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COVER STORY: New details in the search for Tom Billings
A North Shore Rescue team member peers through his binoculars to the snow-covered boulders 20 feet below.
Freezing wind whipping his face, the doors of the helicopter have been removed so he can meticulously scan the forested terrain for any signs of Tom Billings, a 22-year-old hiker who went missing on Nov. 25.
A crew of four, including the pilot, is taking part in one of the last searches of the North Shore mountains before the operation is called off — for now.
No new tips have come in and despite extensive air and ground searches, the young British man hasn’t been found for nearly a month and a half.
The same day, scent dogs scour Lynn Canyon, the area where a pair of trail runners say they saw Billings before he set out on a late afternoon hike.
This was the last time he was seen.
Tim Jones, North Shore Rescue’s team leader, coordinates his crew from a small trailer in the Capilano Watershed near Cleveland Dam.
A dozen maps, including Capilano Regional Park, Mount Strachan and Black Mountain, are tacked on the wall above Jones as he updates the missing tourist’s file.
“The profile we have is he’s a ‘hard-charger’ — he would take risk versus caution. Also he would make spontaneous decisions,” says Jones.
“So his profile is he’s an unguided missile.”
Unfortunately, that day the avid hiker left behind his cellphone — often a valuable resource if a signal can be found in the North Shore mountains.
“There is a very fine edge on giving the family hope,” says Jones, adding it would be a miracle if he was still alive on the mountain.
Details around Tom Billings’ disappearance are scarce.
With no video surveillance footage, police and searchers are relying on two women who said they saw the missing tourist looking at a sign near the Lynn Loop Trail in Lynn Canyon the day he disappeared.
Although they didn’t report the sighting until nearly a month later, the pair remembers seeing the lone hiker at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and confirmed the clothes investigators said he was wearing. With nightfall in just a few hours, the women said they warned Billings not to climb Crown Pass.
During the lengthy conversation, Billings apparently told them he would head towards Grouse Mountain.
Another hiker later came forward, according to North Shore Rescue, who saw the two women chatting with a handsome young man with a British accent.
But how Billings got to the North Shore, if he indeed did, is still a mystery.
Instead of staying in hotels, he routinely searched a popular website for couch surfing accommodation and, once he landed in Vancouver on Nov. 23, he settled into an apartment in the 1400-block of East Broadway, a couple blocks from Commercial Drive in East Vancouver.
“He has a profile that he did not like paying for things,” says Jones, sitting beside a computer at North Shore Rescue headquarters. “His parents confirmed that he hates paying for anything.
“He said to the couch surf resident… that he won’t pay for the [Grouse Mountain] tram or the [Capilano] Suspension Bridge.”
His father, Martin Billings, told The Outlook that couch surfing was his son’s favourite way to travel.
“He told me… he got under the skin of a place by staying with people, as opposed to staying in a hotel.
“I think he made quite a lot of friends doing that.”
His new roommate says Billings, wearing a black jacket, olive-coloured shirt, grey pants with cargo pockets and brown hiking boots, left the suite at 9 a.m. on the morning of the 25th and promised he would be back by 9:45 p.m. before the apartment was locked up for the night.
Before he took off, Billings discussed hiking Grouse Mountain and Lynn Canyon, as well as several other areas in the Lower Mainland.
He left his cellphone in his room because it was broken, says Jones, but took his Nikon Coolpix camera, wallet and passport and told his roommate that he planned to be back that day.
But he never returned.
His backpack, computer and cellphone still in his room, the roommate reported him missing eight days later on December 2nd — which was unfortunately a “major delay,” says Jones.
This is where the puzzle begins.
Independent world hiker
Hiking alone wasn’t new to Tom Billings.
In his gap year between high school and university he hiked extensively throughout the world. The long list includes: Russia, Siberia, Belarus, Latvia, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Cuba and Scotland.
“He was really used to being on his own… He’s very independent,” says his father, Martin Billings, on the phone from England.
Now finished university, his son decided to visit North America for the first time while waiting to hear back about research proposals and contemplating graduate school back home in the U.K.
“I asked him before he went on this trip to North America whether he gets lonely. And he said he prefers to go on his own because he can do what he wants when he wants, and not have to worry about what someone else wants to do,” his reserved but noticeably distraught father tells The Outlook.
He said his son carefully planned his excursions, even though he wouldn’t tell anyone the exact route.
