No Run Should Ever End with an Air Lift

Unfortunately, yesterday my run did.

Yes, I was that person that should have succumbed to Darwin’s theory.  Lost and on a ledge.

I’ve often read the facts of such stories but never the lead up… so I wanted to share my experience of how it all went down.

I set off about 3pm on a 35k run from Port Alberni to Qualicum Beach via back roads. The route itself was 40k, but I got dropped off partway in so I wouldn’t have to run on the highway. Based on google map directions it looked pretty darn straight forward.

I left later than I had hoped but I had a good flashlight and a fully belly. I was supposed to be out of the more challenging terrain and onto well traveled roads in about an hour and a half, before it got dark, and back to the folks for a late dinner. Or I had hoped.

In hindsight, I should have looked at the terrain map. Even with that simple button push the map went…

from this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 4.25.21 PM

To this:

comox search and rescue
I thought I was decently well prepared. I left the car with an energy bar, flashlight and most critically, my fully charged iPhone with a brand new battery.

Assuming there would be some dead spaces I took pictures of each turn and memorized the names of the roads.

I soon realized there were way more roads than Google Maps had documented, that the main roads were no more obvious than splinter roads and that signs did not exist. What I thought would be country roads were mountain roads. I should have turned back then, but not wanting to inconvenience anyone by driving back out to Port Alberni (and there is the true irony of the night), I forged on.

photo 2Started off pleasantly surprised by the view and climbs.

I was afraid to take a wrong turn, so at every intersection I would look at the Google Map and make sure I was following the blue dots. Between intersections (and there were many), I would shut my signals off to conserve battery power.

I got the intersection of Main and Highland (which happened to be the first marked trails) and put on the GPS since neither name was on my list. My phone went from 80%, to a thin red line, to dead.

Off.

Two helpless beeps and it was just me standing in the deep dark wilderness. No one anywhere. Not a sound to be heard.

I had climbed considerably, and as such, was now immersed in a winter wonderland. I again considered turning around but remembered all the intersections that I made it through relying on my GPS. And how many other roads there were.

I saw some ATV tracks in the snow and although I remembered this being a “stay to the left,” I figured I should follow the tracks. In a maze of dead-ends, tracks were probably the surest thing to lead somewhere.

I followed them for about an hour until they stopped abruptly at a Y-intersection. That, or the thickening of the heavy falling snow had covered them.

I decided to continue up to the peak to see if I could see city or highway lights.

The peak was incased by falling snow and fog. I could hardly see past the edge. No lights anywhere outside of a faint moon, struggling through the clouds.

I hoped the cold had triggered my phone’s untimely shut down, so I put it directly against my skin to warm it up. Even for just enough juice to get a quick check of the GPS and start on what would perhaps be a life or death memorization test.

70% battery and full bars. Hallelujah.

As I was madly memorizing the turns and taking photos, a call came in. 6:30pm. Must be my parents asking about dinner. I would tell them to start and that I was fine, just a little delayed.

It was, however, the RCMP. I couldn’t figure out why they were phoning so early in the night. I wasn’t even late yet.

Apparently when my husband John had run out to meet me, he did some quick pace calculations and decided something had gone horribly wrong. I was supposed have passed through the 17k road in the park in about an hour and a half and be on the main road before dark to run the rest with him.

The RCMP officer was out looking for a stolen car and John flagged her down. His phone would not connect but hers did.

She asked if I wanted a ride. The road looked passable via truck from where I was, so I reluctantly agreed. Fear that my phone would abandon me again and what can only be described as reverse claustrophobia was setting in.

I realized that if I turned my phone’s Bluetooth on, it would show my coordinates. Some time later, I sent the turn by turn list from the main road. I was hoping I would be an easy enough pick up, particularly since my battery was once again running down, but I could not have been more wrong.

photo 3

I felt terrible putting her out, but she indicated she would get the key from Search and Rescue for the gate and head up to get me.

Search and Rescue, however, knew the terrain was not passable by truck and immediately set up “base camp.”

At this point she texted me to let me know an ATV was coming.

I had no idea that half the island had come together to get me out. Or that they had set up some state of the art “Alli location station,” or that by 10pm both the Qualicum and Port Alberni Search and Rescue were out there.

