Mark Salesse's family 'preparing for the worst'

Sgt. Mark Salesse, a search and rescue technician with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was swept away by an avalanche Thursday night while on a winter training exercise in Banff National Park.

Parks Canada says the search has 'phased into a recovery operation'

Sgt. Mark Salesse is a Royal Canadian Air Force search and rescue technician. (Submitted by Liz Quinn)

Parks Canada said the search effort to find a missing Royal Canadian Air Force search and rescue technician has phased into a recovery operation.

Sgt. Mark Salesse, 44, was on a winter training exercise with the Canadian military when he was swept away by an avalanche Thursday night.

The recovery operation is being led by Parks Canada Visitor Safety Specialist team.

Parks Canada said in a release the team is "waiting for improved weather conditions in order to mitigate the avalanche risk by doing explosive control."  Once the area is deemed safe, the team will be able to conduct a ground search.

On Saturday, Salesse's mother, Liz Quinn said her family was preparing for the worst.

"I've very proud of him. He's six-foot-five, but he's a gentle giant, he's a bionic Hercules," said Quinn from her home in Moncton, N.B.

Sgt. Mark Salesse was performing annual training on the Polar Circus — a popular ice climbing route near the Weeping Wall area of Banff National Park. (Parks Canada)

"If anybody could survive this, it would be Mark, but the elements are against him."

Quinn said she has been in contact with the military, who told her Salesse fell approximately 800 feet and one or more avalanches fell on top of him.

Rescuers have so far been unable to locate Salesse, and need to secure the area before ground search and rescue crews can go in.

An aerial search was conducted Friday, but there has been no sign of Salesse. 

"They are saying that the news is grim, that considering where he fell and ... the weather — and they will have to trigger more avalanches in order to make that area secure, which means there is going to be more snow on top of him wherever he is, which lessens his chance of survival," she said.

3 other climbers safe

Capt. Bettina McCullough-Drake, public affairs officer with 17 Wing Winnipeg, said rescue crews were having a hard time getting to the area because of weather and the danger of more avalanches. 

The group was training on the Polar Circus — a popular ice climbing route near the Weeping Wall area of Banff National Park. 

According to said McCullough-Drake, Salesse was performing annual training exercises with three other members of the 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron at the time of the incident. The other three members are safe.

McCulloch-Drake said the climbers would have taken the weather conditions into account before starting their exercise and conditions at the time were favourable, but the area is prone to avalanches.

"Search and rescue technicians are very well-trained for what they do," she said. "They are trained to operate in these kind of conditions so they have the skills.

"If anybody can come home safe, they can."

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said his thoughts and prayers are with Salesse's family and friends.

"We are very concerned to learn a Canadian Armed Forces Search and Rescue Technician is missing as the result of an avalanche that took place during a training activity," said Defence Minister Rob Nicholson in a statement. "We are hoping for the best possible outcome." 

Survived previous climbing fall

Salesse, a native of Bathurst, N.B., spent his life training to work in search and rescue.

Quinn said her son served as a Boy Scout, an Air Cadet and a Governor General's Foot Guard. He worked in municipal search in rescue at CFB Comox and CFB Goose Bay in addition to his search and rescue with the Canadian Forces.

Sgt. Mark Salesse, right, worked in municipal search and rescue while stationed CFB Comox and CFB Goose Bay, on top of his search and rescue with the Canadian Forces. (Sgt. Bill McLeod/17 Wing Winnipeg/RCAF)

He also served two tours of duty in Bosnia and received a medal of bravery.

"He devoted his life so that other people could be secure so that he could save other people," Quinn said. "He’s done that all his life, he’s done that overseas and he’s done that in this country."

In 2011, Salesse survived a fall while training in Ouray, Co. He suffered multiple injuries including a shattered pelvis, hairline fracture in his sacrum, broken ribs, disconnected rib ends in and around the sternum and a punctured lung.