“We’d really like there to be some other explanation on why they haven’t found anything. We’d like to believe there is some other explanation —Tom went somewhere else and didn’t want to be contacted for a few weeks or months,” he says, emotion evident in his voice.
“We had mixed feelings when we heard about the confirmed sighting by the two trail hikers who talked to him, because that almost certainly puts him there and, barring a miracle, it means he must have died on the mountain.”
Fit and healthy, 22-year-old Billings could usually hike faster than other people and often didn’t rely on tourist brochures that outlined how long specific trails would take to complete.
If a route took four hours, for instance, it often took him only two.
But still, his father is confused as to why his son would attempt to climb a North Shore mountain at 2 p.m., a couple hours before nightfall.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of time to spare.”
No video surveillance
After accessing Billings’ password-protected computer, investigators saw he searched for the North Shore mountains, Golden Ears Provincial Park and other hiking locations.
They think he likely travelled by transit to North Vancouver but are unable to confirm this because they haven’t viewed TransLink security footage.
“In order to locate video, say through transit or personal businesses, is extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible,” says VPD spokesman Brian Montague.
“We would be looking at gathering video from hundreds of buses… We would have to put in thousands and thousands and thousands of man hours to look at it all.”
Billings’ exact path is unknown and Montague was unable to say whether he searched bus routes on his computer before departing from East Broadway.
“We don’t know exactly what time he went to the North Shore.
“Whether he went to the North Shore at all is still speculation at this point. It’s obviously a very high probability but it’s still speculative, a little bit.”
In any case, a member of TransLink said most video of busy areas — such as SeaBus and SkyTrain stations — are recorded over if they’re not requested within seven days.
The police, however, have viewed other video footage, including from businesses around Lynn Headwaters, but much of it was of poor quality — and found absolutely no sign of Billings.
Then two tips came in on Dec. 4 — on Dam Mountain and in Delany’s Coffee House placing him in North Van — and an extensive search began.
Without precise information, North Shore Rescue gave 16 members the daunting task of searching the North Shore backcountry for the missing tourist. The Canadian Armed Forces searched the main drainages.
They started with Lynn Headwaters, a popular hiking destination. Billings could have got lost or fallen and hurt himself.
“My feeling was we were in the right area. An educated guess I made was that Lynn Headwaters was the best place to start,” says Jones, flipping through the 22-year-old’s file. He is particularly busy this day as he balances coordinating his team and taking media phone calls.
“It was a very intensive search, a very costly search. It was in excess of $40,000 in air time [for Dec. 4].”
But then the possible sightings were determined to be unfounded and searchers were left with even less information than when they had began.
Police, searchers and his devastated parents were left in the dark.
After the leads began to dry up, North Shore Rescue took a new tactic.
With financial assistance from the Billings family, they filmed Grouse Mountain, Hanes Valley, Mosquito Creek and Deen Creek from a helicopter.
The public was asked to join eight members of North Shore Rescue to scour through the YouTube footage for any anomalies that could give a clue into Billings’ disappearance.
While the sightings — a possible red tent and a blue tarp, for instance — didn’t lead to any new information, the strategy helped jog the memory of the two trail runners who have provided the only credible sighting of Billings on the North Shore.
Mark Miller, producer of Discovery Channel series Highway Thru Hell, recorded the footage and Tweeted the link.
This was just the information one of the trail runners needed.
Not prone to watching TV, she had heard about the disappearance but hadn’t seen Billing’s photo until then. She alerted her friend, who had been on vacation while the search was underway.
“From the minute she opened the reTweet and saw his picture, she knew it was the guy she talked to with her friend,” says Jones, proud of his social media effort.
A North Shore Rescue crew lands on a helipad in Hanes Valley, an area surrounded by steep icy cliffs and massive boulders where Jones believes Billings may be located.
This chilly afternoon is the last day they will search for him until new tips come in, and now the crew has spotted a pair of young hikers miles away from the road.
One crew member hops out of the Talon helicopter to make sure the 21-year-olds have the right gear for overnight camping and warn them not to hike up Crown Pass because they lack proper equipment.
Ensured by the two that they plan to stay put and set up a tent, the crew leaves but later finds out the hikers attempted to climb the steep cliffs.
“They had nothing to take care of themselves,” says Jones, who sent searchers to find them and subsequently called the hikers’ parents. “Their families were horrified.”
The young men are safe, but Jones says their experience serves as a reminder that hiking the North Shore backcountry shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“It’s dangerous out there. People need to remember that always.”