I thought it had escalated to a couple guys on ATVs. And it was bad enough in my books for two poor people to suffer out there for my own dumb mistake.

Meanwhile, I ate my energy bar and did hill repeats to keep warm. I counted from 1-1,000 and back down  on every three foot steps to stay sane.

I did try to squat down and hug my knees but I got cold fast. Moving would keep me warm. Moving would keep me awake.

Staying sane was probably the hardest part. Sure, I was cold. Really cold. But I kept seeing and hearing stuff. A raven bobbing it’s head, a man in a black hoodie, a pile of square baled hay, an old truck, people talking, headlights.

Every time I started to hallucinate, I’d say out loud, “that’s not a thing,” and get back to my counting.

I’d also hit the alarm button on my flashlight every time I turned around at the top of the hill to scare the cougars off – and every 500 numbers, I would turn the signals back on and check my phone.

My phone became such a critical connection to the world. Almost as if it would bring me instantly back from this crazy place my mind kept going. And that little red battery bar was staring me down.

John told me that they were very close but would be forty minutes longer since I had wandered off trail and was no longer on a road.

Granted, I was rapidly loosing all mental capacity. But I was sure that I had followed a road up and was currently on a road.

I went to text back that I was absolutely positively on a road, but my phone died. And, this time, really died. I wasn’t sure the message sent.

And so feared that something was really wrong. And after 40 minutes past, and then one hour, and then two, was convinced.

I would later find out that the ATV rescuers were less than a kilometer away but that I was across a gulley and totally inaccessible via ATV, on foot, or otherwise.

I wondered if I should head down the mountain, thinking the searchers may have called it a night since visibility was degrading and a storm was rolling in.

I may still be lost, and without a phone again, but I remembered most of the turns from before. And getting off the peak of a mountain in a snow storm seemed reasonable.

I was worried though that the people who had come out for me would go all that way for nothing, and that I would be perhaps be endangering them if they were still looking for me, so I stayed put as per the original plan. Plus, if people that knew the area couldn’t get in, I wasn’t getting out.

I thought I heard things from time to time, but nothing that I heard was concrete enough to be certain it was not just in my head.

Four hours or so in, I heard an ATV, and it sounded like it was coming from the road. I sprinted the half mile back to the junction yelling in hopes of catching it. When I arrived, however, the fog had lifted enough off of that side of the peak to see that the noise was coming from the highway across the valley.

I thought briefly about making my way over to the headlights on the road. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t, since I probably would have gotten lost in the maze of roads below.

After I realized that I was chasing down something that was, “not a thing,” I started making my way back to my coordinates across the snowy ridge.

I saw some sort of a plane across the valley. Or at least I hoped I did. My track record was unreliable at best at this point.

I turned the strobe on my flashlight on and waived it all about, once again running and yelling across the cliff.

Maybe this plane would radio in about the crazy lady on the mountain top and tell the guy on the ATV where I was and I could go home, cuddle my family and never leave my house again.

The plane turned and started coming towards the ridge. At this point I saw the spotlight and realized that he was looking for me. Initially I felt a punch in the gut from the immense guilt that comes with requiring a helicopter rescue from your own stupidity.

That subsided rather quickly though, and I was soon consumed by fear that he would not in fact find me. It donned on me that I must be in trouble if they sent a chopper.

The helicopter turned right toward me and I started to sob. Saved.

This elation faded pretty quickly when he turned back. Not saved. He can’t see me.

Convinced he didn’t see me, I made huge figure-8s with my light, shined it on my reflective jacket, aimed it right into the helicopter, and generally just flailed like crazy.

For some reason I was sure that if the spot light was not on me, they didn’t see me.

I thought about jumping into the gulley where the spotlight was.

After having a look at the map, I’m glad I did not bring this plan to fruition as it probably would have meant plummeting through a layer of deep snow into a four kilometer free fall.

At one point, I doubled over on my knees for a moment: knocked back from the power of the chopper wind kicking up the newly fallen snow – and my own utter exhaustion.

I made several more attempts at raising my flash light but my arm would have none of it.

