When Sean Russell and his parents set out for a five-hour day hike in Garibaldi Provincial Park, he pictured the three of them celebrating the 18-kilometre walk with drinks and dinner out that evening. Instead, after losing his way on the trail, Russell was separated from his father and step-mother and ended up spending more than 30 hours lost in the 1,950-square-kilometre park.
|Sean Russell’s view of Garibaldi Park shortly before he got lost. (Submitted)|
“It was going well for sometime,” said Russell. “And being as over confident and smug as I was, when I got to a (trail) marker about five minutes between them and myself, I ended up going in a direction where there were markers (but) then they just stopped.”
Because of the park’s elevation and heavy tree canopy, Russell says there was still quite a bit of snow and ice on the trail, and as such, he couldn’t see his footprints to follow them back the way he’d came. Yet, he still attempted to make his way back to where he thought he’d come from.
“I was quite literally running in circles,” continued Russell. “Eventually I was just stomping and running around in the snow panicking … and I had to stop and tell myself to stop panicking because I was acting like an idiot.”
Hearing running water nearby, Russell says he made his way to a creek and followed it for about three hours before finally admitting to himself that he was lost.
“I didn’t know the area at all … so I basically climbed up the side of the mountain and got to a clearing with snow still on it and managed to call 911,” said Russell. He was then put through to the Whistler RCMP, who opened up a missing persons file for him at about 4:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
“There are definitely some common themes we see (in cases like this),” said Doug Fraser, president of the Chilliwack Search and Rescue (SAR) team.
“The number one thing we see is people being under-prepared for where they’re travelling to. The second thing is either overestimating their own ability, or they haven’t researched the trip enough to understand what the requirements are in terms of fitness, food and water, or what gear they should be using.”
Although Chilliwack’s SAR team is only one of 80 located within communities across the province, Fraser says it’s one of the active groups in B.C., although the region no longer holds the record as the second busiest.
“A few years ago when the new gondola was built in Squamish, that provided quick and easy access for people to get into the Alpine,” explained Fraser. “And that has increased the call volume for Squamish SAR tremendously.
“The (Sea to Sky Gondola) is fantastic and creates amazing opportunities, but at the same time there’s a cost: we’re getting people who are not as prepared as they need to be up in those environments.”
|Sean Russell said the deep snow cover was a contributing factor to his misadventure. (Submitted)|
“I was woefully unprepared,” admitted Russell. “I had a crappy bag with a litre of water, my phone, camera, no food, bear spray, sunglasses, and a spare battery for my phone, which was a very large help—it basically let me talk with emergency services for another day.”
In addition to the spare cellphone battery, Russell says he made two other smart decisions in the midst of his “calamity of errors.”
After listing himself as a missing person, Russell used his bear spray to try and leave a message for any helicopters who might be searching for him.
“I tried to write ‘help’ in the snow but ended up with ‘HI’ and a dot about five feet in height that was seen from the air,” said Russell. The other correct move he made was “following the directions of the people on the phone.
“First, following the RCMP’s directions, then the search and rescue director’s directions. They told me to stay in one place and don’t move, which I did. If I did move I would’ve been even more lost.”
So situating himself in the fork of a river he was lead to, Russell says he hunkered down and prepared to spend the night in the bush.
“I took some pine branches and threw it over me and used my bag as a very ineffective blanket and tried to get some sleep,” recalled Russell. But as tired and drained as he was, sleep was hard to come by.
“I was so tired I was nodding off, but was eventually woken up from a leg spasm from probably not having enough water.”
Although he owned an outdoors water filter, Russell had left it at home, and the water he brought with him eventually ran out, even though he did his best to conserve it.
“And I didn’t want to drink the water (from the river) and become completely debilitated from beaver fever unless I absolutely had to,” continued Russell.
“But I wasn’t really hungry or thirsty because I was too busy slipping between worrying and telling myself there’s no way I was going to die in this crappy forest.”
Once first light hit Sunday morning, Russell says both the RCMP and local search and rescue team began looking for him again, but he wasn’t found until Sunday afternoon.
|Although he tried his best to conserve his cellphone battery, Russell managed to snap one shot of the helicopter that rescued him. (Submitted)|
Upon seeing his rescuers fly in on a helicopter, Russell said he “waved like a madman. And once they came around again and gave me a thumbs up, I started laughing like a madman blessed.”
Russell says he was then rescued via a longline rescue. “A guy descended on a long line, gave me a vest to strap on and then hooked me to the line with a rather stout-looking carabiner and we then lifted off and flew a few kilometers away to an emergency staging area … the back to the heliport in Whistler, where I got a very good scolding that I completely deserved.”
“We recognize that people might feel embarrassed or upset, but we’d rather be called and save a life than have somebody remain missing needlessly for days on end while they try to find their own way out of the wilderness,” added Fraser, who’s been with Chilliwack’s SAR team for more than two decades.
“Once the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion wears off and you don’t feel too crappy or embarrassed, you (experience) a whole cascade of emotions,” said Russell. “But I felt gratitude mostly.
“These people save lives, and they’re entirely volunteer so they rely a lot on (public support), which I why I was more than happy to give them a (donation) last pay: they saved my bacon and were very professional about it.”
However, “the money for the rescues is always there,” said Fraser. “The funding for those call-outs is provided by Emergency Management B.C., so we’ll never be in a position where we’ll have to say, ‘Sorry, we can’t respond because there’s no money.’”
But funds are still needed to cover each team’s regular expenses, such as keeping the trucks in operation, purchasing new equipment, and paying for the courses to train and re-certify the volunteers, of which there are hundreds across the province.
“Several years ago, the British Columbia Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) put forward a proposal to the provincial government that would create a stable source of funding for all 80 teams in the province,” said Fraser.
Unfortunately, the proposal wasn’t approved, however, the BC Liberal government at the time earmarked 10 million dollars for the organization, and the new NDP government dolled out another five million this spring.
“It’s our hope that the the alternate support model will be (eventually approved) so we can eliminate the year-by-year funding decisions and have an (income source) we could rely on,” said Fraser.
“And as the population expands, as more people focus on outdoor recreation, (our) call volume just continues to increase,” Fraser continued.
“When I joined the team in ‘97, we averaged about 40 or 45 calls a year. The last couple of years we’ve been (around) 80 and the general trend is increasing.”
“Long story short, they’re under-appreciated,” said Russell. “They’re very important. We have a gigantic tourist industry and people visiting may get lost. Even people who’ve lived here their whole lives can get lost.”
With hindsight being 20/20, Russell says he’s learned a lot from his experience inside Garibaldi park.
“Being alone in the forest at two in the morning is a very frightening feeling,” said Russell. So while he’d go back, “I would do everything different. I’d get a proper day pack, pack extra layers, and would have a better idea of the area (I was going to).”
But one of the best ways to stay safe while enjoying B.C.’s backcountry, says Fraser, is to file a trip plan with a family member, close friend, or online at AdventureSmart.ca, a national prevention program focused on reaching Canadians and tourists who participate in outdoor recreational activities.
“They’re super convenient and provide information that will help us find you quicker than if we didn’t have that information.”
For more information on preparing for a safe outing in Canada’s woodlands, check out the Government of Canada’s “Self-Help Advice: Prepared for the Woods.”
To make a donation to the Chilliwack SAR team, please visit their website at ChilliwackSAR.org.