Globe and Mail

Stranded atop B.C. mountain, hikers ‘made some errors’
Couple risked hypothermia on snowy start to new year, JANE ARMSTRONG writes
JANE ARMSTRONG

VANCOUVER — Darkness was falling and the wind and snow were so fierce that rescuers attempting to save two stranded hikers from a treacherous Vancouver mountain peak could scarcely hear the instructions blaring on their radios.
The lost couple was huddled in a snow hut at the foot of a deep gully on Mount Seymour, their plan to ring in the new year from the mountain gone terribly wrong. The pair, a man and woman, had joined a growing trend on the West Coast by celebrating New Year’s Eve from a mountaintop.
On New Year’s Eve day, they climbed to Mount Seymour’s summit and camped overnight.
But Jan. 1 dawned blustery and snowy, with winds topping 80 kilometres an hour. By 11 a.m. the man and woman, both experienced climbers, were in deep trouble. An avalanche sent the man tumbling to the bottom of a gully and the two were officially stuck.

Nine hours later, the hikers were sipping hot drinks in the warmth of the ski resort midway down the mountain after a team of rescuers pulled the couple to safety with a rope. The hikers, who asked that their names be withheld, were cold but unhurt.

Their rescuers, a team of 11 volunteers, were damp and freezing, too, but grateful the new year’s misadventure ended with no injuries. One of the rescuers who climbed the mountain in whiteout conditions, said the couple are lucky they weren’t killed.

Other hikers spent New Year’s Eve camping on the mountain, but none ventured as far as the stranded hikers. Signs along the route warned of avalanche dangers. Rescuer Tim Jones said the pair, who had experience camping outdoors, went too far up the mountain, past the guide trails and deep into back country.

By Monday morning, as temperatures warmed, the risk of avalanche releases were growing by the hour.
“They made some errors,” Mr. Jones said.

Despite calling for help, the male hiker downplayed the danger throughout the rescue, even suggesting to rescuers poised to rappel down the gully that they turn back and return in the morning, said Don Jardine, who directed the search from the parking lot of the Seymour ski resort.

“The man . . . said they decided they might want to stay the night and we should go home and come back in the morning to get them,” Mr. Jardine said. “Quite often you get the subject trying to tell the rescuers what to do. He didn’t like the look of the conditions and thought it would be better in the morning.”

Mr. Jones said the two were well equipped with sleeping bags and a stove and food, but the man was wrong to suggest they could spend another night on the mountain. Both were at risk of hypothermia.

The drama started New Year’s Eve after the couple hiked to Mount Seymour’s highest peak and set up camp on the mountain. But overnight, the winds picked up and falling snow turned to near whiteout conditions. Worse, temperatures were rising, increasing the threat of an avalanche.

Shortly after starting their descent, an avalanche sent the man, who was on skis, tumbling down the gully. He was unhurt and dug himself out and the female hiker in snowshoes climbed down to reach him.

They built a snow hut and called for help on a cellphone.

Mr. Jardine said the couple was smart to stay put and telephone for help rather than attempting to hike out.

The rescuers, all volunteer members of the North Shore Search and Rescue, said the rescue was a harrowing one because of the blinding snow, high winds and threat of avalanches. The rescue team has about 40 members who are specially trained to venture up North Vancouver’s three mountain peaks to rescue stranded hikers.

Often, they are tourists who were unprepared for the unpredictability of the mountain wilderness. The team gets up to 100 calls a year.

On Monday morning, the stranded male hiker told rescuers the couple was safe in the snow hut and suggested that rescuers simply set off manmade avalanches to reduce the threat. But Mr. Jones said the rescue group knew they had to get the couple off the mountain.

“They were at a very high risk,” Mr. Jones said. “They had gear, but he had gotten caught in an avalanche.
“With the given weather situation, it’s very difficult to stay dry.” As rescuers climbed up, they too were getting wet and dehydrated.

Had the rescue crew not reached the couple, “they would have been calling us at midnight, screaming for help,” Mr. Jones said.

The rescue group set out at 1:30 p.m. and reached the pair about three hours later. Fearing they would set off another avalanche by climbing down the gully, the rescuers used ropes to lower themselves to the hiker’s hut.

Mr. Jones telephoned the male hiker just as two rescuers began their descent on rope. At that point, the stranded hiker suggested the rescuers return the next day.
“He said: ‘I’ve been doing some thinking here and you know what? You should just come back tomorrow.’ “
Mr. Jones chuckled and replied: “What part of this don’t you get?
“I said: ‘You’re not in control of this any more. This is now a rescue.’ “