The Long Wait: The Rescue through her eyes

Erin Hanna

 

There I was, sitting at home on the phone with a friend, when I received a private Facebook message from Amanda Coulson, asking if I was home.

With a start, I realized our husbands were not yet back from their sledding adventures that day. Usually, when my husband Mike and her husband Dallas head out, they return by 5 p.m. at latest. They would have stopped sledding at least an hour before, packed up and come home. This is the north, and the light is all but gone by 5 p.m.

But now it was 6:30, and they weren’t home. I called her back and we asked each other if we knew where they were? Usually they have two favourite spots, but neither of us knew where they had decided to go.

Fortunately we were able to track down Dallas’ nephew (who sleds with them frequently), and they told us they were going up to the Core Lodge.

Peace River Coal was contacted and they sent someone out to check the Core Lodge Parking area. The word came back that Mike’s vehicle was still there.

On her end, Amanda filed a police report and we learned that Tumbler Ridge Search and Rescue (SAR) could not begin searching until daylight, as they must keep their own team safe. This was because of the risk of avalanche and reduced to impossible visibility after dark. It would be fairly pointless to send out people in the dark, and risk their safety in the process.

I certainly understood that logic and did not wish for anyone else to be in trouble out there on the mountain. But that began a very long night for both Amanda and I, as well as other family members and friends we had chosen to let know. Contact between the two wives became regular and I, for one, was grateful to hear her voice. She was valiantly composed and on-task.

We had no idea what had happened. Were they injured? Were they lost? Did they have supplies? We had many questions and many hopeful assumptions. It was so fortunate that Dallas’ nephew had not accompanied them this time out, as he had full description of Mike’s truck, the model and make of the sleds and even the sled gear the men were wearing. Whether that ultimately helped in the end was irrelevant, but it sure gave me reassurance. This attention to detail made me feel more secure, and I’m sure Amanda as well. At least we weren’t feeling as though we had no information to pass on.

Through a family member of Amanda’s, I was told Dallas had an avalanche beacon on him. However, I was also told they were limited in range to about 100 m. That did not comfort us.

While guessing they had packed some more important supplies, we also were not 100 percent sure of what they had or didn’t have. Amanda assured me of Dallas’ experience with at least one previous overnighter on a sled trip, and I knew Mike’s years on the Tumbler Ridge Fire Department would surely give him some kind of process of clear-thinking anyway. But not knowing their condition or what had actually happened diminished our high opinions of their strength and brilliance in survival. For me, anyway.

I think both wives were level-headed and we didn’t allow ourselves to think the worst. I had no information at all, so I chose to think they were fine and had to stay overnight. I had no evidence otherwise. Worry and guilt are the two most wasted emotions. They serve absolutely no purpose and get you nothing in return.

But waiting for daylight was very difficult. Daylight would allow SAR to begin their efforts. We knew a helicopter was coming from Prince George. As I understand it, they must have verification of no avalanche risk before they could send in the team on their snow machines. Before the helicopter arrived, it was determined that it was safe for two sleds to go out and start looking for tracks

The information we were receiving was excruciatingly minimal. Two hours after daylight, I was in disbelief that with a team of people on sleds and helicopter hadn’t spotted them. Emotion takes precidence over logic, at times. After holding it together all night, it was indeed becoming harder to not let some less positive thoughts filter in.

Throughout the day, I just kept willing Mike to appear. This is a guy who has, time and time again, shocked and amazed his family and friends at coming out of ridiculous circumstances completely unscathed. Surely he would just walk through the door and shrug in his inimitable way and just act as though it was no big deal.

But as time went on, we were only hearing a few facts. Like the fact that they hadn’t found anything. No sled tracks. No machines, no people. Nothing. Of course they would have information, details and leads we knew nothing about. Of course it takes much longer than we wanted it to take. But when you are sitting there wondering what the hell is going on, it makes for an extremely long and rather insane day. And so many people have come forward now, echoing our sentiments that you feel so helpless. Useless. We can’t do anything but wait. So wait, we did.

