ALBERTA

Searchers unable to reach site of missing search and rescue technician

02/08/2015 04:37 EST | Updated 04/10/2015 05:59 EDT
LAKE LOUISE, Alta. - After days of waiting for the avalanche risk to subside, Parks Canada searchers were scheduled on Sunday to set foot on the snow that buried a fellow rescuer in Banff National Park.

But at the end of the day and as darkness began to fall, the agency released a statement saying the risk of avalanches remained high and it was unable to send the searchers in.

Monday, the statement said, would hopefully be better.

Sgt. Mark Anthony Salesse, 44, a search and rescue technician based in Winnipeg, was swept off a cliff by an avalanche on Thursday while ice climbing on a slope called the Polar Circus.

His climbing partner searched the snow below but couldn't find him.

Parks Canada staff searched the area by helicopter the following day, but considered the avalanche risk too high to allow ground rescuers to enter the area.

They triggered avalanches on Saturday to make the area safer, but it was too late to put searchers on the ground. They had hoped to put ground teams and search dogs into the area by helicopter on Sunday afternoon, but it was not to be, and crews were forced once again to engage in additional avalanche control.

Brian Webster, a visitor safety specialist with Parks Canada, says rescuers consider it highly unlikely Salesse could have survived after the first day.

"Based on the reports from his climbing partner who did a thorough search of the area, and also based on our observations from the helicopter where we had a clear view of the accident site, we feel very confident that he was completely buried in the avalanche and he would have been under the snow overnight at any rate," Webster said Sunday in Banff.

"So at that point in time, the situation became non-urgent. It wasn't a rescue — it was more of a recovery effort," he added.

Snow continued to fall in the days following the accident and temperatures rose, which Webster said caused further avalanches that landed at the bottom of the slope where Salesse is believed to be. In addition, the avalanches the rescuers triggered also landed on the area, adding to the snow cover.

Webster said Salesse wasn't wearing an avalanche transceiver, a device that allows rescuers to hone in on a signal and locate buried victims. He said that meant the searchers would be relying heavily on dogs being able to pick up a scent.

Salesse was training at the time of the avalanche with other search and rescue personnel, according to the military.

Webster said one of the climbers triggered a small avalanche and was swept off a 60-metre cliff.

"We suspect that in the initial avalanche, which was fairly small, he likely wasn't buried very deeply. He was definitely buried completely, but likely not very deeply. That may not be the case now," Webster said.

Liz Quinn, Salesse's mother, said the military told her that her son was climbing up the ice wall when the weather, which was supposed to be good, suddenly worsened. The climbers, who were in two teams of two, turned around and headed back down.

Salesse was in the lead and stopped on a ledge to wait for his partner, Quinn said. But when his partner got to the ledge, Salesse was gone.

When reached Saturday at her home in Moncton, N.B., she said she still hoped for his survival but knew the odds weren't good.

"If anyone can survive this Mark can, but the elements are against him," Quinn said.

Capt. Bettina McCullough-Drake said the mood over the weekend at 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 17 Wing Winnipeg, where Salesse was based, was "sombre."

Salesse was born in Bathurst, N.B. Quinn said her son had 25 years of ice-climbing experience. He isn't married and doesn't have children.

The Parks Canada website warns that ice-climbing is an "inherently dangerous sport" and that avalanches are common.

McCullough-Drake said training for search and rescue personnel often necessitates danger so that rescuers are ready when called on to save someone.

"That's why they engage in this sort of training, so if they have to jump into mountainous areas, they are prepared," she said.

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