METRO VANCOUVER - The turnaround came at about 2 p.m. Tuesday, when a helicopter searching for a snowboarder lost in the North Shore mountains since Sunday morning spotted fresh tracks in the snow.
They weren’t where they were supposed to be, outside the main search area, and a long way from where 33-year-old Sebastien Boucher had split off from friends after getting off the Sky Chair at Cypress Mountain ski resort to go for a solo run out of bounds.
Since then, tracks had been spotted at midday Monday, and there had been a call from Boucher’s dying cellphone Monday afternoon, but there was also 49 centimetres of fresh snow and the terrain was rough and treacherous.
By noon Tuesday, Boucher’s mom, stepfather and six childhood friends who had flown in from Gatineau, Que., were waiting anxiously in the ski resort’s parking lot for any shred of good news.
The new tracks reinvigorated the rescue crews about to rotate Tuesday afternoon after a futile shift traversing the mountain.
“We have not had these fresh tracks for 24 hours, so this is very encouraging for us now and quite critical,” search manager Bruce Moffat said. “If this is our guy, he’s just been an Energizer bunny who’s been going through some real tough stuff.”
The tracks led to a small creek closer to Howe Sound than the ski resort, where Boucher first went out of bounds.
As dusk approached, two four-person crews started making their way from either end of the creek toward the middle to find Boucher.
Greg Miller, who took over command of the search from Moffat around 5 p.m., said the creek was about six kilometres in a straight line from where Boucher first got lost. However it was extremely difficult terrain — heavy brush and fallen trees covered by a lot of snow.
Rescuers were falling into snow up to their neck in spots. Conditions were so difficult it took them up to a half-hour to move 10 to 15 metres.
“It was like walking on a pile of pickup sticks,” Miller said.
“Where he was was outside of what we call our primary search area, we had not even considered looking (outside the 15-square-kilometre area) until the helicopter flight saw the tracks.”
Boucher’s circuitous route took him from the 1,400-metre level, where he went out of bounds, to the 400-metre level at the creek basin where he was found, waving frantically and yelling at a searchers around 5:50 p.m.
As crews tried to assess his ability to walk out to an ambulance below, it became apparent that he needed to be airlifted out.
A Cormorant helicopter from Comox was called in to winch Boucher out of the creekbed between Lions Bay and Horseshoe Bay where he had ended up after three days of climbing up and down steep terrain in waist-high snow.
“They say he’s in remarkable shape for a guy that’s been out that long,” Miller said. “He’s cold, he’s hungry but physically otherwise he’s in good shape.”
While crews waited with Boucher for the airlift, his friends and family assembled at the ski resort parking lot hoping he would be dropped off there for a waiting ambulance.
However, heavy snow flurries prevented the helicopter from landing; instead it went to the Vancouver International Airport.
B.C. Lions kicker Paul McCallum had only met Boucher six times, but was one of the roughly 10 friends waiting in the cold for Boucher Tuesday night.
“He’s the kind of guy that you meet him, go out spend some time with him and he feels just like one of your friends,” McCallum said. “That’s why after meeting him half a dozen times and spending some time with him, it still really bothered me when I heard what was going on.”
As they joked about punching him upon his arrival, Boucher’s friends described him as a gregarious man capable of surviving and thriving in any situation.
Shawn Lamarche, whose youngest child is Boucher’s goddaughter, wondered out loud if his friend’s pride led him to continue plodding ahead hours after many would have called for help.
Boucher was due home in Gatineau for the holidays Tuesday, but instead friends and family ended up flying to him.
“We’d love to wring his neck whenever we get a hold of him, but we’ll keep on showing him all the love we can,” said stepfather Yvon Simoneau.
Speaking before Boucher was found, his friend Jeff Oddleifson, 29, said if anyone was capable of surviving that long out of bounds, it was Boucher.
Oddleifson said his friend was extremely fit, known to his men’s league hockey teammates as the Tasmanian Devil on skates.
Boucher had been working in Vancouver for the past four years as a mortgage broker.
Oddleifson said he knows Boucher will be regretting his action. “You know he’s been kicking himself, you know he’s had those moments where he’s been so mad at himself for doing what he did,” Oddleifson said. “It’s something he’s going to have to live with after.”
with files from Kevin Griffin and Tiffany Crawford