Three members of the renowned North Shore Rescue team are themselves trapped high on the slopes of Canada's highest mountain, fighting for their lives after a severe winter storm swept down on them.
The men, who have severe hypothermia, are not far below the 5,959-metre peak of Mount Logan in southwestern Yukon. Strong winds, bitterly cold temperatures dipping as low as 30 degrees below zero and the altitude have hampered rescue efforts.
"Right now, it's very critical," an emotional Tim Jones, leader of the volunteer organization, said yesterday as he interrupted a briefing on a local search for a missing hiker to report the group's own situation.
"Things are very grave. They've been up there several days. . . . I'm telling you, this is not looking good."
The climbing expedition was planned to celebrate North Shore Rescue's 40th anniversary.
Seven members took part. One group reached the summit earlier, but an unexpected winter storm overtook the next group on Tuesday, Mr. Jones said.
"We've been in contact with base team members up there, and the three trapped men are severely hypothermic. We are in direct contact with their families."
He said the organization has called the Canadian army, the U.S. Air Force and officials at Kluane National Park, the site of Mount Logan.
Mr. Jones did not identify the three men. "I have to apologize for being quite emotional about this. They're very good friends of mine." Local news media identified one as Don Jardine, a veteran member.
Parks Canada spokeswoman Rhonda Markel said by telephone from the Yukon that a helicopter dispatched by the organization has been repeatedly delayed by bad weather. The spot is high enough to limit rescue attempts and there are "very high winds, large snowfalls and cold temperatures."
The helicopter had been sent from nearby Haines Junction, just outside the park, to the base of Mt. Logan. The trip normally takes between 1½ and two hours, but Ms. Markel said the helicopter was having trouble fighting its way through the bad weather.
"They're trying different ways around," she said.
She added that communication with the stranded climbers had been sporadic.Later, Mr. Jones said two other climbers with a small stove had reached the three men and were attempting to set up a campsite.
"That makes me feel a bit better, but until we hear otherwise, this situation is very critical."
Parks Canada and the U.S. National Parks Service have each sent a helicopter to the Mount Logan area to assess the weather conditions and develop a rescue strategy.
Mount Logan is one of Canada's most hazardous sites for climbers. The Alpine Club of Canada says 11 mountaineers have died on Mount Logan since 1978 and 12 have been injured.
North Shore Rescue has assumed almost legendary status over the years for its exceptional skill in rescuing hikers, snowboarders and skiers in the Vancouver area.
All 40 members are volunteers who train every Tuesday night, plus one out of every four weekends.
They are called out as many as 100 times a year.
Mr. Jones said the team yesterday was looking for a 36-year-old hiker from Wisconsin lost on Vancouver's Grouse Mountain.
An employee of Kluane Helicopters, based at the Haines Junction airport about 200 kilometres from Mount Logan, said conditions are unlikely to improve soon.
"These storms can last 10 days," the employee said.