Sunday, February 09, 2014

Eight years before Brian was lost in Whistler BC, Anne Marie Potton died there.

It's been almost 12 years since Brian was lost at Whistler - July 12, 2002. His parents and siblings are still alive, and so, I believe are all the friends who searched that July. Some have married and had children.

Even at that time, we hears stories of a woman who died in that area in October 1994. A comment on a 2011 post brought a reference to an article in a BC news magazine. I don't know how long that article will last, so I've excerpted parts of it below. It's really an article about Whistler Search and Rescue, but I'm concentrating on the parts about the missing person. Emphases and dates added. ...

missing in mtns | Feature Story | Pique Newsmagazine | Whistler, CANADA June 2000

The Anne Marie Potton search was a watershed for Whistler Search and Rescue By G.D. Maxwell

... On a warm, late summer Saturday in September [1995], after a Whistler summer where warm weather never really gained a solid purchase, the town was full of activity...

... Scrambling into the bowl and hiking to where the coyotes’ attention seemed to be concentrated, the decomposed and partially consumed remains of a person were discovered. Dressed in green stretch pants, a dark green plaid shirt and a blue turtleneck, the clothes and description were a match and it appeared the mysterious disappearance of Anne Marie Potton had been solved.

... Why hadn’t she been found last October [1994] after she disappeared and upwards of 120 people had scoured the mountain every day for a week? How had she turned up in a location we’d searched at least three times by air with heat-detecting infrared gear, maybe four times with dog teams and innumerable times on foot? What happened?

... Monday, October 10, 1994, was Canadian Thanksgiving and all the plans for stuffed turkey dinner had been put on hold. A hiker was missing on Whistler Mountain and had been since late in the day on Saturday, already not a good sign.

... We search for signs, for clues, not for people. What we had so far in the way of clues was less than skimpy. She’d last been seen by a co-worker around 2:30 Saturday afternoon. She was going hiking, maybe to Singing Pass, maybe the Musical Bumps or maybe the peak area, which in itself didn’t make a lot of sense given the timeframe for last ride down. Her season pass had been scanned at the base of the mountain and she’d failed to meet friends Saturday evening.

She’d been reported missing Sunday morning. According to her employer at the Mad Café and her friends, she was reliable; it was unlikely she’d just flaked off and headed for the city on a lark. She was blond, 5’8', in good physical shape, lightly dressed and carried no food or water with her. She had degrees in political science and geography from Western in Ontario and was comfortable in the outdoors. She’d lived in Whistler since the previous fall and had an extensive network of friends. She was an instant local, one of our own. We had no last-seen point and no fixed itinerary.

Nadine Nesbitt and Leigh Edwards, summer patrollers/guides, were positive they’d heard two calls made by a female on Sunday afternoon coming from somewhere around Harmony Bowl or maybe from the Singing Pass area. And that was it; not much to go on. To make matters worse, Saturday proved to be the last reasonable weather day. Conditions deteriorated overnight and by late Sunday afternoon it was snowing in the alpine and raining lower down. The wind was up and the temperature was down. Indian summer had segued into winter at the worst possible moment. Based on what little was known, I was assigned Monday to search the cliffs along Harmony Ridge and out toward the Musical Bumps....

... There’s an axiom in search and rescue: People can't fly; if they passed through someplace, they left signs. Toe digs, rolled rocks, disturbed vegetation, kick marks, something. There’s another almost Holmesian rule about searching: When in doubt, do what a 'rational' person would do in the same circumstances. If that doesn’t turn up anything, do the opposite because at that point, they could be anywhere. By the close of Monday, I was into doing the opposite because there was absolutely no sign, no last-seen point, no nothing.

... By Tuesday, a small army of searchers and a larger army of volunteers from the community — people who knew Anne Marie and people who only knew someone was missing — were getting involved. The media were in on the act and Anne Marie’s father was on his way out from Ontario. Then, late Tuesday evening, everything changed. Five hikers from North Vancouver contacted the RCMP. They’d seen Anne Marie on the mountain Saturday. They’d taken her picture for her, with her camera, with Black Tusk in the background.

They’d talked to her near Whistler Peak and that’s the direction she continued hiking. Finally, we had a last-seen point. By Wednesday morning, the search had become a military operation.

.... in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine her heading under the warning rope and down Whistler Bowl, figuring on making Shale Slope and straight-lining the Roundhouse. We’re talking almost 45 degrees of blue ice! With crampons and an ice axe, maybe. More likely with all that and a belay rope. We spent the rest of Wednesday searching the bowl in horrible weather.

The look of doubt that must have been on my face showed on those of the other teams as well. In the bowl with me were a couple of dog teams, crevasse teams painstakingly scouring every opening in the ice, and a few other ground teams. We covered obvious terrain — fall line from the entrance to the terminal moraine at the bottom of Whistler Bowl. Anyone entering the bowl would have slid straight down. It was pointless to look for tracks because over a foot and a half of snow had fallen since Anne Marie went missing.

