NEWS

Mark Salesse avalanche recovery operation explained by Parks Canada

02/12/2015 09:40 EST | Updated 04/14/2015 05:59 EDT
Mark Salesse, an RCAF member missing for almost a week after being caught in an avalanche, was halfway up a 700-metre ice climbing route in Banff National Park when everything went terribly wrong.

The 44-year-old technician was performing annual training exercises with three other members of the 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron from 17 Wing Winnipeg when the incident occurred, but Salesse was the only one who was swept away.

"We knew he was involved in an avalanche. We knew he had gone over one 60- to 80-metre cliff for sure," said Parks Canada visitor safety specialist Lisa Paulson. "And how much farther he went beyond on that ... we were able to identify in that first flight that the debris he was involved in went over two vertical ice wall sections."

Paulson said search and rescue crews tried for days to get to the area, which was only accessible by helicopter, but were hampered by bad weather and dangerous avalanche conditions. 

"We had somebody on the ground monitoring the weather from sunrise on Saturday just for any break in the weather to allow us to fly," said Paulson.

An aerial search conducted Friday found no sign of Salesse. It wasn't until late on Saturday that search and rescue crews were able to get into the region to conduct avalanche control. A ground search on Sunday was also deemed too risky with the avalanche conditions.

Ground searches commenced on Monday with the help of two search dogs, but the teams were called back after avalanche warnings were issued.

The search resumed again on Tuesday, and search crews say the highlight of the day was discovering a weak signal with the help of a RECCO device — which picks up anything with an electrical circuit or reflectors. Both rescue dogs also picked up a scent in the area.

But crews were not able to find Salesse, so the first priority on Wednesday was to get to the area where they had a signal and follow up on clues.

'We had to dig'

"We had a probe strike that seemed to suggest that it could be someone or somebody there," said Paulson. "It wasn't until 11:30 that morning that we were able to confirm we found Sgt. Salesse."

"We had to dig. He was under 2.7 metres of avalanche debris and it took seven ground search [crews] 45 minutes to ... dig down to him."

Paulson says while it wasn't the outcome they had hoped for, the crews were relieved they had some news for his friends and family.

"It's an honour to bring closure to his family, friends and colleagues. It's such a tragic and unfortunate event."  

Officials with 17 Wing said on Thursday there will be an inquiry into Salesse's death, which is standard procedure in such cases.

"SAR techs are highly trained in various disciplines: they are nearly qualified paramedics, experienced in parachuting, scuba diving, mountaineering and ice climbing," said Maj. Steve Neta in an email. "They operate in conditions that no others would dare try so that others may live. As a result, they train to face those challenging environments."

Salesse's mother says they have received an outpouring of support since the search began. 

"Although we were desperately hoping and grasping at straws that we may have a glimmer of hope left, we were relieved that he was found now and not in the spring," Liz Quinn told CBC News Wednesday.

She says funeral arrangements have not been determined yet, but will be announced within the next few days. 

Timeline of search operation 

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Feb 5: An ice climber was caught in an avalanche on a route called Polar Circus in Banff National Park. His climbing partner extensively searched the avalanche debris and was not able to locate any signs of the missing man. He then descended safely to his vehicle. Visitor Safety was notified about the accident in the late evening.

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Feb. 6: Visitor Safety Specialists searched the area by helicopter. The area of the avalanche was located and there were no visible signs of the missing climber. It was assessed that the site was too dangerous (due to overhead avalanche conditions and poor weather) to put ground searchers into the area at that time.

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Feb. 7: Explosive control was done on Polar Circus to mitigate the avalanche hazard. Many large avalanches were triggered. No ground searches were initiated due to continued high avalanche hazard.

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Feb 8: Avalanche hazard remains high. Continued explosive control was done in attempts to reduce the  avalanche risk. Conditions still unsafe to put ground searchers in.

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Feb: 9: Six ground searchers and two search dogs were on site for 2.5 hours prior to being removed due to rising avalanche hazard.

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Feb 10: Six ground searchers and two search dogs on site for most of the day. Many areas eliminated. Two higher priority areas established.

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Feb 11: Seven ground searches and one search dog on site. Body was located under 2.7 meters of debris. Body was carried out with help from an helicopter and transferred over to care of RCMP.

*Timeline of events provided by Parks Canada.

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