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Hazardous conditions force pause in search for missing tourist

A photo of missing British tourist Tom Billings, 22, is displayed as his father Martin Billings pauses while speaking to the media during a news conference at Vancouver Police headquarters in Vancouver on Dec. 9, 2013.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

The search for a British tourist missing in B.C. since late November has once again been suspended amid dangerous search conditions after another extensive, but unsuccessful, effort.

North Shore Rescue conducted its latest search for Thomas Billings on Saturday, deploying 30 members and two RCMP dog teams to the Crown Pass area of Lynn Headwaters. The team had a "high probability of detection," based largely off a credible tip from two hikers who spoke with the 22-year-old, but ice and snow hindered search efforts, North Shore Rescue leader Tim Jones said Sunday.

"There was enough snow in there to make it extremely dangerous for us to move," he said. "The upper area has huge boulders, and it's just enough snow to cover the boulders. It would be like a crevasse field: You wouldn't see where you would punch through. Our members could get seriously injured, if not killed."

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North Shore Rescue suspended the search in consultation with Vancouver police, Emergency Management B.C. and the British consulate.

Mr. Billings was last seen at about 2 p.m. on Nov. 25, when he had a lengthy conversation with two hikers and asked how to get to Crown Mountain. The hikers told him it would be dangerous, and suggested other routes, but Mr. Billings brushed it off and said would go straight through, on to Grouse Mountain and then back to Vancouver, Mr. Jones said.

One month after the British backpacker disappeared in the Vancouver area, funding from the Billings family has allowed the search for Thomas Billings to resume. Full story here.

See more images of Tom Billings here.

Since Dec. 4, North Shore Rescue has logged about 1,500 hours looking for Mr. Billings. His family has contributed "tens of thousands" of dollars to aid in the effort, Mr. Jones said. On Friday, members shot more aerial photography in efforts to survey the area.

While focused mountain searches will be discontinued for now – the snow could remain for months to come – North Shore Rescue will continue to monitor the area as part of regular search operations.

"It's upsetting for our team that we haven't found him," Mr. Jones said. "We are a very skilled team, we do our best, but in this case, with Tom Billings, we could not put our members at risk after a month of searching for him. At a certain point in time, we have to draw the line. It has now become unsafe and that's the threshold that was met [on Saturday]."

Meanwhile, the rescue team is strongly urging the adventurous to abide by posted signs after discovering two ill-prepared, young men in Hanes Valley – in an area closed to the public – during the search for Mr. Billings on Saturday.

The men, in their 20s, had heavy packs but not the technical mountaineering gear required for such a hike, Mr. Jones said. They had planned to go to Crown Mountain – the same place Mr. Billings is believed to have gone.

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North Shore Rescue dropped a three-man team down to give them explicit orders to camp in place and not go any further, which the men agreed to. However, they disregarded orders.

"We spotted them sliding down a steep snow field mixed with rock," Mr. Jones said. "We then followed their route and saw tracks going up to Crown Mountain. They did exactly what we told them not to and put themselves at incredible risk."

The search crew located the men a second time and, again, warned them not to go any further. Mr. Jones then took the unusual step of calling their parents, who were "beside themselves."

There is no penalty for disobeying such orders and putting oneself at risk.

"We are not in favour of charging people [for rescues], but this was a blatant disregard for safety," Mr. Jones said.

Rangers in Lynn Headwaters were expected to intercept the two men on Sunday afternoon and report back to North Shore Rescue.

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