The only possible sign would have been a mound of snow and there was none to be found. At day’s end we reported our findings to Alex Bunbury and he checked our areas off his map. Awake instead of sleeping early Thursday morning, I couldn’t shake the alternatives. It was clear if she didn’t get off the mountain on Saturday she was dead by now. But maybe she did. There had been, during the fall of 1994, a number of assault incidents, women hitchhiking. Maybe this was a criminal case.

Or maybe we were looking for Fernando. Fernando went missing around Easter of 1975. At least that’s what his friend said after he’d been found wandering down by the railroad tracks near Sproat Mountain. He was hypothermic and told a story about becoming separated from his friend, Fernando. We geared up a search in pretty miserable conditions. Eighteen inches of fresh spring snow made looking for tracks difficult and made slogging through the bush a test of endurance. After a couple of days with no sign of Fernando whatsoever, the guy that had been found, a Mexican national who’d come into the country illegally through the U.S., admitted he had been alone; he was trying to throw the spotlight off himself... 

... It wouldn’t have been the first time we’d searched for someone who didn’t want to be found. There was the search a couple of summers back when a woman had gone missing from Brandywine Falls campground. Her husband said she’d gone for an early morning hike while he caught a few more winks. Again with North Shore, we searched the cliffs and down along the river with no luck. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when the RCMP searched her apartment and found all her stuff missing, the story became clear. She’d run off with another man, disappeared. A bit like the 18 year old valedictorian from California. She got lost on the mountain over American Thanksgiving. Turned up in the Pem Ho with a logger she’d met. Her mother still doesn’t believe it...

... But that wasn’t the case here. This one seemed destined to have a tragic ending. Judging by the number of her friends who turned out to help search, Anne Marie didn’t seem to fit the profile of someone who’d flake off. She’d touched a lot of people in the year she’d been here. Her father supported that impression. George Potton had spoken to us early Wednesday morning and again at the end of the day. He was a large man with dark hair and a warm smile. He was genuinely as warm as his smile and he let us know how much he appreciated everything that was being done....

... Whistler Mountain covers 64 square kilometres. It takes 40 people eight hours to search one square kilometre to 80 per cent probability, that is to say, 80 per cent certainty that if someone was there we’d have spotted them. Eliminating the unlikely areas and focusing on the realistic areas, given the last known point, we were approaching 90 per cent probability in many of the most likely areas. And weather was working against us. There is an inherent danger in any search and rescue operation. While the probability of finding a victim diminishes with time and number of searchers, the probability of one of the searchers getting hurt increases. We were running out of places to search, running out of weather to search in, and beginning to gravely concern the search and mountain managers that someone was going to get hurt if we kept it up.

Saturday, October 15, a week after she’d disappeared, a meeting was held in Whistler council chambers. The seven people charged with different responsibilities attended as did Anne Marie’s family. Presentations were made of everything that was known to date. Brad went over the chronology of the search, documenting what had been done on an hourly basis from day one, what areas had been searched, how many times, to what degree of probability. At the end of four and a half hours all the searchers were of one mind: they would do whatever else the family wanted done to find Anne Marie. The family decided there was nothing left to do. It had all been done. They accepted their daughter and sister was either dead or missing.

Sunday the searchers met in the Fire Hall. We were all gathered around the pool table. One of the North Shore managers spoke first, announcing the search was being called off. Close friends of Anne Marie who’d been involved in the search started crying immediately; some protested. But then George Potton spoke. He thanked everyone effusively. He spoke like a gracious father of his daughter, his love for her, her love for Whistler. He said Whistler was the most generous and sympathetic resort community in the world. He assured everyone the family of Anne Marie was at peace with the decision to suspend the search. He made strong men and women cry...

... When I finally saw the spot where she was found, I realized we’d probably searched within 20 or 30 feet of Anne Marie. She had headed down the blue ice of Whistler Bowl. She had lost her footing and slid. She broke her leg in the fall. Somehow, she came to a stop and managed to crawl over to a rock band that forms a lateral moraine about a third of the way down the bowl on skier’s left. She dragged herself maybe 150 metres along the rock band until she either passed out from pain and shock, ran out of strength or realized it was straight ice below her from there to the terminal moraine and gave up. Then she melted into the glacier and died.

Her body froze rapidly and rain that fell before turning to snow covered her body with a thick layer of verglas, hermetically sealing her into the mountain and eliminating any trace of scent, which is why the dogs who passed close by failed to catch her scent. Snow that fell before anyone imagined to search the bowl covered her body and since she’d melted into the glacier, no telltale mound of snow even gave her tomb away. She was probably dead hours before anyone reported her missing...

Assuming Brian did reach the mountain (rather than, say, hitchhike to a different trail and never arrive) I wonder about a similar fate. In july there's less snow, but there are glaciers one can slip and fall into. From there remains may never be found.

I found one other story on Anne Marie -- focusing on her family and their response.



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