Wednesday, July 01, 2015

A chronology of choices

Chronology of Choices During 6 Days Missing

Sam Black

·        Dayhiked to Brandywine Mountain 2 weeks earlier. Detected what seemed to be a passable ridge in the direction of Mount Cayley (which I thought was called Powder Mountain). That day, I took a trail up the right side of the valley up to high ground skirting by Metal Dome and then cutting left across a granite face to Brandywine Mountain. Returned that day via the ridge and talus slope on the left (westerly) side of the valley.
·        A “clear ridge” for my skill and equipment level means no technical climbs, and minimal snow on level ground.
·        Indicated my route to Randy, and left instructions to call Police if I am not back on Saturday night – explaining that this would be the result of a broken bone. (I had not anticipated losing the route.)

·        Hike to a site in view of Mount Cayley (near heliskiing pads), after ascending the talus slope on the left (west) side of the valley to gain Brandywine mt.
·        Crossed a bit of snow – at level grade en route. Took a look at an enormous glacier/snowfield without venturing onto it.
·        I knew the weather was changing but did not alter my plans for a tent site location. The skies were actually clearing on Fri night, and 4 weeks earlier I had descended from Brew Mountain in rain. I expected to get some rain on Saturday. Not a big deal. I did not anticipate that the ridge, and all reference points would be totally obscured by fog (very dumb).

·        Wake up early, visibility restricted to about 10 meters, heavy rain.
·        Pack up and start heading back along the ridge I walked in.
·        I could see a valley to my right that I guessed it was leading to Shovelnose creek. Decided to avoid it. I did not want to try a bushwhack out a different valley from the one I had come up because I was worried about twisting an ankle in the rains; being left unable to walk; while also being invisible from the air.
·        I veered leftwards (east?) trying to find a ridge that would take me back toward Brandywine mt – where there are cairns and a boot cut trail down to Brandywine valley.
·        I crossed some snow again (about 20 meters) on level ground. This snow was high above Brandywine Glacier – although I could not see the glacier below at the time because visibility was about 10 feet. After crossing the snow, I tried following a ridge to my right (south). I was scared to continue on that ridge however. The rocks were now slick with rain and lichens. Continuing would be risky and I was not sure the ridge would lead me out, or even lead to a spot level enough to pitch a tent. Given the very wet rock, I was worried about getting stranded on a section of ridge where I could not set up my tent. This was a problem because the rain was pelting down by now, and the wind blowing. I thought hypothermia was a real possibility if I didn’t get out of the elements and into my bag. Passing a night without cover would be difficult.
·        I partially set up my tent under an overhang that was the only level terrain on the ridge. It was too narrow for the tent to expand to its full width. The overhang stopped some of the rain, and also would shield me from falling rock. I could hear rocks falling. They were actually breaking off from the peak due west from me (where I had come from) which was disintegrating in the heavy rains. (Martin has my photo of boulders strewn on Brandywine Glacier. Those boulders actually fell on Saturday and Sunday.) At the time I could not see where the rocks were falling from. But the earth shook under their tremendous impact. I hoped their source was not above me.
·        All my clothes (2 short sleeve synthetics, 1 long sleeve nylon, 1 fleece, 1 shorts, 1 hat and gloves, 2 pair synthetic socks) are by now soaked in the 100% humidity – except for my underwear and a spare fleece hat all was wet including my bag. I went into my mummy bag and put on my fleece on to try drying it. But I could not generate enough body warmth to heat it. After a 1 hour I take it off. From then on I wear only underwear when I remain in my bag. I start rationing my emergency food supply of 1 1/2 bagels, 2 power bars, and 1 can of tuna.

·        Still raining hard, and almost no visibility. For the morning (?), I can’t see enough to figure out where I am. Time passes. Rocks keep falling. I take down my tent and suit up to see if I can push further south on my ridge. It again seems impassable to the south. The thought occurs that I might not get out of the jam I am in. I snap some photos for friends and family just to be safe. It clears a bit later and I snap some photos of Brandywine Glacier, which is visible to my right (north). I later hear a chopper. I jump out of the tent and grab my red mummy bag to signal it. I watch it come up through the valley west (?) of my site. It shoots over the glacier at top speed about 500 meters west of me. I am not sure if it is searching for me. I stay out of my tent for 10 minutes, hoping it will return, and I will be able to signal that I’m OK to family and friends. It does not return. I get back into the tent. My bag is drenched from the rain, and I am freezing from standing outside in underwear. The clearing soon disappears and visibility returns to 10 feet.

