If you choose to read any or all of this post, please make sure to read the end. There are lessons to be learned from this, which I think are important to share.So I’ve learned that the Stein Valley and I don’t exactly get along. This was the third year in a row where we’ve tried to tackle this massive park, and every year there’s been something that has stood in the way. The first year involved a creepy, half naked man following Mandy and I on the trail with a 6 pack of beer in his hand, at 9 in the morning; needless to say, we turned back and decided to call it a day. The following year, we did some more research, brought a friend, tried a different route, and still had an immense amount of difficulty finding the trail, which clearly is not well used. We had a blast bushwhacking our way around Blowdown pass, stumbling across a hut, a hidden lake and an incredible view over the valley. This made us even more determined to plan another trip, to finally hike through the Stein. We were prepared.
This years trip tested us. There didn’t seem to be a single moment where we weren’t focused and making the next tricky decision. Obstacle after obstacle presented itself. Each time, we strategically thought about our decisions. We worked together using our experience, common sense, gut instincts, risk analysis and always came up with the safest plan possible. We were tested, and we felt we had beat this trail. Until the last few moments of the very last day….
The three of us headed out ridiculously early on Saturday morning to beat the GranFondo traffic. We got to the trailhead around 10:00 and hiked about 20km to our first campsite. The next morning, after sleeping 12 hours, we figured we’d be able to hike about 25-30km seeing that the first part of the trail was straight forward, minus a few trees being down. To lighten our load, we ended up leaving some of our food in the bear cache as we knew we would be coming back this way – we had to, our car was parked on this side of the park. What we didn’t expect on day two, was having to route find and navigate most of the way making it only 5km in 7 hours. It was through a part of the forest that had been burnt to a crisp in the late 90s, leaving many trees fallen, exposed and loose sections of scree, trail markers inexistent and us covered in soot. We eventually relied only on our map and GPS as we tried to beat the sunset. The bushwhacking was thick, and included me having to be pulled up by a rope as my attempt to down climb a mild rockface didn’t exactly work. This damn trail!
We woke the next morning with the rain starting to set in. We decided to scratch our idea of heading back the way we came as it would be too sketchy with the exposed and unmarked areas with the change in weather. Instead, we headed east on the trial to Lytton. How we would get back to our car we hadn’t yet figured out, but we decided that this was at least safer than the portion of trail I would definitely not recommend. Lots of fresh bear poop in Grizzly territory and a bear banger later, we camped another night next to the Stein – beautiful. But still far from our car, and no other souls in sight.
Arriving in Lytton the next morning is where this interesting trip ramped itself up. It was eerie how completely empty the parking lot was – does anybody hike this trail? We ended up flagging down a car and hitching a ride from the trailhead with a toothless man named Jake, who drove us down a road with bear hides stretched out across backyards. All the while strategically using his name in the conversation, as we know this to be a safety mechanism used to distract a potential captor into making yourself appear more personable, hence safer. This trip!
We walked across the bridge into the town of Lytton, since the ferry was broken with a hole in the stern, and asked a few people for ideas of who would be happy to drive us to our car, 100km away. So, here we are walking around a town comprised of only 2000 people, covered in soot, smelling of that alluring backcountry perfume, with our packs on standing out like a sore thumb. Yes, this was indeed an adventure. A few hours later, a lovely lady at the Visitor Centre of Lytton arranged us a ride with a 65 year old hippie who had recently bought himself a new Tacoma. He was a retired logger, and now farmer and pine mushroom picker. A few dollars later, this kind and extremely interesting man drove us through Lillooet towards the Duffey, and up the treacherous logging road to our car at Blowdown Pass. About 10 minutes of Derek driving away, we realized that my car wouldn’t start. This, we thought once again, was our last straw. No lights were left on, no doors were open, but a mouse had decided to build a nest under the hood. We figured he was the culprit. It was on the verge of getting dark, and beginning to snow so we took yet another deep breath and decided that we would deal with this in the morning. So we hiked once again further up the logging road and set up camp for the night.We had a cold and starry night sleeping beside Blowdown Lake amongst the snow covered trees, pleased that we had surpassed all of the obstacles so far, adding on to the fact that the stove decided to stop working at this point. Another unwelcomed obstacle. We were still stressed about having to collect our extra food that we had left in the bear cache at the first campsite, but realized that at this point it was best to call this trip quits – We were mentally and physically exhausted. The food would have to wait until we collected it another day.
The next morning, with no other person or car in site, after all of these unusual and gritting events leading up to this, we thought long & hard about our decision and strategically decided that instead of hiking 12km down the logging road and hitching another 50km into cell range, the safest thing would be to send a message to Jeff asking for help. Being the handy and rational guy that he is, he’d be able to fix a possible mouse chewed engine. I knew that he would realize we were having car trouble, since the SPOT would be sent beside the car. The message was meant only for Jeff. What else could go wrong?
