I had a chance last weekend on the Aug. 31 to meet some real Squamish heroes. How did I come to meet them, you may ask? Well, they saved my life.
Over two years ago I moved from the small island of Ireland straight to Squamish, drawn by its claim as being “The Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada.” In many ways this slogan has proved true. Since moving here I’ve tried countless new recreational activities: rock climbing, skiing, hiking, mountaineering, mountain biking and the list of possible new activities never seems to diminish.
Last weekend I was engaged in one of my favourite activities very close to home, scrambling. Scrambling, for the layperson, is an activity somewhere between hiking and rock climbing. You don’t use ropes as the rock you scramble on is never vertical, but you do use your hands and feet and need to find holds to secure yourself and progress upward. In places the “exposure” or consequences of a fall could prove fatal.
I was engaged in this activity on a mountain visible from quite a few places in Squamish and the Highlands, but likely unknown to most of its residents. It’s named Omega Mountain and, with its neighbour, Alpha Mountain, they guard the entrance to the aptly named Lake Lovely Water in Tantalus Provincial Park west of Squamish.
We’d scrambled up the west ridge of Omega and were making good progress. We topped out on the summit plateau. We all sighed a collective sigh of relief. The dangerous portion of the ascent was behind us. From here it was a short ramble and we’d be on the summit. As we walked, I thought about how lucky I was to live somewhere where I could feel isolated from the rest of the world after only around seven hours of hiking.
“Pop.” I shouted out in pain as I looked down to see my left ankle collapse underneath me. A rock had rolled awkwardly when I’d put my weight on it. Something popped and the pain shot up my leg like a lightning bolt. In a cold instance I realized this fairly mellow hike had changed. My ankle was toast. It didn’t matter what was wrong with it; I could no longer walk.
That pleasant feeling of being isolated in the wilderness with my friends suddenly felt sinister.
I tried to work out how I could get back to camp, back to safety. I tried convincing myself the pain was in my head. I weighted my left foot and took a step forward.
I instantly fell to my knees; the pain was unbearable and there was no strength in that ankle.
The clouds hovering close above our heads that I’d earlier thought of as providing excellent lighting for my photographs now felt like an imminent problem. Would they turn to rain or drop down around us, obscuring our visibility?
The decision was made quickly. I needed to be extricated. Attempting to descend without full use of my legs would be too risky. We had cell reception at the summit but might lose it if we tried to get back to camp.
We called 911. They quickly informed the Squamish Search and Rescue of the situation and then we waited. With all my power, I willed the clouds to not move. There were clouds both below the summit and above it. I knew that if they moved in on us that any chance of a helicopter landing on the summit might be out of the question. We could easily be stranded.
Then we heard it, the “whop-whop-whop” of a helicopter approaching. With a huge shock to the senses, suddenly this large machine had dropped down on us, shattering the silence. SAR members quickly jumped out and prepped me for extraction. I was informed that this would be a “grab-and-go” due to the weather. In a matter of seconds I was bundled into the helicopter with my wife and we were gone.
In a matter of minutes I was at the Squamish Airport. A few minutes later I was at the Squamish Hospital.
It would be easy in hindsight to take for granted that I could make a call and less than an hour later have trained professionals just whisk me off a mountain top in a helicopter.
I don’t. I was extremely lucky in a number of ways. We had cell reception, we had daylight and we had clear weather on the summit but most importantly the volunteer, community-based organization of Squamish Search and Rescue exists.
Without their tireless, selfless efforts I can’t imagine how I would have gotten back to safety.
Whenever you see a rescue helicopter hovering near the Stawamus Chief or over our local mountains in Squamish, take a moment to think about these unsung heroes risking their lives 24/7/365. They’re volunteers and their organization is largely donation based. If you can spare any amount at all then donate to them.
Even if you don’t engage in activities that would require SAR, you more than likely have close friends and family that do. Without our donations they might not exist. The time difference from having a helicopter fly in from Vancouver instead of here in Squamish may be the difference between having to spend a night out exposed to the elements or being rescued within an hour of the situation. In my case it definitely would have.
For more information see here: squamishsar.org/
To the Squamish SAR, specifically Lindsey, Katie and Ben the pilot who saved me on Aug. 31, I can only say “thank you.” Any amount I donate won’t come close to the level of appreciation I have for your time and effort.