Russians dropped a warhead on us. It turned out the team was a lot more useful for finding people lost in the bush. Spinoffs followed as the population of the Lower Mainland spread out: Whistler, Pemberton, Squamish, Coquitlam, Chilliwack. They all seem to attract a certain type: quiet, methodical ectomorphs who work in accounting, computers, engineering—men (and, increasingly in recent years, women) who stay calm and know that plans, not drama, win the day. People like McMordie, a software consultant who still, at 58, does it all: the perilous stuff and the search management. They’re people who can push themselves to the limit, even when it turns out that limit couldn’t save a life.

They all have a story about the worst search. For McMordie, it was in February 1987. Cypress Mountain had put in its new Sky Chair, which could take people higher up Mount Strachan. “We started getting calls after that,” he remembers, as skiers got lost or were tempted by new out-of-bounds swaths. Tony Baker, 14, had gone up with his Richmond church group and headed the wrong way off the chair. It was a Saturday, and the search teams weren’t notified until near dark. McMordie and Ross Montgomery followed the boy’s ski and boot tracks all night. The tracks went to a tree well, where they thought he would be sheltering, but the trail kept going. “We chased him down this gully through the night. If only he had just stopped and waited.” Instead, he pushed on. The trail led to a waterfall, so the two searchers climbed up one side and down the other. Rather than finding Baker, they almost got hit by an avalanche. Dawn broke with them waiting, exhausted, for enough light to make the long, arduous trek back out. The teen’s body was found later that morning in a pool at the bottom of the falls. His memory lives on, revived every time another snowboarder or skier gets caught in what’s now called Tony Baker Gully.

Early searches were endurance tests. Relatives would call police, who often wouldn’t contact search and rescue until they’d gone through their steps to make certain the hiker really was missing. That meant a lot of teams heading into the forest at 2 a.m. by flashlight. The standard practice, then as now, was to send in multiple groups. But back then, without cellphones or even radios, searchers sometimes would return, dispirited, only to discover that the missing hiker had been found hours before.

Technology changed the rescue business. McMordie remembers the first time a cellphone figured in a search. It was the mid 1990s, and a woman, thinking she was on the Grouse Grind (she wasn’t), realizing as it got dark that she didn’t know how to get back, called in for help. He kept her on the phone, asking her if she could hear people yelling and what direction the calls were coming from. Things have evolved for searchers, too, over half a century. Around the same time, the North Shore group pioneered a technique for flying rescuers in, significantly expanding what teams can do. At the start, it was rare that a helicopter was deployed from the Comox air force base to participate in the search; extraction is just one more thing that has become more efficient. Ron Royston, who has been with the group for four decades, figures that the teams do about 5,000 hours of searching in a year. Thirty years ago, that covered 20 calls; now, in those same hours, they deal with over 100.

The modern state of searching was in evidence this May when the team was alerted to two incidents: a couple had lost their way coming down from a hike to the Lions; at the same time, a group from a Surrey high school was stuck on a trail leading north from Cypress Mountain. Jim Loree got the call around 6 p.m. as he was coming home to the North Shore from his communications job in Burnaby. Within the hour, he was, as the crews call it, “flying.” That means after he and another team member travelled by helicopter over the first pair, zeroing in on them with their cellphone GPS coordinates to see exactly where they were, the chopper went to the nearby Lions Bay soccer field, where the two got out, attached themselves to ropes linked to the helicopter, and then were slowly lifted off the ground and flown, dangling 150 feet beneath the craft, to the spot where the Lions pair were. The hikers were then lifted out and lowered to the ground back at the soccer field.

The whole process was repeated several times over to bring out the high-schoolers, who had gotten into trouble when one of their group developed severe leg cramps, which held up the whole party until near dark. While rescue crews seem to love flying, it’s a part of the rescue process that few regular hikers enjoy. “They call it ‘the screamer suit’ for a reason,” says Loree. People arrive so adrenaline-pumped, terrified, and disoriented that someone has to physically manhandle them away from the helicopter pad so they don’t walk back into the blades.

Hundreds of thousands of hikers now come to the mountains each year, every one of them a potential fatality and—as they share information with the world on new trails and new climbs—an ambassador, inspiring novice hikers to explore and take risks. The forests and mountains also attract new niches: extreme athletes who’ve watched too much Survivor, backcountry mountain bikers, and alpine hikers who come well prepared but can still end up in trouble.

