Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Sam Black's Rescue - The Whistler Question story

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A tired and relieved Samuel Black sat down to a steaming bowl of soup at the Brew House. It was the first decent meal the hiker had had in six days after the Vancover hiker became closed in by the fog on a ridge northwest of the Brandywine Glacier last week. The hiker was joined by a team of people he referred to as “saints” — the search and rescue personnel who airlifted him from the ridge last Thursday (Aug. 26).

“I am just so grateful to them,” Black said of his rescuers. Black, 39, said treating present members of the search and rescue team to lunch and a couple of beers was the least he could do. He was embarrassed by the ordeal his intended two-day hiking trip had caused and how the situation could have been avoided if he had not risked camping off the trail and stayed within the marked path. “It was just an exercise in stupidity,” he said. “It is just a dumb way to travel.”

Despite Black continually expressing the stupidity of his actions, his 25-plus years of hiking played a key role in his rescue. Black set out on Friday, Aug. 20, to hike to the peak of Brandywine Mountain, then travel across a ridge into unmarked territory. He had surveyed the route two weeks earlier, ensuring he would be able to cross the ridge without complications. He set out on his planned hike with a pack weighing less than 30 pounds, enabling him to climb the 7,200 feet with speed.

The avid hiker, who spends most of his weekends in the mountains, described the route as “not a hard hike.” Black easily reached his pre-determined spot within approximately seven hours, leaving him to sit back in the silence and enjoy the wilderness and panoramic mountain views. The quietness of hiking alone and standing on what felt like the top of the world is what fuels Black’s passion for adventuring the outdoors. The view was so spectacular that Black decided to set up camp. He wanted to wake up in the morning to the same mountain vistas. However, grey clouds pooling in the distance foreshadowed a different sort of wake-up call.

Black woke early Saturday morning to dense fog, obstructing his view and his way out. Black said he decided to sit tight until the weather cleared, however long that might take. Day turned to night and Black zipped into his tent. Dinner was a choice of an energy bar, a bagel or a can of tuna. He had packed extra food as a precautionary measure; however, he didn’t know how long the unwanted weather would last, so he was careful to ration his minimal stock. In Vancouver, where Black was supposed to be meeting friends for dinner, a plate of food was kept for Black by friend Randy Hicks, who became concerned when Black didn’t meet the pre-arranged schedule.

Hicks notified officials and Whistler Search and Rescue instigated a search for Black on Sunday, Aug. 22. The weather that inhibited Black’s view was equally detrimental to search and rescue’s efforts. “If the weather had been good on Sunday, we would have found him,” said Brad Sills, search manager for Whistler Search and Rescue. “We were waiting for the weather to clear.” A patch of blue didn’t clear until Thursday morning. Whistler and Pemberton Search and Rescue teams were joined by additional teams from Surrey, the North Shore, Lion’ Bay, Coquitlam and Central Fraser Valley that morning. Within two hours of the weather clearing, Black was spotted and airlifted to Whistler.

In all, the searchers had covered 150 square kilometres of rugged terrain. Black was admitted to the Whistler Health Care Centre for a follow-up assessment and only a few hours later was discharged in good physical condition. Whistler RCMP Cst. Michelle Nisbet said Black began to show signs of low blood sugar and hypothermia after his ordeal. However, she said Black was physically sound. Coming out from the clinic, Black’s only evident trauma was his concern for the worry he had caused his parents. An emotional phone call over a cellular phone to his parents in Montreal ensued. “I love you, dad,” he said, fighting back tears.

For Black, the stress he caused his family, girlfriend and girlfriend’s family was the most dificult part. His girlfriend of eight years, Laura Crema, followed Black out of the clinic, holding Black’s uneaten sandwich. She was accompanied by her mother, who was there to support both Crema and Black. Crema drove up to Whistler immediately after he was reported missing. She was confident in her hiking partner’s ability to deal with the situation; however, there were moments of doubt. A week before, the couple had hiked together in the Banff area. She pulled out pictures of the two of them happily smiling on a mountaintop with a sunny backdrop — quite a different scenario from the one that played out on Brandywine Mountain last week. “He is no stranger to the mountains,” she said. “He did the right thing.”

Black, an assistant philosophy professor at Simon Fraser University, is currently on sabbatical and said he doesn’t intend to pursue any more adventure-hiking studies in the future. “When you put 10 to 20 people out like this, it really sticks with you,” he said at the table of newfound friends at the Brew House. “I owe my life to the Search and Rescue teams who brought me out today.

As soon as the weather cleared, the helicopter search worked. Black did everything right -- save he didn't fully recognize the true risk of hiking off trail alone in that region. He had appropriate gear for that type of hike, he had surveyed the region, he had a friend expecting his return, his truck marked the spot -- and he stayed where he was despite running out of food. He was found because he did everything right, and because the weather cleared (just barely) in time.

S&R still ended up covering a vast amount of terrain -- and still came up empty handed with a conscious cooperative subject in "plain view" -- until the weather cleared. This is a vast realm.

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