·        I recognize that my site of the last 2 nights is difficult for SAR to detect. I have heard aircraft high above the cloud cover, and so I believe that SAR is indeed looking for me. I am also hopeful of finding a different route out – if I can just see the top of Brandywine Mountain or Mount Fee. I wait for a clearing in the sky, and pack up when the Brandywine Glacier is visible. (A clearing gives about 500 meters of visibility downwards to the Glacier. I took photos during periods of maximum visibility which Martin has. Maximum visibility seemed to start at 10 a.m. and last a few hours.) I pack up and head north (?) and then East (?) hugging the right side of a steep slope. I then start climbing sharply up a slope that I hope is either the backside of Brandywine Mountain or will lead there. I can’t see the summit, and can’t see any surrounding peaks. The rains return in earnest. I despair of getting to the summit or pass that day. I set up tent on what I hope is an exposed site, visible to SAR, on an open slope in a patch of heather. The grade is considerable, and there is a drop off at the foot of my tent. I am worried about sliding over the edge in my sleep. But it is the flattest patch around. I have to sleep diagonally in the tent to try to avoid from sliding down. The exposed site is a lot windier, and I am colder than before.
·        Later that day I hear aircraft high over head. I come out from the tent to signal but they are totally obscured by cloud. Leaving the tent, and standing outside naked in the rain leaves me very cold. Even opening up my mummy bag or the tent fly on the tent chills me. Yet the aircraft are above cloud and can’t see me. After repeating this exercise several times, I decide to rig a flag (a tan and white shirt) on a ski pole. I waive it whenever aircraft fly over head and sound close by, while remaining zipped inside my bag.
·        Eventually this seems to alert a craft, who I sense has slowed down. I jump out of the tent. I spot a chopper, and grab my red mummy bag and start waving it. The chopper alters course (it had been west of me in the direction of the valley) and heads slowly in my direction. It keeps flying towards me for about 5 seconds (?). It is about 200 m away or less. I believe I’ve been spotted, and my first reaction is to signal thumbs up so that the crew communicates to friends and family that I am OK. (I have been worrying a lot about the toll this must be taking on Randy and Laura, and praying they have not told my parents, who are somewhat fragile.) As soon as I signal I’m OK, the chopper veers away (to its left or north along Brandywine Glacier). I feel some regret since it is pretty miserable outside. I wonder if I should have indicated to the pilot that I was desperate and needed to be airlifted out. But that would have been dishonest. I remain standing in the rain watching for the chopper’s return. A grey chopper then shot northwards, further west of where I’d seen the previous one, traveling at a very high speed. I reckoned it held crews to repair the heli pads and was a private operator not interested in lost hikers.
·        *** I knew the chopper I had seen was SAR. It was painted red and seemed identical tp the choppers that patrol the West Coast trail – which I have done twice in foul weather in April. My expectations and information about SAR choppers and practices reflects the West Coast trail. That route is normally patrolled by air. But all hikers are warned that they will not be airlifted from the trail unless they have suffered a serious physical trauma (e.g. a broken bone). It is furthermore made explicit that being cold, tired, or wet are not grounds for being airlifted. I believed this was normal practice for all SAR operations. (This mistaken belief would soon prove fateful.) In fact, one year Randy and I had been on the West Coast trail in April. Once we hiked in the trail was closed on account of receiving the tail end of a hurricane. We were cold and soaked. We heard choppers continuing to patrol the trail. But we reasoned they were not looking for us (they were not in fact).
So here is what I inferred on Monday: SAR now knows my exact position, and knows that I’m OK (they saw the thumbs up). They have not tried to airlift me because they believe I am capable of walking out on my own once the weather breaks, and they want me to walk out. At this time I thought I could walk out, and reasoned that I was at most 1 hour from the way I came in – something that could be accomplished in good weather without much trouble provided I set some food aside. I totally stopped eating as a result convinced I should save my stores until the weather broke. In fact, I thought I was a good deal less than an hour away from the ridge since I had been moving very slowly on Saturday on account of the wet rock and lack of visibility. I reckoned that SAR would perhaps occasionally monitor my whereabouts to make sure nothing went dramatically wrong, but that I was OK and very close to where I needed to be. I felt very optimistic at this point, and very grateful that you had sent a chopper to make contact with me. I attributed most of the high volume of ongoing aircraft activity from then on to heli skiing operations preparing their winter sites (some of which I had encountered in the area), or government avalanche crews. Since I believed you had my coordinates, I didn’t think you’d be sending out more crews.
  This chain of inferences may seem a bit whacky. On the other hand, it was premised on the extraordinary coincidence that a SAR chopper altered its course just as I began to waive my red mummy bag, and headed in my direction. It then sharply veered off at precisely the instant I signaled using the thumbs up. I now understand that in the event the crew had seen me they would have signaled back using their lights. But I’m afraid that your average hiker does not know the protocols for communicating with choppers. In fact I suspect the entire SAR protocols are a bit opaque to ordinary hikers. They are not described in any hiking books I have read. Significantly, the SAR protocols differ between regions in the same province (e.g. the West Coast Trail, and the Whistler region). The West Coast Trail protocols are the ones I was familiar with.