The province’s tourism branch markets B.C.’s wilderness aggressively. Its three-minute video for this summer, called “The Wild Within” and shot almost entirely from helicopters, shows people—future tourists—standing on rock ledges in front of waterfalls, perched on cliffs and peaks, or cycling down mountain trails. That message is bolstered by the wilderness-adventure industry, which puts in more equipment to help people get farther into terrain that in many parts of the world would be the preserve of dedicated athletes. It happened with Cypress’s Sky Chair in the 1980s and it’s happening again now with the new Squamish gondola, which has already prompted concern from Squamish’s busy search team. Two people died on trails last summer, one after riding the gondola up, the other using a forest-service road improved during construction.

Mike Coyle, a Coquitlam search-and-rescue veteran who also helps with statistics and tough policy issues, says tourism groups need to do more to educate the people they bring into the wilderness. He’s critical of the maps offered at the Squamish gondola site, saying they don’t tell visitors enough about the terrain and its dangers. “If you’re offering a super-highway into the backcountry, you’d better provide good information,” says Coyle, a software developer who has been a search-and-rescue volunteer for 15 years. He’s the one who wrote mapping software that would enable searchers to get the GPS coordinates from lost hikers’ cellphones. He thinks the companies that make the local mountains more accessible need to do more to ensure safety “When you make an area accessible, people who are less prepared will start to go there.” The province is selling the wilderness to visitors, he points out, and should help BC Parks improve its signage, which is often poor in local wilderness areas. It should also put some consistent funding into search-and-rescue groups, which mostly operate on erratic infusions of funding like gaming grants and donations from grateful families (unlike with ambulances, there is no fee for the rescue) and the municipalities they’re in. “I’d like to see them put a percentage of their tourism budget into search and rescue,” he says. But like all his Good Samaritan colleagues, Coyle will never say people should be barred from the wilderness. “There has to be some room for backcountry adventure.”

And so visitors—hardened adventurers and oblivious flip-flopped tourists both—keep coming, and for the most part, when disaster does strike, keep getting rescued. But all the cellphones and helicopters in the world can only go so far. Greg Miller, who has been with North Shore Rescue since he graduated with his bachelor’s in math and computer science 40 years ago, doesn’t go out on that many hikes these days. He leaves the helicopter flying to the younger volunteers. Now a leadership coach and organizational consultant, he has been a key player in a critical-incident stress-management team with Emergency Management B.C. and many search teams, running sessions to help searchers cope with the shock that comes when they end up finding bodies—not just the hikers who didn’t make it, but victims of plane crashes and, especially, suicides. The bodies seem to be growing more common, perhaps because more people have decided to end their lives by going into the forest with a death wish, those “lost” hikers whose names appear briefly in news reports then abruptly disappear. “Everyone remembers their first body. Most people start this thinking they are going to rescue the person. They tell us, ‘I never thought I’d be dealing with bodies.’ ” says Miller. “We’ve lost a lot of people as volunteers. And that’s a big loss for us. It takes five years to train someone to be a good SAR member.”

Surviving families also need help understanding what has happened. Loved ones, especially those not from B.C., often can’t grasp that it’s not just a question of searchers walking up a trail and looking for a couple of yards on each side until they find their cold and grateful relative huddled under a rock.

Robert Joy called police January 2, two days after his son had texted him in the morning, saying he was going for a hike. Leon had just moved out, and his parents were trying not to intrude on his newfound independence. McMordie scoured the computer in Joy’s downtown apartment for clues as to where he’d gone, finding the searches for the Lynn Valley bus and the trails to Hanes Valley. After the bright, sunny days of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, the weather had turned bad. Deep snow blanketed the Upper Lynn and kept falling. The teams spent over 500 hours searching the trail, trying to find anyone who had seen Joy (no one had) or looking for a sign that he had passed by. As the search continued, they discovered that his father and mother were hiking in regularly to look, walking either the four hours up from the Lynn Headwaters entrance or, in later efforts, taking the Grouse gondola to the top and then walking two hours east to get to Hanes Valley. They also ended up having to take care of friends—one set had to be rescued themselves.

Robert Joy found his son in February, a few days before Chinese New Year. Leon was in a kind of cave formed by enormous boulders that was so deep and hidden that a person had to crawl in to see him lying there on his back, his face drained to white, his dark pack beside him. Searchers think he likely tried to climb the steep ascent to Grouse and then turned back, when he possibly sprained his ankle. Realizing he wouldn’t make it out that night, he must have taken shelter under the rock but didn’t leave signs that he was there. By the time his father called police to report his son missing, the boulder was covered with a blanket of white, the hole he’d crawled into invisible. It was within sight of the helipad where the search helicopter landed, over and over again, and the trail where dozens of searchers walked, calling his name into the indifferent forest.

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