The manager for a massive search operation on Mount Elizabeth in 2002 looks back on the event 10 years later as something that rallied the community together.
Bob McLeod, the co-ordinator for the Kitimat Emergency Program, said that there were approximately 180 people on the mountain over the two weeks of searching which eventually led to the discovery of the bodies of Christina Huckvale and Chris Markoff.
They were reported missing on August 25, 2002.
The operation called in the expertise of numerous Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel, from those in the north to crews out of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
McLeod believes it was one the largest, possibly the largest, search operations in the province.
Despite the tragic conclusion to the search, the effect of the incident not only pulled the community together in an unprecedented way but gave the local Search and Rescue group a boost to its membership, which persists to this day.
“It was a huge event,” said McLeod, noting that membership rose from around a dozen or so people to about 50.
The rescue operation in 2002 saw over 100,000 volunteer hours as well.
What took so much work during the search was the fact that no one had a good idea where the pair could have been.
“We responded with the RCMP but the only thing we had to show absolutely where they were was the word of people who had been told they were going up the mountain and their vehicle,” said McLeod.
A helicopter lifted a rescue team to the peak and they worked their way down — once weather allowed — and a team worked from the bottom. There was no sign of anyone.
Huckvale’s body was eventually found on Aug. 29, and McLeod said the photos on the camera she had showed them both at the mountain peak.
That gave the search parties a little more indication over what might have happened because Markoff was a more experienced hiker than Huckvale.
“He was the type of person that would look after her. We started to think he got into trouble first,” he said.
A month after the search was officially called off, a volunteer team came together with searchers from Terrace and the North Shore and Markoff’s body was found.
McLeod said no one can know what really happened although there is speculation on what could have occured.
“Above where she was found, down, you can see the road,” he said, leading to theories that Markoff fell and in her panic, Huckvale tried to make a line to the road, getting into trouble herself.
Kitimat’s SAR group benefited from such a wide amount of support both locally — McLeod said they had so many offers of assistance that they couldn’t even use everybody — and provincially.
In fact a lot of the planning was done by some “very sharp” analysts from Ridge Meadows, said McLeod.
“In anything like that you have to hang your ego on the door knob and get as much help as you can,” he said. “It worked extremely well.”
In 2003 a plaque was installed on Mount Elizabeth’s peak commemorating the loss of life.
Search and Rescue purchased the plaque and wording was provided by the families of the victims. The fathers of the two victims joined SAR members on the mountain to install it.
The plaque has served as a reminder to hikers, and a warning. McLeod said he and many members have been told by people that they’ve reached the top of the mountain, saw the plaque, and reconsidered how prepared they were for the hike.
Since the search on Mount Elizabeth he said there is an annual training exercise but thankfully the mountain is relatively quiet for calls.
Now with so many new people in town — people who may have never even been to British Columbia before — he said it’s important to remind people of the mountain’s history and to keep prepared when they go into the wild.
“It’s a very good reminder that things can go bad very quickly. What starts off as a fun Sunday afternoon changes and can happen to any of us.”