Sherp and rescue

EYE IN THE SKY: Sherp Tucker and the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter.
EYE IN THE SKY: Sherp Tucker and the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter.

With nearly half a century in search and rescue behind him, Sherp Tucker has got to know the top of the south's goat country well - and has experienced his share of human drama and emotion too, writes Naomi Arnold .

It took five weeks for anyone to realise that Ed Reynolds was missing.

The 39-year-old ultra-light tramper had spent most of 2009 traversing the entire spine of New Zealand on the legendary Te Araroa Trail. On a late February day at Blue Lake in Nelson Lakes National Park, he'd changed course, leaving the trail to follow one more scenic and technical.

Over dinner a couple of days later, he was chatty, cheerful, fit, and full of beans, two trampers later reported. But several days after that, a farmer saw a man, probably Ed, in Glenroy, brusque, agitated, lost and frustrated, and she gave him directions. Search parties were called out in April when he failed to make a flight home to the United States, and he has not been seen since.

In those sharp-edged months after he got the news about his son, it seemed to John Reynolds that he and his wife Linda were glued to the phone, just waiting.

"Both of us did a lot of crying," Mr Reynolds says now. "I hoped that something would come up - he'd be found holed up with a farmer's daughter or something. Later on it sinks in, and [you think] maybe they'll find his remains and at least we'll know what happened to him. But that didn't happen."

They're still devastated, but are trying to move on. They sold their Hanover, Pennsylvania home and now cruise the eastern seaboard of the United States, following the warmth like birds: migrating north in the summer, and south for the winter. "Ed would have enjoyed it," Mr Reynolds says.

It's a mystery that still tugs at the former Tasman police assistant search and rescue co-ordinator, Sherp Tucker, too. "Ed," he says. "Poor Ed."

Even the last traces of Ed are confusing - a footprint sunk into the mud of a Glenroy river, and disagreement over whether a watch, found miles away in the St James walkway, could be his.

"The ramifications when we don't find them normally means there's a whole sector of our community affected. Families get destroyed because they haven't got an answer. You see it so often that the ones we don't find, the family's ifs become believable and the beliefs become more iffy and they end up destroying themselves because they haven't got an answer. And that is very, very sad."

When Ed disappeared, the two men sat half a world away from each other, soaring across the peaks and dense forest of the backcountry on Google Earth as Mr Tucker explained the search operations. He has become a friend, Mr Reynolds says, and he wrote a strongly-worded Voices piece for the Nelson Mail when he heard the news that Sherp Tucker's job was being dissolved.

Last year there were 360 callouts in the Tasman police district, some lasting three minutes, some going for days. It is one of the biggest districts, if not the biggest, in the country, stretching from Golden Bay to Nelson Bays to Marlborough and down to Kaikoura and Haast.

Mr Tucker has worked for the police since 2000 and has been a search and rescue volunteer since the 1960s. But now he's come full circle, back to being a volunteer.

In July, he lost his job in a police restructure targeting non-sworn staff to save money. Last week was his last, and he spent the first few days of this week in his new job manning the police's silver speed camera van; a position he diplomatically calls "very different".

He is outwardly philosophical, holding back a bit of a laugh over the whole thing. But he says the one thing his old position did was acknowledge the enormous effort put in by volunteers. "I survived totally on other bastards' efforts, and those bastards are very good bastards," he says.

But the loss of his job has worried those in the Nelson search and rescue community.

Over the 12 years he has been in the position, Mr Tucker has developed plenty of new initiatives, such as WandaTrak, a homing-device type transceiver to find wandering Alzheimer's patients; organisation of searches across the district from one room in Nelson; pulling together the manpower of the dozens of different search groups across the region; researching lost person behaviour; and managing staff numbers to make sure there were always fresh, well-trained SAR personnel ready to go.

Nelson Search and Rescue Inc chairman Joe Hayes said in a July Nelson Mail Voices piece that "the mind boggles" at the "deplorable" decision.

Search and rescue in Tasman has grown from Wellington-based kitchen-table operations with maps and a radio to 24/7 coverage of ship, aircraft and locator beacon traffic in the past 12 years.

The Tasman region, with its fiords, coasts, mountains, bush, rivers and cliffs, "has every form of SAR incident you can think of [apart from active volcanoes]," he said - and it had specialist teams to match. The assistant SAR controller position was the person with "his finger on the pulse of the skills base and availability of these teams", and Mr Hayes feared the loss of the "one SAR" approach built up over the years.

"Tasman is the envy of most other SAR police districts in the country," he said, and urged Tasman police district commander superintendent Richard Chambers to reinstate the position.

Former police officer and 25-year SAR veteran John Haynes says his immediate thought about the decision was that it was "penny wise, pound foolish".

"That's not to say that without Sherp search and rescue's going to fall over, because there are so many professional people out there, [but] it's almost like taking one of the major surgeons out of the hospital," he says. "To my mind he's a one-man dynamo."

He has known Mr Tucker since the early days when he was a volunteer. "He's organised search and rescue to what it is today, the various groups to such an extent that they can work with each other, and there's a natural flow-on effect. It's his dedication that has got Tasman search and rescue to what it is today, and whilst it would be wrong to say ‘Sherp's gone, we're going to lose lives', the position that he is in as an assistant SAR co-ordinator has been to my mind pivotal in getting the organisation as streamlined and efficient as it is today.