·        I pack up and try to hike up the peak again (south). Give up again in frustration. It is becoming an increasing technical climb as I gain altitude, and I figure that even if I make the summit I will have to descend similar terrain on the other side. The rain and wind are unrelenting. I hike with my pack. I will not leave the tent to explore, since the tent and bag are necessary for survival, and visibility periodically drops down to less than 10 feet. 
·        Set up tent again in same spot where I thought I’d been spotted on Monday.
·        This was fortunate. Soon after, there is a deluge lasting all afternoon and through the evening. This is by far the most intense rain of the trip. It is like nothing I have ever camped in – including the trip during the closure of the West Coast Trail -- and I am fearful that I will be washed away in a flood or landslide. Amazingly, the volume of rain falling remains steady all night. I stretched the tarp taught using rocks, and it sounds like a snare drum inside. It is difficult to sleep during the awesome violence of the storm.

·        Woke up praying for clear skies. Laura gigs on Wed night, and Randy and I usually meet for beer to hear her. Hoped I’d be able to meet them, and surprise Laura at her gig. (Remember: I am thinking that I’ve been spotted on Mon, and the information has gone back that I am OK but socked in. I expected Randy and Laura to be monitoring the situation, worried until I came out, but basically keeping things together while waiting out the weather system in Vancouver.)
·        The weather remained bad.
·        During a two hour clearing (visibility 500 hundred meters) I hiked down the mountain (north) towards Brandywine Glacier. I believed that moving leftwards (west) along the glacier was the only remaining exit. There was nothing passable to the right (where the chopper hovered that eventually pulled me out), and the route south over the peak was impassible. There was no option left for getting out than to drop down. I believed I had come from the left (west?) and that my ridge was only a few hundred meters away in that direction. I had crossed the snow much higher up the glacier where the crossing was level and short. But I thought it would be difficult to return to that crossing since I had tried and failed on Sat and Sun to get back that way over the wet rock. 
·        I still could not see any peaks and figured that without better visibility I might as well stay put. I set up the tent again on a flat rock outcropping now about 30 m above the glacier.
·        It was cold enough that night that I could not sleep for the first time on account of the temperature. My body was no longer putting out enough heat to keep my bag warm. I figured the cold indicated the skies had cleared. I got out of my tent, and stood outside under brilliantly lit stars. I remained outside until I began to shiver badly.
·        I resolved to be up at daybreak to make use of the change of weather.

