No Run Should Ever End with an Air Lift

Unfortunately, yesterday my run did.

Yes, I was that person that should have succumbed to Darwin’s theory.¬† Lost and on a ledge.

I’ve often read the facts of such stories but never the lead up… so I wanted to share my experience of how it all went down.

I set off about 3pm on a 35k run from Port Alberni to Qualicum Beach via back roads. The route itself was 40k, but I got dropped off partway in so I wouldn’t have to run on the highway. Based on google map directions it looked pretty darn straight forward.

I left later than I had hoped but I had a good flashlight and a fully belly. I was supposed to be out of the more challenging terrain and onto well traveled roads in about an hour and a half, before it got dark, and back to the folks for a late dinner. Or I had hoped.

In hindsight, I should have looked at the terrain map. Even with that simple button push the map went…

from this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 4.25.21 PM

To this:

comox search and rescue
I thought I was decently well prepared. I left the car with an energy bar, flashlight and most critically, my fully charged iPhone with a brand new battery.

Assuming there would be some dead spaces I took pictures of each turn and memorized the names of the roads.

I soon realized there were way more roads than Google Maps had documented, that the main roads were no more obvious than splinter roads and that signs did not exist. What I thought would be country roads were mountain roads. I should have turned back then, but not wanting to inconvenience anyone by driving back out to Port Alberni (and there is the true irony of the night), I forged on.

photo 2Started off pleasantly surprised by the view and climbs.

I was afraid to take a wrong turn, so at every intersection I would look at the Google Map and make sure I was following the blue dots. Between intersections (and there were many), I would shut my signals off to conserve battery power.

I got the intersection of Main and Highland (which happened to be the first marked trails) and put on the GPS since neither name was on my list. My phone went from 80%, to a thin red line, to dead.

Off.

Two helpless beeps and it was just me standing in the deep dark wilderness. No one anywhere. Not a sound to be heard.

I had climbed considerably, and as such, was now immersed in a winter wonderland. I again considered turning around but remembered all the intersections that I made it through relying on my GPS. And how many other roads there were.

I saw some ATV tracks in the snow and although I remembered this being a “stay to the left,” I figured I should follow the tracks. In a maze of dead-ends, tracks were probably the surest thing to lead somewhere.

I followed them for about an hour until they stopped abruptly at a Y-intersection. That, or the thickening of the heavy falling snow had covered them.

I decided to continue up to the peak to see if I could see city or highway lights.

The peak was incased by falling snow and fog. I could hardly see past the edge. No lights anywhere outside of a faint moon, struggling through the clouds.

I hoped the cold had triggered my phone’s untimely shut down, so I put it directly against my skin to warm it up. Even for just enough juice to get a quick check of the GPS and start on what would perhaps be a life or death memorization test.

70% battery and full bars. Hallelujah.

As I was madly memorizing the turns and taking photos, a call came in. 6:30pm. Must be my parents asking about dinner. I would tell them to start and that I was fine, just a little delayed.

It was, however, the RCMP. I couldn’t figure out why they were phoning so early in the night. I wasn’t even late yet.

Apparently when my husband John had run out to meet me, he did some quick pace calculations and decided something had gone horribly wrong. I was supposed have passed through the 17k road in the park in about an hour and a half and be on the main road before dark to run the rest with him.

The RCMP officer was out looking for a stolen car and John flagged her down. His phone would not connect but hers did.

She asked if I wanted a ride. The road looked passable via truck from where I was, so I reluctantly agreed. Fear that my phone would abandon me again and what can only be described as reverse claustrophobia was setting in.

I realized that if I turned my phone’s Bluetooth on, it would show my coordinates. Some time later, I sent the turn by turn list from the main road. I was hoping I would be an easy enough pick up, particularly since my battery was once again running down, but I could not have been more wrong.

photo 3

I felt terrible putting her out, but she indicated she would get the key from Search and Rescue for the gate and head up to get me.

Search and Rescue, however, knew the terrain was not passable by truck and immediately set up “base camp.”

At this point she texted me to let me know an ATV was coming.

I had no idea that half the island had come together to get me out. Or that they had set up some state of the art “Alli location station,” or that by 10pm both the Qualicum and Port Alberni Search and Rescue were out there.

I thought it had escalated to a couple guys on ATVs. And it was bad enough in my books for two poor people to suffer out there for my own dumb mistake.

Meanwhile, I ate my energy bar and did hill repeats to keep warm. I counted from 1-1,000 and back down  on every three foot steps to stay sane.

I did try to squat down and hug my knees but I got cold fast. Moving would keep me warm. Moving would keep me awake.

Staying sane was probably the hardest part. Sure, I was cold. Really cold. But I kept seeing and hearing stuff. A raven bobbing it’s head, a man in a black hoodie, a pile of square baled hay, an old truck, people talking, headlights.

Every time I started to hallucinate, I’d say out loud, “that’s not a thing,” and get back to my counting.

I’d also hit the alarm button on my flashlight every time I turned around at the top of the hill to scare the cougars off – and every 500 numbers, I would turn the signals back on and check my phone.

