From the Vancouver Sun:
Chris Morley knows he owes his life to search and rescue volunteers, especially the two men who first appeared as “visions of light” during his first frigid night on Mount Seymour.
Morley, the snowshoer who survived a three-day and two-night ordeal in the backcountry last week after tumbling more than 200 metres down an icy avalanche-prone gulley, remembers seeing two small lights coming towards him.
His saviours were two North Shore Rescue members who had literally jumped out of a helicopter Wednesday afternoon, just before darkness descended on the alpine and trapped Morley and the would-be rescuers on the mountain.

The 37-year-old carpenter, a married man with three young children, had booked a day off work so he could venture into the backcountry with a hiking friend.
Morley didn’t yet know he had a broken rib and a broken wrist. But he knew he was bitterly cold and badly injured. He felt the blood streaming down his face and the gashes from the trees and rocks he hit during his near-fatal fall. He had stuffed his coat into his backpack during the sweaty trek back from Runner Peak, but the daypack was gone. So was his ice axe, his two snowshoes and one hiking boot.
He stood in the darkness, alone and unable to get out. He was disoriented and confused from hypothermia, a sudden drop in body temperature that leads to disorientation, confusion, unconsciousness and eventually death.
He was vaguely aware that someone was calling him, but didn’t recognize or understand it was Simon Chesterton, his hiking buddy.
Morley described his accident and his rescue during an exclusive interview with The Vancouver Sun this weekend at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver, where he is still recovering today.
He can’t remember much about the fall or what happened immediately afterwards, but he has a vivid image of the moment that the two rescuers reached him.
“I saw these visions of light walking towards me,” Morley said. “It was dark — probably 5:30 p.m. by that time — so they probably had headlamps on.
“But I can’t visualize their face or their bodies. All I can visualize is somebody moving towards me.”
Peter Murray, the Talon Helicopter pilot who had flown to the rescue site Wednesday and would return Friday to fly Morley out, had brought the chopper in under a heavy cloud celing to the rescue area near Theta Lake.
The two men with the headlamps were Tim Jones and Gord Ferguson, both veterans of North Shore Rescue. They jumped out out of the helicopter with only one sleeping bag for themselves and few basic supplies, knowing they wouldn’t be able to get out by air before dusk.
Cold and increasingly desperate, Morley thought he was calling for help, but he was already fighting hypthermia and could only utter gibberish.
“They later said I was making animal noises,” Morley said. “I couldn’t make words. Tim has said that, within an hour or two, I would have fallen over and basically been done for. It was night and I had just had a ridiculously long fall. I remember being quite whimperish about it. I was bleeding and I was cold.”
Jones and Ferguson are decades-long members of North Shore Rescue, an all-volunteer group of about 40 people who go out to 80 or 90 wilderness rescues or body recoveries each year. The non-profit group’s home turf : the wilderness parks, the river canyons and mountains on the North Shore, a nature magnet for both complete novices who walk into the bush with city shoes and experienced climbers and backcountry users laden with ropes and heavy packs. Both ends of the spectrum can get into trouble when weather or avalanche conditions suddenly change, as they often do on the West Coast.
Morley and Chesterton had met each other through ClubTread, an on-line group of backcountry enthusiasts. They were not novices. They knew where they were going, and had checked the weather forecast beforehand.
“I call Simon an uber-hiker,” joked Morley, offering some levity to the news reporter he invited to visit him at hospital.
“He’s fast, he’s fit — very experienced with the local mountains.”
Their destination: 1,453-metre Runner Peak, a rock tower just north of Mount Seymour’s main peak, at 1,449 metres above sea level. As the crow flies, it’s only about four km from the Mout Seymour ski area parking lot to the rescue site, but the place where Morley almost died is an unpatrolled backcountry area.
The two men left the lower-elevation ski area at about 10 a.m. Wednesday. They branched off the main route to the peak, going north around the first and second pumps or peaks of Mount Seymour, along rough and undeveloped Elsay Lake trail.