By one in the afternoon, I was starting to get edgy. I looked at the clock a dozen times as slow minutes ticked by. A helicopter and many rescuers by ground had not found any trace of them. How was that possible? It was as if they had been sucked into the Bermuda Triangle. There was no evidence of avalanche and it had not seemed to snow so heavily that their sleds could be buried or tracks completely undetectable. And it was already afternoon. Only a few more hours of daylight. Running out of time and no word.

That’s when I really started to worry. I had held it together for as long as I could. Alone in my world of logic and calm, which was starting to mix with the ultimate fear that they would never be found alive, or at all.

Regardless of how long they had been “in trouble”, we knew they had been exposed to the cold for over 30 hours. What were they doing? Were they keeping warm? Were they talking and finding ways to keep alert? Had they eaten? We knew that typically they only pack chips and junk food and a few bottles of Gatorade. They must be hungry and dehydrated. They had snow that they could melt, so not all hope was lost. But were they scared? Were they in a location they knew they would never be rescued from? Were they scared? Was one injured and the other struggling to help?

(Were they dead?)

Amanda and I were paralleling our behaviour. I don’t think we ever did voice what was truly going on as far as fears were concerned. A concerted effort to not put any ideas into the other’s head and ultimately not speaking it out loud because that made it so real.

The first good news came a few hours after. We got word that a locality was found. That was all. No confirmation of what that meant. That was incredibly frustrating. Yes, it was good news. At least they knew for sure where to really narrow their search.

I believe it was at that point, at no risk of damaging visible potential sled tracks of the lost sledders, the hill was then covered with community residents who had heard of the search and came out in droves to comb the area with their own snow machines.

I can’t tell you how proud I am to be in a community that comes together in these situations and for no other reason than to find these two and not leave that to chance, is truly beyond words of appreciation. It was unbelievably touching to learn that Tumbler Ridge refused to sit idle and allow anything tragic to happen, to the best of their ability. I worried for them as well. I hoped that nobody else would get themselves in danger. But at the same time, I was so grateful they were able to go and help in whatever way they could and whatever way made them at least feel like they could help. It is very hard to sit by.

Not long after hearing that they had a place to search, we were told that they had them in sight. That was the hallelujah moment, even though we didn’t know of their physical condition. We were told the helicopter could not land very close and that they were given snowshoes by ground team and they walked out unassisted. What? They weren’t missing limbs? They weren’t incoherent? Nobody needed to be strapped to a back board and airlifted out to Grande Prairie?

But I called it. I knew Mike would shrug and chalk this up to another adventure. He had tested my belief that his luck would never run out. And I am happy to report it is still intact.

Still not sure if they had frostbite or hypothermia, we had to wait for their return to town. Knowing they were alive and safe was, of course, such a relief. But waiting to actually see them come in the door was a pretty long wait too. We had no idea how long that would be. We had been told that if SAR felt it was important to take them to a larger centre to be examined, that they would save the time and extra transportation of going by ground after the fact.

Sure enough, he opened the front door, bent to console our frantic dog and never made eye contact. If you know Mike, that was not intentional. It was him doing what he considered a normal sequence of behaviour. He called out that he would be right back. I stood there, stupefied as I watched him back his truck and empty trailer into the driveway. He drove home?! Unreal. Just another day.

They got checked out at the health centre and thankfully not a hair harmed on them. Cold? Yes. Hungry? Yes. Exhausted? Yes. In trouble? A little. Gentle lectures would be forthcoming. And for them, their greatest fear the whole time was what their wives would do to them when they got home. I joked with Amanda when she called after we knew they were being brought out. “Oh my God, they’re OK. Now we must kill them.”

My endless thanks to Tumbler Ridge SAR, Fort St. John, Prince George, the many medical personnel on standby here in town, RCMP and my immense gratitude to those who volunteered in the effort to find the guys. Family and friends were a terrific support and kept us all connected. Instead of blood sisters, Amanda and I are now “snow sisters”.

And our boys aren’t allowed to play together ever again.