A little orange puffy suited man launched out of the bottom and I ran in his general direction (flash back to the sand storm at WTM: so much wind and so much sharp debris in my eyes).

He placed a U-shaped flotation type thing around my torso and warned me NOT to lift my arms. I would soon see why.

The helicopter took off and started slowly reeling us in. I had a feeling I shouldn’t look down… and I was right both times.

As I was suspended about a thousand feet in the air above a valley, orange jump suit rescue man was cracking jokes about how much fun we were having and if he could have my phone for a selfie. Even flying through the air attached only to a life preserver, and definitely not having fun of any sort, he totally made me smile inside.

They put me in the helicopter, fastened me down, filled my shirt with heating pads, covered me with blankets (noticing I was still shivering, one man took his own off and added it to the pile) and warmed me up. They checked my pulse and made sure my extremities were intact. I declined a hospital trip since they can’t cure feeling incredibly dumb.

Orange jump suit hilarious rescue man took that selfie.

I inhaled the best ham sandwich I have ever had and guzzled just enough water to make myself feel very queasy.

The chopper insisted on staying until John arrived at the Qualicum Airport. Something about not leaving a person they just found on a mountain in a parking lot.

When the police came to get a statement, I was sure they were going to give me what for. I deserved it.

Yet another heart warmingly kind and understanding person.

He reassured me that people make bad decisions all the time and that those decisions have ramifications, that often call for use of essential services… whether it be a broken leg skiing or relying on a malfunctioning iPhone in remote areas.

Bottom line: I alone made a huge mistake that cost many amazing people time and resources. That feels pretty terrible.

It happens even to people that don’t think it will happen. In fact, it is probably to those people it most often happens.

What struck me was the amazingness of the people that helped me. Beyond words amazing. Every single one of them.

Thank you just doesn’t cut it to all the people that came together to get me off that mountain, and their families.

If you are looking for a tax-receipt eligible donation this year, it’s a worthy cause. Especially when it’s you or someone you love out there.

Arrowsmith Search and Rescue

71 thoughts on “No Run Should Ever End with an Air Lift

  1. Stuff happens to all of us. Sometimes really dangerous stuff when we are in part the authors of our fate. The true test is what we do when there are very real risks and no clear answers. You passed that test Allison, I am proud. Dad

      1. It is ABSOLUTELY his fault! If you could have seen the stuff he pulled as a kid/young adult in Montreal. If they ever develop the capability to do partial brain transplants, you do not want his!

  2. omg, i love you alli! you are a superstar and continue to be such an inspiration. you are not dumb in the least. in fact, quite the contrary – you were well-prepared. you know how all those wise gurus advise us to do something that scares us every day? i’m thinking that there probably just aren’t that many things out there that do scare you. you have to resort to the stuff that adventure movies and Readers Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories are made of… xo

  3. Hmmmm. Maybe get a gym membership, eat more ham sandwiches & get a wee bit chubbier just because. Too safe? Naaah — just a whole other blog. Take care!

  4. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been trying for years to get people to prepare for the outdoors. It’s no different to putting on a seat belt or buying insurance. You don’t want things to go wrong but sometimes they do. I’m a team leader, rope rescue team member, advanced swiftwater rescue tech and ice rescue technician with Arrowsmith Search and Rescue. I’m also an athlete. From experience, I carry basic equipment to improve on a bad situation. Every time I venture into the wilderness, I carry the essentials to be able to survive a miserable night or help someone I may find on the trails. No one intends for sh*t to go down, but when it does, having a degree of preparation can make the difference between life and death. Oh, and it also saves dozens of volunteers from having to give up whatever they’re doing to save you from the consequences of your actions.

    1. Exactly. I always carry at least the seven essentials hiking, and I should have had them out there too. First problem was that I thought a fairly major road ran through and was not prepared for the terrain. Second mistake was that I was unprepared for s**t… third was not turning around while I still had the chance. Thank you. So much.

      1. I am a search manager and a rope rescue team member for Powell River, thank you for your story, we in the GSAR community don’t get to hear about most stuff after the rescue. and here is a good tip, if you think you are lost, don’t wait, call for help then, most people will never admit that they are lost, one has to admit to them self that they are lost then after you do that stay put.