Morley said one of the reasons he wanted to snowshoe up to Runner Peak is that he was taking an avalanche safety course. The avalanche hazard ratings for the area were low.
Morley had gone to Mount Seymour the previous weekend and knew there was a layer of ice on the snow surface. But only two or three centimetres of snow had fallen since then, and he thought that wasn’t enough snow to generate avalanches — which are triggered when the upper layer of snow sheers off.
As Morley and Chesterton hiked along Elsay Lake route, they stopped to check on snow conditions and tried to create a small avalanche by going off the trail. Loose snow rolled down the hill, but it didn’t set off an avalanche.
“We felt very safe with the conditions,” he said.
But visibility wasn’t great. The clouds came in and it became foggy.
The Environment Canada weather station at Vancouver International Airport recorded just 2.2 mm of precipitation on Wednesday, which would have fallen as snow or wet snow on Seymour. On Thursday and Friday, however, another 20 mm and 13 mm of rain would fall at the airport. Mount Seymour became socked in with snow flurries or clouds until mid-afternoon Friday.
During the snowshoe trip on Wednesday, Chesterton and Morely briefly lost the snow-covered trail. They weren’t sure of their exact location but they had to find the col — or valley — between Runner Peak and Mount Seymour peak.
“I actually hadn’t taken the route before but Simon had,” he said. “It was quite steep — I was surprised — but it was really good icy snow, the kind of snow that’s really good with crampons.”
Trouble was, neither man was carrying the teeth-edged foot gear in their daypacks. They had snowshoes and ice axes, but no crampons.
Morley, the less-experienced hiker, decided not to climb the last 40 metres or so to Runner Peak.
“I just didn’t have the comfort level yet,” he said.
Chesterton did the assent alone and returned about 15 minutes later. At the col, they enjoyed some stunning views of the steep northern side of Mount Seymour, and some distant views of the mountains north of Grouse. That was the high point of the day.
The low point came on the trek home, as they were traversing a steep slope. Most of the slope was treed, which made it safer, but there were also some clear and untreed areas they had to pass.
“They were just six to eight feet wide, just a place where there was no stopping [along the way]. You had no chance to stop [falling] if you got going.”
Morley was then in the lead, using his ice axe, when a near-accident gave him a warning.
“I remember I slipped a little, dug my ice axe in, and sheepishly looked at him and said: It’s a good thing I didn’t go down there.”
Morley continued across the clearing, stopped at a tree for a brief rest, then pressed on to the next clearing where his accident occurred. He lost his footing, but can’t remember exactly why or how.
Chesterton said he is still troubled by the image of his friend falling down the steep slope and disappearing.
“He didn’t say a word,” said Chesterton, another Saturday evening hospital visitor.
“That’s what’s really haunting for me, this last couple of days. Basically, he just looked at me and I was looking at him. And he was gone.”
Morley fell at least 200 metres down the gully, not 100 metres as previously estimated by North Shore Rescue. He knows he slammed into things such as tree branches and exposed rock and likely fell straight off some cliffs along the way.
He’s still amazed that most of his injuries were surface wounds, not life-endangering internal wounds.
“It was just blind luck,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t creative skill, like I was picking which rock to bounce off of on the way down.”
When he came to a stop, Morley called out for help. Chesterton was relieved to hear his companion was still alive.
Chesterton backtracked on the ascending trail, saw the slide path made by Morley, and tried to follow the path as far as could, by clinging on to trees. Despite that effort, but there was a still a cliff and a 30-metre gap between him and Morley. Morley appears to have fallen over that cliff. Chesterton could not see Morley; he could only hear his voice.
Chesterton knew he needed help in a hurry. He had a cellular telephone in his backpack and found a place where he could get a signal — something hikers should not rely on in the mountains, where cellular phones are notoriously unreliable. He also had a global positioning system device, so passed on his location to a 911 emergency operator and Jones at North Shore Rescue.