And here’s where it went horribly wrong. And what I want to share so that others can learn from this simple mistake.
Before we left for the trip, we sat down and we planned. We checked the weather, researched as much information as we could find, discussed our plan with other friends who had been in the area, and went over the map. We had our trip route laid out and given to our safety contacts. I checked my SPOT beacon online (an emergency satellite messaging device). Jeff was my email contact. Check. “We are okay” message written and ready to be sent. Check. I confirmed with Jeff which button I was to push if I only need YOU – the “helping hand” button. Check. Of course he thought that I had programmed him into the profile of THAT button, me not realizing that on a separate page of the online SPOT screen was where the contact info for this specific button was…… it was my sister and dad with a message that stated I was in serious need of help. My stomach sinks even just writing this. I had entered this in a year ago when I first bought the device, and had forgotten I had done so.
I thought that I had it all figured out; we had done everything right. We all had our own beacons, and I had double checked that Jeff was my only contact. Unfortunately, I had missed another screen. Just one click. Something so small, yet so vitally important.
What happened next is what I feel completely horrible and mortified about. This is the part which most of you saw on facebook. My sister and dad did everything right. They called the RCMP and SAR to send out a search party and alerted friends on social media to try and help. This is the part which shocked the three of us and made our hearts sink as we were walking down the road to meet Jeff, but instead were greeted by Pemberton Search & Resuce members. This is the part that I am so incredibly sorry for scaring Jeff, my family and friends. I can’t even begin to imagine how awful that message must have been received. I want to thank everyone in our lives who reached out and supported this sequence of events. I am so grateful for the support from my family, our close friends, the Squamish and Lions Gate Community. Thank you. I am extremely sorry for making you worry.
To the SAR and RCMP members, the unsung heroes. We can’t thank you enough. We have all learned so much from this. I have always believed that everything happens for a reason. Having a few days to reflect, I now know that there is a positive outcome to this. I am determined to educate others on wilderness preparedness and safety. The three of us are all emergency nurses, trained in wilderness medicine. We have taken numerous wilderness medicine/first aid courses, have extensive combined wilderness experience, and prepared HARD for this trip. We overcame obstacle after obstacle, were extremely prepared yet still made a mistake. It just goes to show that you can always be more prepared. Always.
THIS is what I want to share from our experience – I want to use this as an educational opportunity. To share the lessons that we have learned so that others may be safer and more prepared in the backcountry. Especially with the explosion of inspiring images on Instagram of people whisking out their hair on beautiful backcountry peaks – they make it look easy. They make it look safe and more possible than it might actually be. But with this risk comes even greater safety measures. I want to help be that person who helps educate others on the safety involved.
If I have any advice from this humbling experience, here it is:
BE PREPARED. KNOW how to use your safety equipment. If you think you know how to use it, practice it again. Practice, practice, practice. Prepare for the worst. Working in the ER, we see it all the time – “I never thought something like this would happen to me”. It always happens to someone, so prepare that it will happen to you.
- Do you have a way of messaging for help when out of cell range?
- Are your emergency contacts up to date, available, and RELEVANT for this trip?
- Do you know how to use your emergency device?
- Are the members of your party prepared for the worst? Every member of your team should be carrying a communication device with relevant contacts. NEVER rely on someone else to be more prepared than you.
- Do you have a trip plan, and does someone know when you will be returning?
- Do you have enough clothing and equipment to spend the night when the easy day hike goes sideways?
- Have you checked the weather? Are you prepared for rain/snow? A sudden change?
- Do you have jumper cables? Gas in your tank? If possible, check that your car will start before the last car drives away.
- Always keep all of your gear and food with you as you never know how your plans may change.
These are all such easy things to plan before heading out, but often get left out when the excitement, enthusiasm and sunny weather tend to brush it off. One thing I’ve learned in the backcountry is that mother nature always wins – so BE PREPARED.
For me, my next steps are to purchase a beacon which sends personal messages. I always thought I’d only need my beacon for when I was in serious trouble – the obvious emergency SOS button. What we learned was that this may not always be the case. Car trouble or a sprained ankle may be your biggest problem, and you may need to get help out in the middle of no-where but don’t want to call out the entire search party.
At the end of the day, we can’t beat ourselves up too hard. We learn the most when things don’t go as planned. As embarrassed or mortified as we may be, we have to take from it the positive and ideally share it with others. There’s always something to be learned, to be shared, and to grow from.
Thank you for reading our story.
– Thanks for this truth bomb Brene Brown :) –