      2. Great tip. If the RCMP hadn’t called me, I wouldn’t have called. I also would have probably run myself into the bush and run my cell battery right down. Then those fine people looking for me would have had to spend even more time freezing their butts off on my account!!

  5. Thanks for taking the time to write that and share it. All of the details you wrote and your maps vividly describe what you went through. I’m really glad you’re OK. Would you be comfortable with my search + rescue team using the story you wrote as a way to have insight on a lost person’s experience? It would be helpful for our training.

  6. That route is extremely confusing these days with all the criss crossing logging roads. In good weather, with great equipment, we were turned around a bunch of times. As a SAR volunteer that was paged out that night I can say with 100% certainty that no one feels ‘put out’ by your unfortunate circumstance. SAR is our own version of adventure racing.

  7. Reblogged this on JUNE JULY FOGUST and commented:
    As an Alberni Valley Rescue Squad member who was called out on this search, it’s good to hear the perspective of the missing runner. Thanks for the post, Allison. I like what you said in the comments about carrying the seven essentials; preparation for the worst-case scenario is key. Even in the summertime, long-distance runners often run into problems due to lack of gear carried.

  8. Well written account, and thanks for taking the time to do this. The media does such a terrible job at reporting on SAR.

    I’d like to offer a quick opinion, not meant to criticize your actions, but just some perspective from a SAR volunteer.

    I’m been involved in many rescues where the subjects rely on their phone as their GPS, and get into trouble because of it. I also write a blog about SAR and technology.

    Over the years we have seen many of the same issues you had; unreliable signal, power issues, decreased accuracy. I wrote about this a few years back;

    http://blog.oplopanax.ca/2011/05/why-you-shouldn%E2%80%99t-use-smart-phones-for-backcountry-navigation/

    There is so much on the internet about how you can use these things as your GPS, and how great and accurate they are. Over 15 years of SAR volunteering, over several hundred SAR tasks, we’ve ended up talking to lost people on their smart phones with the last gasps of a dying battery more times than I can count. A very common story. Understandable that people think they would work, as it seems to be common wisdom, and almost nobody is talking about the edge cases.

    The fact is, unless you have a spare battery, the primary use of any cell phone should be as an emergency communications device. I’d recommend a dedicated backcountry GPS unit that is waterproof and runs on alkaline batteries, and keep the phone in a waterproof case or zip lock bag until it’s needed.

    People get lost all the time, and many of those feel embarrassed to talk about it. I’m glad you’re not as there’s a lot to learn from people reading about your experience. Thanks for writing.

    1. Wish I had read that a few days ago. This information needs to get out there – thanks for keeping people safe out there on so many fronts. It’s definitely incredibly embarassing but it’s the least I can do to own up to it.

  9. Yo mama, eerily similar to what happened to me. I spent a night just below Flat Iron off the Coquihala in minus 3, soaked to the bone. And had to be air lifted. I never thought that would happen to me – and like you, I did a stupid thing and then compounded it with another stupid thing. I can relate to the sobbing when the chopper came, and the bit of panic when I realized I was in trouble. I am so thankful to live in a country where so many of us care for each other. I am so glad you are ok and that this ended well.
    Blessings to you.
    Handsomened

  10. Thanks for sharing your story. When my husband and I hike I always insist we carry emergency essential gear. Sometimes he balks but he eventually sees my point. We have so far never had to use it but your story inspires me to continue to do so. The portion of the story that involved orange jumpsuit man made me laugh. :-). Hope you are compassionate enough to yourself to realize it was just a moment of bad judgement. Again thanks for sharing.

  11. something bothers me in the whole story, the fact that you claim google hasn’t got all the road documented, well i have recreated your route and there is street view available on your route so how is it that google was lacking?

    1. Fair enough Gaby. They have a route that goes through on Google Maps for you to follow if you want to run from Port Alberni to Qualicum. That’s the one I followed (or tried to follow.) It looks really simple. But that’s not how it really is. They haven’t updated it for more thab three years and now, along with the few roads that show on Google Maps, there are heaps of other roads all about the same size going all over. None of them are on Google Maps but in real life it’s just a big road maze. That’s exactly why I headed out (not to excuse my devestatingly poor decision making) – it just looked like a fairly main artery cut right through. Sorry I wasn’t clear in the post. Did that make more sense?

