After several weeks searching the Australian alpine, five searchers from the East Kootenay are back home, having found no sign of Prabhdeep Srawn.
From Kimberley Search and Rescue, Scott MacLeod and Seb Martinez; from Fernie Search and Rescue, Bernie Palmer and Tom Hopkins; and from Sparwood Search and Rescue, Charmaine Lingard all volunteered their time to help Srawn’s family find out what happened to the young man.
In May, Srawn went alone on a hiking trip to Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuzsko, at 2,228 metres in elevation. Srawn, a 25-year-old military reservist, had been studying in Australia.
But soon after he set out on the hiking expedition, a snowstorm set in, dumping up to 30 centimetres of snow. Srawn has not been seen or heard from since.
After searches in Australia found no trace of Srawn, his family asked B.C. Search and Rescue members if they could participate in an independent search. Five East Kootenay Search and Rescue members put up their hands to join the team of 18 volunteers. The Srawn family paid for their travel expenses.
Led by Vancouver’s Martin Colwell of SAR Technology, the group left at the end of November.
After flying into Sydney, the group piled into a van donated by a local member of the Sikh community and drove to Jindabyne, the town closest to Australia’s high alpine.
They based themselves at Charlotte’s Pass, in staff accommodation for a ski hill.
From there, working in teams, they put on three separate missions into the alpine. It was an eye-opening experience, said Scott MacLeod.
First: although it is summer there, the weather was unpredictable.
“There’s only one season in the mountains and it’s winter, once you get to any kind of height. What we saw was a beautiful summer day, very hot, and then that night, the system comes in, and there is a couple of inches of snow on the tent. The next day we look at it and realize the weather is deteriorating. We came out in a whiteout, navigating with a GPS,” said MacLeod.
“If Prabh was caught in the same conditions, without a compass or GPS and without the gear we had, he probably realized he was in a whole lot of trouble.”
Not only that, but the terrain was unlike anything they have are accustomed to in the Rocky Mountains.
“There are huge boulder fields – boulders on top of boulders on top of boulders. They are full of spots where somebody could have tried to take cover during a storm and still be there,” said MacLeod.
“It’s quite possible that one of us walked within a metre or two of where his remains could be and didn’t see him, even though we were working the area quite hard. There are just so many places he could have been.”
Although it is not tall, the foliage is dense and hard to walk through.
“It’s very different from our bush here. The scrub is a brush that’s low, wide, interlocking, and it’s not something you can walk through,” said MacLeod. “You have to physically push it down with your feet, step on it and continue on. It’s very hard terrain to work.”
Although Koscuizsko, Australia’s highest mountain, is lower than Fisher Peak, it’s tougher than it looks.
“Kosciusko is a big mountain, but for somebody from North America it would be deceptive because it’s so rounded. We’re used to sharp, jagged mountains here. Over there, it doesn’t look as big and potentially dangerous a mountain as it could be, until you realize how big it is and how quick the weather systems come in,” said MacLeod.
The searchers were able to keep in touch with their families and friends in Canada through a satellite tracker provided by Sparwood Communications. MacLeod said that even when they were out in the alpine without cell reception, they could still send texts to their loved ones, letting them know they were okay.
The main group of searchers returned to Canada on Dec. 15. MacLeod was part of a group of six who remained a few more days to continue searching. They returned to Cranbrook on Dec. 19.
Finding no trace of Srawn was a blow to everyone, MacLeod said.
“The most frustrating part is we didn’t find anything or any clues to where he might be,” said MacLeod. “The family had expended a large amount of money to get us there, hoping for some results, and we weren’t able to provide that.”
In particular, Srawn’s father was very disappointed the search was not fruitful.
“He still holds out hope that Prabh could be surviving. He was nice and positive to us. However, everybody was disappointed that we weren’t successful – the searchers, the search manager and the family,” said MacLeod. “I don’t believe the family is going to call it quits. They might get other volunteers searchers involved, probably from Australia.”