A search for a missing 21-year-old snowshoer who was lost overnight in the North Shore backcountry has ended tragically.
Search crews spotted the woman from a helicopter Friday morning, in a steep gully in the Lembke Creek drainage area and long-lined rescuers, including medical personnel, in to the scene.
Squamish RCMP confirmed in a statement late Friday that the woman had been pronounced dead by medical teams.
"First, our thoughts are with the woman's family and friends, as well with all the responders and search teams to the St Mark’s area last night and today," said Sgt. Sascha Banks of the Squamish RCMP in a press statement late Friday afternoon.
The Squamish RCMP will work with the BC Coroners Service to determine all the facts surrounding the woman’s death, said Banks.
It was a tough day for North Shore Rescue teams, whose leader Mike Danks also expressed condolences to the woman's friends and family.
North Shore Rescue crews had been out since late Thursday afternoon searching for the snowshoer, who was missing in the backcountry near Cypress Provincial Park after becoming lost on the Howe Sound Crest Trail.
Ground crews and helicopter search teams had been combing Lembke Creek on the east side of St. Mark’s Peak.
The woman – a tourist from Toronto who posted pictures of solo travel adventures on Instagram – was snowshoeing alone.
She had reached St. Mark’s Peak just before 3 p.m. Thursday and phoned her boyfriend in Toronto.
After that, she began descending back down the trail, but became lost. She called her boyfriend again “to say that she was lost in very deep terrain. And she sounded quite distressed and then the phone connection dropped,” Doug Pope, search manager with North Shore Rescue, said earlier on Friday.
The boyfriend then called police and a search was immediately started.
Ground search crews and a helicopter crew using night vision goggles searched Thursday night for several hours, said Pope. Searchers also landed in the watershed and attempted to make voice contact with loudspeakers, but did not hear anything back.
Weather conditions deteriorated through the evening, including gusting wind and blowing hail and snow during the night.
The Lembke Creek drainage – where a number of creeks end in waterfalls and cliffs on the east side of St. Mark’s summit – has been the site of multiple searches over the years, including previous fatalities.
Danks described the terrain as steep, icy and very treacherous.
“If you take a slip in terrain like that, you're going to be falling very quickly. Those gullies are very unforgiving,” he said, adding anyone heading into the area should be carrying an ice axe and crampons.
“It seemed like she was in way over her head, which is really sad,” he said.
Danks said one key message is “when people get in situations where they do not feel safe, they need to stay put. And do not go downhill, because our terrain is so unforgiving.”
Terrain in the North Shore mountains usually gets more treacherous further down – frequently ending in cliffs and waterfalls – and cellphone service drops off quickly below mountain ridges.
Heading into unfamiliar territory alone can also be a fatal mistake, he said, adding joining a local mountain club is always an option.
“She was obviously doing something that she loved and she was passionate about, but local knowledge is really key and understanding the conditions and having a bit of a safety plan in place. Having someone that is with you who can call for help or can be your support is just so vitally important.”
In December 2016, searchers spent five days scouring the gullies and drainages around Cypress Mountain for two lost snowshoers, Roy Tin Hou Lee and Chun Sek Lam. They have never been found.
Danks said he feels terrible about the loss the young woman's family and friends are now feeling.
"Today's been a blur and at the heart of it is a terrible loss of a young life."