A helicopter picked up Jones and Ferguson in North Vancouver and rushed them to the site.
Jones asked Chesterton to shine his flashlight to help guide the helicopter in.
“I was yelling out Chris, telling him the chopper was on the way,” Chesterton said.
The first two rescuers arrived and jumped on to the snow, but it was much longer haul for other volunteers, who hiked in. Chesterton waited about five hours for them and walked out with his rescuers, reaching the parking lot at Mount Seymour at about 11 :45 p.m. Wednesday.
Morley said he was ‘out of it’ for hours and doesn’t remember much of the first night on the mountain. At that point, he didn’t even know the Good Samaritans were members of North Shore Rescue.
For a while, he assumed the helicopter would be returning to take him out. He didn’t think he would have to spend one night, much less two nights, on the mountain.
“I felt very fortunate just to have survived the fall,” he said. “I made a real effort to be as cooperative and uncomplaining as possible, because I had no right to complain. Those two saved my life. No doubt about it.”
Jones, who went to the hospital Saturday evening to visit Morley, said he had a good patient.
“He was a real trooper,” Jones said. “His injuries were sort of downplayed, but he had cumulative injuries that were really hurtful and he had suffered quite a fall. It was not a comfortable two days for him, to say the least.”
When the clouds didn’t lift Thursday and it continued to snow, North Shore Rescue mounted a second land-based rescue. This time, however, there were three people to be rescued, not one. The temperature was dropping, and relentless rains had become falling snow. There was an icy layer below the ever-thickening blanket of new snow and the avalanche danger was soaring.
“We knew we were in a pickle,” Jones said. “We almost got hit by an avalanche that morning. It stopped five feet short of our shelter.”
An advance party of five rescuers that left the parking lot Thursday morning also discovered that snow conditions were ripe for avalanches, but continued to traverse a slope and an obvious avalanche path to get to Morley, Jones and Ferguson. The rescuers of the rescuers included Rollie Webb of Coquitlam Search and Rescue, and Doug Brown of Lions Bay Search and Rescue.
‘We knew, going in, the avalanche conditions were going to be really, really bad,’ said John Blown, a North Shore Rescue member who was in the party.
“Normally, we wouldn’t have gone down there, but we knew that Tim, Gord and Chris were there and it would have been ugly. Tim was saying, on the radio, that he was going to be part of this [rescue] if we didn’t get in. We were definitely pushing the limits. And as soon our avalanche specialist got in, he stopped everyone else. But we were already in the middle [of the slope] and committed, so we kept going.”
When the advance party paused, they saw their tracks in the snow had touched off small avalanches behind them.
Search managers called the other volunteers back to the parking lot where North Shore Rescue had taken its communications-laden command vehicle.
Mindful of the avalanche that had almost hit the place where the first two rescuers had set up camp and taken Morley, the five newcomers moved the camp to a treed area above Theta Lake. The trees offered some protection against avalanches. They dug two snowcaves, about two metres wide and three metres deep. Four men slept in each cave.
Jones and Ferguson had boarded the helicopter in a rush, but one of the things they managed to bring along was a hypothermia bag. It’s a large and bulky version of a sleeping bag with an external, charcoal-fueled heating unit. A tiny battery-powered fan sends warm air into an octupus-like network of air chambers inside the bag. If everything goes well, a person suffering from exposure or hypothermia soon gets cosy.
But the rescuers had sought shelter in snow caves, so they could only turn on the charcoal heater periodically and they had a limited supply of white gas for their cooking stoves.
“We didn’t want to get asphyxiated from carbon monoxide, so we were using a combination of hot water bottles and the [hypothermic] bag, and you can only reboil water so many times,” Jones said. “He [Morley] had to put with periods when he was cool and periods when we could re-warm. He knew the score. He was in on the conversation.”