  12. As one of the two Arrowsmith SAR members who were out there on our quads looking for a way to get to you, I’m sorry it took so long to get you out. At one point we were only 800 meters from your location but were separated by an extremely deep ravine and a mountain top that was impassable even on foot, in that weather. Those logging roads and trails change all the time. I’m glad you kept your wits about you and we managed to get you helicoptered out safely. Thanks for writing about your thoughts and experiences.

    1. What? I’m sorry I risked your life and squandered your time for my dumb mistake! You guys are amazing. I felt a lot less silly with you incredible people not being able to get to me! But no less silly for going in the first place. Words really cannot express how indebted I am to you and the rest of your team. You guys are fearless, selfless and competent than I could ever dream of being. In short, I’d like to be you when I grow up. So so so much thanks.

    2. It’s just so awesome to hear from you. Especially because I never got to meet you face to face but you were so critical in my rescue. My sister and husband were totally blown away by you though. They should make a movie about you guys and what you do. I honestly think the world would be a better place if everyone knew that people like you were in it. Sorry to drag you out for half the night and have gotten myself into such a tricky spot. Words honestly will never do it… but I really hope you guys know that I got to hug my daughters again because of you. I’ll never forget you guys even though I never did get to meet you.

      1. Your so welcome and thanks for the compliment. Give your daughters a hug for us. They have a great mother, who kept her wits about her when needed.

  13. I am so glad you are safe! I worked in Marine SAR off Nova Scotia and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and managed several vessels with SAR mandates. You were as prepared as you needed to be given the public information available, which is a lot more than most cases I was involved with. In Marine SAR error #1 is not leaving a voyage plan. I don’t know enough about GSAR to comment on that, but John knew your plans and was prepared to raise the alert. That saved your life.

    1. nancytoby, no SAR group supports billing. People get into difficulty in all aspects of life without being billed. The last thing SAR volunteers want is for people to delay making a call. Apart from the main issue of the trauma around people dying, it’s a lot easier to find a responsive subject who has called early and stayed put in a secure location.

      1. Thanks Michael. That’s what they told me… that and that for the helicopter is was that or a training drill. Makes me feel a little better… but still pretty hard to swallow.

  14. Epic kindness and humility on the part of the Lost, the Finders and even the Commenters. The latest batch of iPhones, 5 and up have been notoriously unreliable in the cold. Whereas I could trust my old 4S to last most of the day in my pocket in winter, I have found that my 5s won’t even survive 20 minutes in my pocket in anything below 0 C. And yeah, those Google maps with all their trails are pretty unreliable. Your photo looked like it was shaping up for an epic day! Glad all finished well.

  15. Thank you so much for your article.. In writing so honestly and articulately about your experience I am sure you have helped others to prepare for the same circumstances. You may well have saved a life.

    PS. Search and Rescue is always looking for ” a few good people”.

  16. thanks for addressing my question Yo Mama So Fit , well i’m glad you’re OK, i won’t judge you because i have no idea how i would behave if i was in your place, but knowing myself and based on past experiences, which luckily turned out fine, i would have probably made the same decisions as you did, even though common sense should have made us turn back
    based on one of the above comments about unreliability of the iPhone 5, i am going to take this opportunity and recommend the Sony Xperia Z3, not only waterproof but the battery life is a “monster” even in the cold, i get 2 full days out of a full charge and i use it for all kinds of stuff, not just standby.

    1. Gaby, just a quick note that many people get into difficult situations precisely because they trust technology. Really, if you don’t use map and compass, and have a good understanding of how topographical information relates to time and effort required, it’s a lottery whether your phone will be of help. Even a fully specced backroad gps with topo software can only be of so much help. All too often gps units and cellphone gps become tools to tell you where you’re lost. Tying together your experience along with the gps coordinates and what you see on a map can let you actually plan your next moves with some degree of confidence that you’ll be improving, not compromising your current situation. The wilderness, whether logged or not, changes constantly and has a habit of disappearing people. It is not like the built environment or parklands that we become familiar with.

