As part of our ongoing process of sharing valuable information on backcountry travel and practices, we have an extraordinary (and very lucky) story of one man’s overnight survival ordeal in the backcountry/wilderness near Mt. Baker Ski Area.
Saturday, January 28. Around 2 p.m. two snowboarders (a 21- and 22-year old) from the Czech Republic via Vancouver B.C. were doing laps into The Canyon when they decided to ride the Gunner’s Bowl Cliff band line. For some reason, one went 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, past the backcountry warning signs and then dropped down into the Swift Creek drainage.
This is where fellow riders who 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 from the way out). If someone had stopped him and told him to follow them out, the story could have ended there. But 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 then reach White Salmon base area. In fact, he was going further from the ski area and deeper and deeper into rugged avalanche terrain in the National Forest (toward Lake Ann) and then into the Wilderness Area.
At 4:20 p.m. his friend alerted us that he had not seen him since they separated about 2 p.m. We mobilized our pro patrol into Swift Creek within 20 minutes and found his tracks four minutes later. However, this young man had over a two-hour head start and darkness was setting in. Mountain Search and Rescue (SAR) was called and mobilized. Our pro patrol crew kept view of the tracks; however, the tracks were randomly going up the backside of Shuksan Arm, traversing through avalanche fields, climbing up huge avalanche paths, dipping
in and out of forests – and now it was getting dark.
At the time we began the search, conditions were at the point where our crew even considered not responding. There are times when we have not initiated a search due to the risk it presents to our crew. We decided to go, but with darkness coming on, the temperature rising, and the wind and precipitation picking up, I told the pros it was time to come back.
The pros are equipped with avalanche 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 temperature rose and avalanche conditions worsened, they skinned back in about one hour.
Our crew of eight handed over the search effort around 8 p.m. to SAR who then searched with three crews on terrain acceptable for the conditions.
At 2:30 a.m., SAR abandoned their search for the night without finding the lost snowboarder. The weather was tough. The temperature was around 35 degrees at the base, with rain, mixed snow and rain, wet snow at higher elevations and winds hitting 52 mph with very low visibility. The snowboarder was on his own for the rest of the night.
Sunday, January 29. We regrouped with SAR Sunday morning. The weather was mixed snow and rain and ugly. SAR prepared to send more teams out as we prepared to open the ski area. They had put 20 people or more into the search effort. At 9:18 a.m. our pro patroller PJ (who was also on the search the previous night) was doing a boundary check along the Chair 8 Rumble Gully area and – miracles of all miracles – sees 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 on the backside of Shuksan Arm and had made it to the 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 hunkered 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 called in and said, “Jakub is cold, tired and wet, but stable and smiling.” Jakub had done this trek mostly in the dark and had covered about four miles over 3,000 vertical feet through some of the most extreme mountain terrain there is.
After a warm-up (a few toes may have frostbite), a doctor’s exam and a breakfast burrito in our aid room, he was basically fine, in very good spirits and thankful. To quote him: “I have lucky.” His friends pitched in on the rescue fees, and they are on their way home.
PREVENTION. For the sake of fellow skiers and snowboarders, we ask everyone to not be bashful if 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. They need your help.
- If you see someone who looks unqualified in the backcountry, 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 two-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 lifesaver – it may only help to find your body.
- Some people are from mountain areas that are heavily populated and they may believe 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 Mt. 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 Sheriff’s Department. X
Duncan Howat is president and general manager and Gwyn Howat is the operations manager of Mt. Baker Ski Area.