Everyone should read the following and heed the lessons. Written by Duncan Howatt, part owner and Operations Manager for the Mt. Baker Ski Area.
You can find this at http://www.mtbaker.us/1011/snow_report/ Just scroll down past the snow report.
Sunday January 29, 2012
Hello Backcountry Users:
As part of the on-going process of sharing valuable information regarding backcounty travel and practices, we want to share an extraordinary (and very lucky) story of one man’s overnight survival ordeal last night in the backcountry/wilderness areas near Mt. Baker Ski Area. For the sake of fellow skiers and snowboarders, we would also like to in list your help to not be bashful when you see someone who appears “out of place” in the backcountry because they most likely are! Some people simply go beyond the ski area boundaries into the backcountry with little clue what to expect, without proper equipment or partners, with no information about snowpack or avalanche conditions and with no idea of their route or a safe way back to the ski area and need your help.
This event happened yesterday afternoon (Saturday Jan 28);
Starting around 2:00 pm, two 21-22 year old snowboarders from Chezk Republic via Vancouver BC were doing laps into The Canyon when they decided to do the Gunner’s Bowl cliff band line. For some reason, one decided to go down to the far right of the band then beyond that into Swift Creek Saddle, knowingly going under the ski area boundary rope line, past the boundary signs and past the backcountry warning signs and dropped down into the Swift Creek drainage. Now this is where you people that know what’s going on out there can help.
Evidently, several people in Swift saw him (no pack, no partner, walking in the opposite direction of the way out). If someone would have stopped him and told him to follow them out, the story could have ended there. In any case, no one said anything and he kept going thinking that he didn’t need to hike up but just go down and around the corner and he would reach White Salmon base area. In fact, he was going further from the ski area and deeper and deeper into rugged avalanche terrain in National Forest (toward Lake Ann) and then into the Wilderness Area.
At 4:20 pm his friend alerted us that he had not seen his friend since about 2:00 pm and was missing. We mobilized our Pro Patrol, had patrol into Swift Creek within 20 minutes and found his tracks 4 minutes later. However, this young man had a 2 hour 2 minute head start and darkness was setting in. Mountain Search and Rescue was called and mobilized. Our pro patrol crew kept view of the tracks however, the tracks were randomly going up the back side of Shuksan Arm, traversing through avalanche fields, climbing up huge avalanche paths, dipping in and out of forests and now it’s getting dark. At the time we first began the search, conditions were on the edge of our crew even considering responding and there are times when we have not initiated a search due to the risk it presents to our crew. We decided to go, but now with darkness coming on, the temperature rising and the wind and precip picking up I told the Pros it’s time to come back home. Realize the Pros are equipped with float packs, transceivers, shovels, probes, skins, lights, food, radio communication, extra batteries for radios and lights, extra clothing, water and touring set ups. With the hair on their necks standing on end as the temp rose and avalanche conditions worsened, they skinned back in about 1 hour.
Our crew of 8 handed over the search effort around 8:00 pm to Mountain Search and Rescue who then searched with 3 crew’s on terrain acceptable for the conditions, then abandoned the search for the night at 2: 30 am to no avail. The weather was tough. Temp around 35 degrees at base, precip of rain, mixed snow and rain, wet snow at higher elevations, winds hitting 52 mph with very low visibility. He was on his own for the rest of the night.
We regrouped with SAR this morning – weather was mixed snow and rain and ugly. SAR prepared to send more teams out we prepared to open the ski area. SAR had now put about 20 people or more into the search effort. At 9:18 am this morning our pro patroller PJ (who was also on the search last night) was doing a boundary check along Chair 8 Rumble Gully area and – miracles of all miracles – see’s a guy meeting the missing person’s description hiking up the drainage to the Rumble Gully come back trail.
Jakub had hiked down Swift Creek – out toward Mount Ann – back UP the steep, steep terrain of the backside of Shuksan Arm and had made it to top of the ridge of Shuksan Arm just in the right spot to come out above the Heli Line. How he found that route up that rugged side I will never know, but he did. He made it to the ridge sometime after dark. As the weather moved in, he decided to hunker down for the night, dug a snow pit/cave and went to sleep.
He slept an hour at a time – turning when each side got too cold. In the early morning hours he heard the back up beeping of our snow cats working near the top of Chair 8 and began his trek back down the north side toward the noise. PJ reported “Jakub is cold tired and wet, but stable” .. . and smiling. Jakub had done this trek mostly in the dark and had covered about 4 miles and over 3,000 vertical through some of the most extreme mountain terrain there is. After a warm up (a few toes may have frostbite), doctor’s exam and a breakfast burrito in our Aid Room, he’s basically ok, in very good spirits and thankful. To quote: “I have lucky.” His friends pitched in on the rescue fees and they are on their way back home.
- If you see someone who looks unqualified in the backcountry don’t be bashful – say something. It may save their life.
- Minutes count when your friend needs help in the mountains. Report possible missing people within minutes, not hours. – with a 2 hour head start in the mountains, it’s difficult to catch someone.
- If you are in a situation where you know you are lost or in trouble, follow your tracks BACK UP.
- Keep your cell phone with you (not in the car) – but remember, Swift Creek does not have cell service though we can usually get handi com reception.
- Decent clothing can help – Jakub wore a Burton jacket with multiple layers and a thick wool sweater. His clothing was wet, but his base layer was still partially dry.
- Don’t think that a Recco is a life saver – it may only help to find your body.
- Some people are from mountain areas that are heavily populated and they may expect that even the backcountry eventually leads to a road or town – NOT SO. Know your route – or tell them the route.
Though Jakub’s story could have easily had a very different outcome, surviving the night in the Mount Baker Wilderness on a dark, stormy and ugly night is testimony to youth and perseverance. We are happy he is home.
A special thanks to our Pro Patrollers Sam, PJ, Ben and Brian and to Justin, Chuck and the Bellingham Mountain Rescue Council and the Whatcom Country Search and Rescue Snowmobile Club, and the Whatcom County Sherriff's Department.