Two local men spent a cold night in backcountry

Trent Ernst

 

It started as it often does: a quest for fresh powder. It ended with two local men spending the night lost in the woods.

Dallas Coulson and Mike Hanna were out in the Core Lodge area when they wound up taking a wrong turn, getting trapped in a narrow canyon.

Coulson says the two headed out at about 9:30 in the morning. “We went up and checked out Terminator, but couldn’t see anything,” he says. “So we went down to Arctic Cat meadows, where Mike got stuck a couple times.”

The last time they had been out, says Hanna, they had gone to the Back Meadows area and found a secret stash of fresh powder that was barely tracked. “We found it by following some other tracks from sledders,” says Hanna. “We wanted to go to the same spot.”

But a week or so later, the tracks they had followed were mixed in with a whole bunch of new tracks. “There were so many tracks that we weren’t sure which ones were the right ones,” says Coulson. “We started following a set of tracks. After a while, I realized it wasn’t the right way, but it looked like it wrapped back around.”

The two riders made their way onto a ridge. “It looked like the one we had been on before,” says Coulson. “‘I think we went right here,’ I said, so we went right.”

It was at that moment that a number of things transpired. The first was a thick patch of fog that rolled in. “This cloud settled on us as we started heading down. We were just putt-putting along because we couldn’t really see. When there was an opening, the trees were a long way down. I tried to brake, but I couldn’t do anything. We started going faster and faster.”

On the way down, the two hit a tree, but fortunately did no damage to their sleds. “We finally came to a stop. We looked back up, but realized there’s no way we could climb that thing, not with the sleds we had.” Even if they tried, says Coulson, the second rider couldn’t tell how the first rider was doing. So, the two decided to head down and to the right. “We figured the only way out was to head down,” says Hanna. “We’ve gone down chutes like this before, so it seemed like no big deal.”

But the chute turned into a valley. “There was a creek down there too; so we kept dodging creek holes.” This was at 12:30 p.m. or so, says Coulson. “We looked down and we could see some cutlines, which we decided to head for. We dropped down a little bit and discovered that we were in a creek bed.”

Wind had blown the soft fresh snow into huge drifts. Coulson says it would have been great riding, but after nearly every drift there was an open area where it dropped six or eight feet down to open water. “We had shovels and our avalanche gear, so we decided to cut a trail through.”

After two hours of making their way down the ever-more-difficult canyon, they realized they weren’t going to get out any time soon. The two tried to turn around but the snow was too deep, and they couldn’t get enough speed to get the machines up on top of the snow. The only way to go was down.

Coulson tried climbing as high as he could to see if he could get a cell phone signal. No go. After two more hours of struggling down the creek, they decided to make camp. “We kept going around corners, thinking this time we would find a way out, but it just kept getting worse, so we set up camp.”

Hanna says: “We realized it was going to get dark and we didn’t know where we were. We could have been a hundred feet from getting out, or a hundred miles. We didn’t know, so we figured we’d start getting wood.”

The two were able to get a good sized fire going, and were planning on spending the night. But life conspired against them. “We dug down about seven or eight feet. We broke the handle off my saw, and Mike’s wasn’t very big, so we couldn’t get a big fire going. But the fire just kept sinking down,” says Coulson. “I said to Mike, ‘I would have sworn that we hit solid ground’ but the fire kept sinking. My feet were wet the whole time. Mike had got snow into his boots. I caught one of my soles on fire trying to warm up.” Finally the fire went out, and at about 8:30, the two went back to digging their way out. “We made it another 200 metres or so in about four hours, and we set up there.”

This time, when they dug down, they hit solid ground. The two started another fire, and settled in for the night. Well, as settled as they could be. “Every half hour we’d have to jump out of the hole and get more branches for the fire,” says Coulson.

They cleared enough space around the fire for the two of them to sit, then settled in for the night. “We were six feet down and there were trees around, so we were well-sheltered from the wind,” says Hanna. But even so, they were in for a cold night. “Typically when it’s warmer than -10, I only wear a tee-shirt under my jacket,” says Coulson. “As the night went on, it got colder and colder.”

They tried placing spruce boughs on the ground to insulate themselves, but Coulson says he spent a lot of his time moving about, trying to warm various bits of his body. Every once in a while, he says, they would start up their sleds and use the built in hand warmers.

By this time, the two were reported missing. Sergeant Craig Learning says they got the call at about 9:30. An RCMP member went to the trailhead, where he joined a pair of members from Tumbler Ridge Search and Rescue (SARs). “Ultimately we are responsible for the search, but it’s SAR who did the hard work,” says Learning.

In the morning, members from Tumbler Ridge SARs were joined by search and rescue members from Prince George and North Peace/Fort St. John. Ground crews were dispatched, as well as a helicopter to perform aerial searches.

Back in the valley, the two were sure that people were searching for them, but they couldn’t really tell for sure. “At about nine in the morning, we started heading down again,” says Coulson. “We threw a bunch of spruce bows on the fire so it would smoke. It was really good going for about a hundred metres, but then we turned the corner and wow. It was bad. We moved about 50 feet in four hours. It was nearly 1, and we hadn’t heard anything at all, other than some squirrels and birds.”

The two came to a point where they needed to make a decision: keep going down the creek, or try and get up and out. While they were considering options, they heard a sound in the distance. “I identified it as a helicopter. Mike had a flare gun, and he was trying to get it out to set off a flare, but it wasn’t working, so I started waving a shovel. The helicopter started circling then I saw a hand wave.”

The helicopter disappeared for a moment, then returned, basically hovering over the edge of the valley. Coulson says the two wondered if they should stay there or head up and out of the valley, when out of the blue, “this guy comes skiing up the creek.”

It was a pair of search and rescue team members out of Prince George. They came bearing food and drink and some dry clothing. The two men began following their rescuers up and out of the valley, which was aided considerably when the second SARs member returned with snowshoes.

The two men made it to the helicopter, which flew them back to the Core Lodge.

While the two were prepared to spend the evening outside, Coulson says the experience has shown him the weak spots in his emergency kit. “After eight hours outside, anything liquid just froze up,” he says. “And all the bottles would melt faster than the liquid inside.” So, next time he heads out, he’ll have a small pot in his pack. Ditto a small hatchet and a good quality folding swede saw.

But the most important thing, he says, is a Spot Satellite messenger. “I’d heard about them, but only slightly,” says Coulson. “I had said to Mike, ‘I wish we had a sat phone,’ but I didn’t know about the Spot. Nobody talks about the Spot as a priority for snowmobiling. Everyone says ‘beacon, probe and shovel’, but this is awesome.”

Coulson says his Spot has already arrived. “If I had it, I would have used that help button at two on Friday, and they would have known we were all right, but needed help,” says Coulson. “The Spot will send text messages, or emails. If you hit the button that says ‘we’re fine’ it sends a message with the GPS coordinate. If you hit the other button it sends a note saying ‘we’re okay but need help.’”

A third button is the SOS button, which alerts SARs that something bad is going down.

Coulson said the two had enough supplies to keep going for an extra night, but is glad they were pulled out when they were. “I was born and raised in the north. I know how to camp in the winter time, but I don’t want to be forced into doing it. I had my beacon on all the time, but who is going to be using an avalanche beacon to search a 50 square mile area? They’re good within a hundred metres or so.”

Where did things go wrong, according to Coulson? At the top of the ridge. “That little bit of fog really screwed us up. At work we tell the truckers if you can’t see, stop. We should have followed that advice.”