Jones, a B.C. Amublance Service paramedic, joked that he played the role of the “bad cop” because he could withhold pain-relieving medicine if his patient didn’t cooperate.
“I had the drugs!” Jones said with a smile.
Jones said the rescuers kept him on his back, cocooned inside the sleeping bag, so his field of vision was restricted and he couldn’t see much.
“In the snow cave on the second night, I was bundled up like a haystack, laid on my back, and shoved into the corner,” he said. “Not unkindly, of course.”
Thursday evening, while Jones was on the radio with his hourly conditions report, the good patient became a claustrophic patient.
“I heard it was eight o’clock and thought: good, the night’s over with,” Morley said. “But it turned out to be eight at night. I felt panic bubbling inside of me and started to crawl out.”
When Jones and the other six rescuers walked out on Friday, Jones mentioned that incident and the fact that he had given Morley a sedative to calm him down.
In the hospital, with Jones at his bedside, Morley disclosed that his caregiver also knows some swear words.
Morley said Jones used “words I can’t repeat . . . very strict words. I was frozen, in fear of this and in fear of that. I didn’t know what to do.”
John Blown, the rescuer in the sleeping bag beside Morley, just smiled at Morley and calmed him down.
“It was good cop, bad cop,” Morley quipped, and each had their own approach.
“I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “I would put everyone’s life at risk if I didn’t listen.”
Morley’s spirits got a boost Friday morning, when his rescuers brought him out of the snow cave to a tarp-enclosed area where he could see some natural light. He felt encouraged by the sound of explosions set off by avalanche technicians — some of the 60-odd rescuers working to open a safe land rescue route.
But the snow was still falling and no one was guaranteeing a rescue on Friday. If they had to haul Morley out on a sled-stretcher by rope across avalanche slopes, an ambulance might still be at least six hours away. Jones admits he started to become discouraged again.
Back at the parking lot, North Shore Rescue spokesman Greg Miller was telling the news media that a evacuation Friday evening was then the ‘best case scenario,’ unless the weather changed and a helicopter managed to get in.
Meanwhile, Talon Helicopters pilot Peter Murray was waiting for another window of opportunity, hoping for a higher cloud ceiling that often comes on the North Shore mountains in mid-afternoon this time of year.
Morley had bandages around one ear but he could still heard the thump-thump of then approaching chopper and hear the sound become quieter as the chopper went away. He felt bad — until the thump-thump became louder again.
Morley remained inside the hypothermia bag, still unsure of what was about to happen, when suddenly his rescuers ran with him towards a clearing where the helicopter hovered just off the ground. He knew the rescuers were struggling with his weight, because some would fall as they broke through the top layers of snow.
“I went lower here and lower there, but they always managed to keep me balanced and I didn’t fall once,” Morley said.
There had been no time to find a safe place to land, no time to use a cable and winch to haul Morley into the helicopter. Before the weather window shut again, they had one chance to get him out.
“All of sudden, I was going through the air and I landed on someone’s lap in the helicopter,” Morley said.
Murray had managed to keep the helicopter at a flying hover as the rescuers literally threw their patient through its open door of the helicopter.
“We’re calling it the Theta Lake move,” Jones joked. “It wasn’t a load; it was a throw.”
“He had injuries that immobilized him, but they weren’t going to kill him. Getting him out changed the whole dynamic of the rescue, because it would have been [another] 12 to 20 hours to get him out.”
Morley had no complaints about the rough handling. As he lay in his hospital bed, he just wanted to thank all the search and rescue volunteers for his life. His face wasn’t pretty, but he was alive. Marcy, his wife, was visiting with their three children: 10-year-old Zachary, nine-year-old Emma, and three-year-old Sam. So were survivor’s parents, John and Janet Morley.
Jones was pleased to visit the hospital, too.
“Most of our calls are body recoveries,” he noted.
– Glenn Bohn – Vancouver Sun