  17. What an experience, thanks for sharing the story. Only two things come to mind in reaction. 1) that could have been me, I am more than capable of running-route decisions like that (says my wife!) and 2) wish I was there – sounds like a fantastic run, except for the getting lost, nearly dying and needing to be airlifted part. But really, I’d go in an instant.
    Lorne

    1. Haha. Some of us think differently for better or for worse. Like my mom says, “It’s a good thing I have a calm head, the bad thing is that it’s on my husbands shoulders” – thanks Lorne.

  18. OMG, Alli!!! Someone must have been helping you out there, and I hope they got their wings!! So glad you made it!!

  19. Allison, thanks very much for sharing this story. I’m sure that you’ll spend a lot of time thinking, “If only…”, and that’s a good thing! It’s hard to find a balance sometimes between challenging ourselves and living a deadly dull life. I’ve seen logging roads in the mountains from a distance, and I can understand that they would really add to confusion. You are so lucky that your hubby had your back and made sure that you were checked in on, and that your phone was functional at that point. I’m taking Wilderness Survival next weekend, and I’m very interested in whatever insights that the course will provide. Hello to your dad, Chuck, we go back a long way!

  20. im a new member with ASAR, and so this was one of my first calls. we were driving all the unmarked roads trying to find you for hours so its not surprising you got lost on them on foot. we were across the valley whistling to you when the 442 helicopter arrived. it was an amazing sight to see that pick up. glad to hear you are all right 🙂

    1. Wow. Thanks for saving me – sorry to drag yoi out into the dark of night searching. I thought I heard you whistling back! I wasn’t sure if yelling was helpful or not since it seemed to echo through the valley. Thank you so much. I wish I would have been able to say that in person.

  21. Although it’s not specific to athletes, I have a suggested “preparedness kit” that is versatile enough to transfer between different activities listed here or to form the basis of a home emergency kit-

    https://www.facebook.com/OutsiderAdventuresInc/photos/a.189060347805630.49941.158903234154675/878587038852954/?type=1&theater

    Basically it covers the first needs and is light enough for biking, hiking, kayaking etc. Although it’s a bit heavy for trail running, I’d at least carry a knife, firestarting blocks and spark tool/matches, a large, good quality survival blanket, basic first aid and a headlamp. A whistle and food are essential. I’d practice stopping under controlled circumstances during a run and firestarting/shelter building. I carry cord to turn one of my 2 survival blankets into a tarp shelter and wrap the other around me. Fire is great for heat, light, signalling your position, morale and to keep unwanted animal attention away. I carry a metal cup to heat water and some oatmeal or noodle sachets. It’s amazing how these few items allow you to turn a potentially helpless situation into a miserable but survivable night.

    There are some more useful tips and galleries of activities on Outsider’s FB page.

    https://www.facebook.com/OutsiderAdventuresInc?ref=hl

    1. I need some way to share this. Great information. Especially about the survival blanket tent! It’s easy to carry two in a running pack. Do you have a blog post I could repin. This is brillant…

  22. This is a really great public service you have done by blogging about this! A perfect cautionary tale. Would you mind if I post it in full on my blog at Alberniweather.ca? It is worth more people in the area both knowing the risks and knowing the amazing work our SAR folks do!

  23. If you ever buy an Android phone, I have written a free navigational app which uses Open Cycle Maps. These maps have more roads and trails on them than Google Maps does. The app is called “RouteGuide” and is available on Google Play.

  24. I judge most stories by their endings, so this one gets the thumbs up rating.

    If it hasn’t already been mentioned, please take a look at http://www.AdventureSmart.ca. This is the website forms part of our national search and rescue prevention programs. The website helps educate on alerting devices (ie phones vs GPS or PLBs), the Three Ts (Trip Planning, Training and Taking the Essentials). It has information for specific outdoor activities but also good generic information for all outdoor activities.

    I would also suggest getting a group of friends together and inviting your local SAR Team to do a Survive Outside presentation and maybe a Hug a Tree presentation for the younger outdoor crowd.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It has obviously started some great dialogue.

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