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Lost and Found

Whistler Search and Rescue — 40 years of unwavering dedication to saving souls in the mountains



Drama in real life

Embarking on a road trip, Alberta-based Dr. Mark Heard, along with his son and a group of friends, paddled their white water kayaks on numerous rivers before their arrival in the Whistler area in May 2006.

The group of six decided to paddle Callaghan Creek that fateful day.

One of the very first waterfalls encountered in the creek has a bad undercurrent and "a couple of guys went over without consequence and then I went over the drop and got caught. The real story starts with me being caught underwater in a cave for several minutes," said Heard.

The doctor quickly lost consciousness and was submerged underwater for somewhere between six and eight minutes, before floating out face down. One of the other paddlers tried to get him to shore, but when he got out of his boat Heard floated away so another paddler grabbed him. At this point Heard had gone another couple hundred metres downstream.

Finally they got him to shore and two of the paddlers, who were both anaesthesiologists, started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and administered adrenaline. They were just about to give up when he made a gasp for air and started breathing, but remained unconscious.

In the meantime, the call for help had been made.

Heard credits Whistler SAR for being a critical component in saving his life.

It was eight o'clock at night when they arrived by helicopter, and nearly dark.

With Brad Sills on the radio as the communicator, Scott Aitken at the end of the long-line and Fiona Dercole shining a flashlight down into the canyon, they managed to manoeuvre the helicopter into place to pull Heard out. The doctor, meanwhile, was having seizures and was combative, making him a very difficult patient.

It was a very hazardous situation for the rescuers and there's no question the helicopter pilot was pushing the limits of visual flying, says Heard.

He was transported to Whistler Healthcare Centre and then transferred to Vancouver General where the doctors were doubtful that he would survive. But despite the odds, he woke after four or five days and after a significant recovery period, went back to work as an orthopedic surgeon and still kayaks today.

"The key part of the Whistler story is the SAR team pushing the limits," he said. "That made all the difference — those guys saved my life and I'm here talking to you because of it.

"I'm forever grateful — they deserve the accolades."

Brad Sills remembers vividly the rescue mission from which he very nearly didn't return. A 37-year veteran on the Whistler Search and Rescue team (known as SAR), he is no stranger to the dangers of the work. But, as he admits, there are times when we are all prone to the unpredictable nature of the mountains.