"If the department expects the current SAR co-ordinator to do all the work Sherp's done in organisation, research, motivation, and still be able to do their own job, I think it's a retrograde step."

The family of Sharny Abbott were disgusted when they heard the news about Mr Tucker. Three days after their 23-year-old grandson was due home from a tramping trip, his grandmother Adrianne Abbott was dishing out dinner when her husband walked into the kitchen with the news that their grandson's body had been found.

It was nearly Christmas, 2011. Sharny had been out tramping in Mt Richmond Forest Park, and wanted to sleep under the stars on his final trip before starting an aircraft engineering course at Woodbourne. He'd been in the army, was an experienced tramper, and had left copies of maps with both his mother and grandparents, his proposed route planned out in blue biro on refill paper.

"Day 6: return," it says, with a little smiley face inked in.

Searchers found him caught in a mess of tangled logs and brush in the Roding River, about 7km downstream from where police believe he slipped.

His grandparents are full of praise for the SAR team and for Mr Tucker, and raised $7000 for SAR in a fundraising event after their grandson's death.

While still openly emotional about their loss, they are just pleased that they had a body to bring home. His funeral was held at his mother Maxine's house, and Sharny's body lay in a plain pine coffin covered with messages from friends and family.

"Believe me, them being able to recover Sharny's body so quickly was huge," Mr Abbott says.

"[Mr Tucker] was an absolute gem to search and rescue," Mrs Abbott says. "If there's a fire, everyone hears the engine, they see the volunteers going out on that. The same with ambulance, police, the helicopter goes over; but you never see the land search and rescue that have to leave their jobs, get in their private cars, and spend two or three days in the bush looking for people." She says she can't believe the wisdom of the decision. "There are many more people out there who are going to need that man."

District commander Richard Chambers is well aware it wasn't a popular choice.

"This particular decision is one that's kept me awake at night. It's a hard one," he says. "I'm immensely impressed with Sherp Tucker. He has made a huge contribution . . . no-one can ever doubt that."

Yet he's confident that he's made the right decision. It is important, he says, to distinguish between the loss of the position and the loss of Mr Tucker. "That's been a wee bit confused along the way unfortunately."

In the future, he says he wants to draw on Mr Tucker's expertise in three areas: training, mentoring, and having his input into searches "when the need arises", particularly complex searches. While he stays with police as a speed camera operator this would be worked into his salary; should he leave it, it might be on a contract basis.

Mr Chambers says he's looking years ahead, and wants to develop SAR talent across the entire district. "Succession planning is a really important thing. I think we've leaned very heavily on Sherp," he says. "I want to clone his knowledge and expertise across my whole district in the future. I'm impressed with what I've seen in our district and a lot of that is a result of Sherp's work. We've got to keep that going, we have to develop new SAR leaders and find better ways of doing things.

"I do want him to remain involved, the ball's in his court in terms of what that looks like."

However, Mr Tucker says his participation in search and rescue is up to police, though says he'll never desert the field. He says the lost position was immensely valuable to the scattered organisations involved in SAR. "It bludged considerable talent and expertise; I've become a very good professional bludger of people's time and efforts," he says. "It gave them a central point they could go to and be heard, make their complaints if necessary, certainly bring the ideas of enhanced performance. The position gave a lot of things. Hopefully that part of it will still be carried on."

In the future, Mr Tucker plans to set up a web-based worldwide training and consulting company for SAR. There's talk of a mobile phone app. He won't be charging his local groups: "After all, I got most my ideas off these people."

On his last Friday at work, Mr Tucker held an SOS - Sacking of Sherp - party at the United Bowling Club in Waimea Rd. There were plenty of bowls of chips and peanuts, handles of beer, and men in fleece. It was his chance to say thanks to his supporters and friends - among whom he now counts John Reynolds.

"They were a family in need. They have become friends," he says. "The one thing I've tried to do is keep it in the best interests of the lost people, and if you can keep to that, you normally keep the politics out of it."

In April this year, almost three years to the day after search teams first set off into the hills to find his son, John Reynolds and his family finally visited New Zealand for the inquest, and he spent some time walking along a few of the tracks his son had trod.

They stayed a week. Mr Tucker took them on a tour, driving them to Glenroy to meet the woman who'd last seen Ed when he took the wrong turn; to the WOW museum, out for beers and dinner, to the fair.

"He took us under his wing like little chickens," Mr Reynolds says. "We had a good time. He's a wonderful man, just incredible. He knows that country like the back of his hand; he's got the topo maps memorised."

Towards the end of his week here, John Reynolds drove to Hanmer Springs to meet another investigator, and he stopped at the St James Walkway car park, near where the watch was found.

Did the watch discovery mean Ed had made it to this side of the mountains? Had he then been picked up by a car? Or was it the watch of someone else's son, and Ed was lying somewhere back over the ranges?

"If they found something that would be fantastic, I'd be over there in a minute; but I guess I don't think that's going to happen," Mr Reynolds says. "The sharp edges and the roughness falls off, and you try and think of the funny stuff. Eddie and I used to play cribbage all the time and we used to laugh our heads off. My wife and I play every day and we have a laugh and think about Ed."

"If I could resolve them all I would," Sherp Tucker says. "But having ones unresolved makes you try harder."

On that autumn day, Mr Reynolds parked his car, got out, and walked up the track into the St James. He walked a little way into Cannibal Gorge, over the ice-blue Maruia River, and almost to the swingbridge, trudging into the dense New Zealand bush to say a private goodbye to his son.