·        The sun is hot despite the fact that it is about 5:00 a.m. I eat my last power bar and half bagel, set my clothes out on the rocks for drying, and take the tarp off the tent. I expect that drying everything out will considerably lighten the pack. Dry socks and boots, along with dry rock greatly improve my footing. (The numbness in my feet from the wet and cold had made me reluctant to trust footholds, and there are no friction holds on wet rock.) I spend an hour or more just drying off and warming up. This is the first heat I had felt since Friday.
·        I had tried to do leg exercises in the tent each day to prevent cramping. But my legs are rubbery from being confined to my bag, and the lack of food. (Again, since I had no dry clothes, and it rained more or less constantly the entire time, and the wind was often severe, I could not leave my mummy bag, except when packing up camp.)
·        I carefully make my way to the lip of the glacier. I had hoped to hug the rock wall rather than climb onto the glacier. But the rockwall is impassable going left (west). I see many crevasses on the glacier. The grade is steep where the glacier separates from the mountain. Most worrisome is a large crevasse directly north from me, about 25 m down into the glacier bowl. I hope I can traverse leftwards (west) without sliding down the bowl. This looks risky. On the other hand, I feel there is no alternative, and that I must be close to the ridge out. (Why else would SAR leave me in the tent during the torrential downpour of the last few days?) Also a new front is developing in the west. I am desperate not to get socked in again for another week, without any food. I hoist myself onto the glacier, and dig in the heels of my boot. I move along the lip but slide after a few steps. Very quickly I am hurtling into the glacier bowl towards the crevasse I had hoped to avoid. I try to keep my legs in front me while sliding. The crevasse comes up very quickly. As I go over its mouth I can see that its blue walls that taper downwards for about 15 feet, leading to a boulder field of green granite. The thought flashes that I should by all rights be crashing down onto that granite, either broken up or waiting to die at the bottom of a chasm that I could not climb out from. Instead, I hurdle over the width of the crevasse, land with my left leg on the opposite side, and stand up with a full pack on one leg. I estimate the width of the crevasse at about 3 feet. I could not span it standing still. But I am moving so fast that this estimate may be unreliable. (I would welcome accurate information here about the width of the glacier.) My crossing of the crevasse seems inexplicable, and deeply shakes me up (and has continued to shake me up).
·        I continue with my plan to move leftwards along the glacier. I see crevasses in the distance. But the glacier surface is level. The crevasses are exposed. I have about 200 m to walk, and hope to peg a route that allows me to avoid them. A chopper enters the valley and hovers over the glacier. I signal it, and stop walking. The chopper was SAR I believed because it was painted red. It hovered near a peak at the north side of the glacier. I reasoned that the crew is monitoring the situation to make sure that I continued along what I thought was the correct route out. They continue to hover about 400 m away, and I continue to walk quite slowly in a south west direction (?) hoping to get off the glacier at the base of the mountain that had been crumbling earlier that week, getting back onto rock. I was mentally shaken up at this point, but felt like I had enough steam to descend Brandywine Mountain. I wasn’t going to ask to be airlifted, but felt very comforted by the chopper’s presence – which I assumed was monitoring to ensure I remained on course, and found the cairns before the next front hit. The chopper made a pass towards me as I began to move again. As it approached I could see the crew motioning violently that I should stay put. I froze. The chopper rounded the glacier, and then dropped Braden onto the glacier to join me. I was pretty shaken by the crevasse, and recall how much his jovial manner put me at ease. In another few minutes I was taken aboard. 

Part of these events unfolded as they did on account of the extraordinary situation in which a copter turned to head in my direction at the precise moment I began to waive my sleeping bag, and then veered off to leave the glacier valley at precisely the time when I flashed a thumbs up. My determination to walk out, and my confidence in the feasibility of that course stemmed from the mistaken belief that I had been located by SAR on Monday, and that SAR was keen to see me take a shot at getting myself out on my own steam.

I certainly don’t hold SARS responsible for my errors and misapprehensions. I have nothing but admiration for their efficiency, and gratitude for their having saved my life. (I think it is virtually certain I would have not have made it out on my own steam, either because I was heading off course, or another system was moving in; there was also a risk – difficult for me to assess -- that I would have stumbled onto a crevasse as I traversed the glacier.)