My phone became such a critical connection to the world. Almost as if it would bring me instantly back from this crazy place my mind kept going. And that little red battery bar was staring me down.

John told me that they were very close but would be forty minutes longer since I had wandered off trail and was no longer on a road.

Granted, I was rapidly loosing all mental capacity. But I was sure that I had followed a road up and was currently on a road.

I went to text back that I was absolutely positively on a road, but my phone died. And, this time, really died. I wasn’t sure the message sent.

And so feared that something was really wrong. And after 40 minutes past, and then one hour, and then two, was convinced.

I would later find out that the ATV rescuers were less than a kilometer away but that I was across a gulley and totally inaccessible via ATV, on foot, or otherwise.

I wondered if I should head down the mountain, thinking the searchers may have called it a night since visibility was degrading and a storm was rolling in.

I may still be lost, and without a phone again, but I remembered most of the turns from before. And getting off the peak of a mountain in a snow storm seemed reasonable.

I was worried though that the people who had come out for me would go all that way for nothing, and that I would be perhaps be endangering them if they were still looking for me, so I stayed put as per the original plan. Plus, if people that knew the area couldn’t get in, I wasn’t getting out.

I thought I heard things from time to time, but nothing that I heard was concrete enough to be certain it was not just in my head.

Four hours or so in, I heard an ATV, and it sounded like it was coming from the road. I sprinted the half mile back to the junction yelling in hopes of catching it. When I arrived, however, the fog had lifted enough off of that side of the peak to see that the noise was coming from the highway across the valley.

I thought briefly about making my way over to the headlights on the road. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t, since I probably would have gotten lost in the maze of roads below.

After I realized that I was chasing down something that was, “not a thing,” I started making my way back to my coordinates across the snowy ridge.

I saw some sort of a plane across the valley. Or at least I hoped I did. My track record was unreliable at best at this point.

I turned the strobe on my flashlight on and waived it all about, once again running and yelling across the cliff.

Maybe this plane would radio in about the crazy lady on the mountain top and tell the guy on the ATV where I was and I could go home, cuddle my family and never leave my house again.

The plane turned and started coming towards the ridge. At this point I saw the spotlight and realized that he was looking for me. Initially I felt a punch in the gut from the immense guilt that comes with requiring a helicopter rescue from your own stupidity.

That subsided rather quickly though, and I was soon consumed by fear that he would not in fact find me. It donned on me that I must be in trouble if they sent a chopper.

The helicopter turned right toward me and I started to sob. Saved.

This elation faded pretty quickly when he turned back. Not saved. He can’t see me.

Convinced he didn’t see me, I made huge figure-8s with my light, shined it on my reflective jacket, aimed it right into the helicopter, and generally just flailed like crazy.

For some reason I was sure that if the spot light was not on me, they didn’t see me.

I thought about jumping into the gulley where the spotlight was.

After having a look at the map, I’m glad I did not bring this plan to fruition as it probably would have meant plummeting through a layer of deep snow into a four kilometer free fall.

At one point, I doubled over on my knees for a moment: knocked back from the power of the chopper wind kicking up the newly fallen snow – and my own utter exhaustion.

I made several more attempts at raising my flash light but my arm would have none of it.

A little orange puffy suited man launched out of the bottom and I ran in his general direction (flash back to the sand storm at WTM: so much wind and so much sharp debris in my eyes).

He placed a U-shaped flotation type thing around my torso and warned me NOT to lift my arms. I would soon see why.

The helicopter took off and started slowly reeling us in. I had a feeling I shouldn’t look down… and I was right both times.

As I was suspended about a thousand feet in the air above a valley, orange jump suit rescue man was cracking jokes about how much fun we were having and if he could have my phone for a selfie. Even flying through the air attached only to a life preserver, and definitely not having fun of any sort, he totally made me smile inside.

They put me in the helicopter, fastened me down, filled my shirt with heating pads, covered me with blankets (noticing I was still shivering, one man took his own off and added it to the pile) and warmed me up. They checked my pulse and made sure my extremities were intact. I declined a hospital trip since they can’t cure feeling incredibly dumb.

Orange jump suit hilarious rescue man took that selfie.

I inhaled the best ham sandwich I have ever had and guzzled just enough water to make myself feel very queasy.

The chopper insisted on staying until John arrived at the Qualicum Airport. Something about not leaving a person they just found on a mountain in a parking lot.

When the police came to get a statement, I was sure they were going to give me what for. I deserved it.

Yet another heart warmingly kind and understanding person.

He reassured me that people make bad decisions all the time and that those decisions have ramifications, that often call for use of essential services… whether it be a broken leg skiing or relying on a malfunctioning iPhone in remote areas.

Bottom line: I alone made a huge mistake that cost many amazing people time and resources. That feels pretty terrible.

It happens even to people that don’t think it will happen. In fact, it is probably to those people it most often happens.

What struck me was the amazingness of the people that helped me. Beyond words amazing. Every single one of them.

Thank you just doesn’t cut it to all the people that came together to get me off that mountain, and their families.

If you are looking for a tax-receipt eligible donation this year, it’s a worthy cause. Especially when it’s you or someone you love out there.

Arrowsmith Search and Rescue