Not a ray of sunlight remained as a US Coast Guard helicopter searched above the Columbia River Gorge for Phil Borcyens, who was hanging on to the lip of a cliff ledge for dear life. He'd spend the next 10 hours like that.
After he'd been safely rescued, Borcyens admitted that he'd done "everything wrong" when it comes to safe outdoorsmanship in the Pacific Northwest. More: Ten Essentials for Outdoors Survival
He was hiking alone. He did not have a map or compass. He wore a cotton shirt. He carried no supplies. And he did not have a plan.
Asked what lesson he'd learned, Borcyens warned others not to repeat his mistakes.
“Please, if you’re hiking anywhere – have a plan!” he said.
Life or Death Excercise
Another winter is nearly over and another season of dramatic rescues - and tragic deaths - has come and gone. A string of lost-then-found hikers, climbers, skiers and travelers made the news for making poor decisions or getting caught unprepared in difficult circumstances.
The question: If you're lost does it matter if you're prepared for the worst?
The victim: Grant McOmie, playing the role of lost-in-distress hunter returning to camp via unknown, unmapped shortcut. I end up lost.
The rescuers: Sharon Ward, veteran Search and Rescue coordinator, and Kunga, veteran rescue dog.
I wore cotton clothing from head to toe. Boots were traded for lightweight tennis-style shoes. Safety gear and equipment were left behind.
I wandered the woods at sunset and soon found myself miserably wet, shivering from cold and waiting for a rescue. Daylight was running out.
The terrain was steep and uneven. I could not see where I was going or which way to continue.
Getting lost on purpose can be serious business. To duplicate a real search and rescue scenario I gave up all my equipment and intentionally forgot to dress warmly or even acclimate to my surroundings with a map or compass.
Ward has found people in all sorts of situations: "People in creeks, people in trees, people buried in caves, people hiding themselves, people walking and yelling, people grabbing the dog -- you name it, I have found folks for every different type of scenario."
Turns out I did one thing right!
Out of fear of falling in the steep, uneven terrain I finally parked myself next to a tree stump and decided to stay in one place.
It was just too dangerous to wander around in the woods in the dark.
From a distance, after what seemed hours of waiting, I heard shouting – and of all things – ringing bells!
“Grant – we're coming!”
It was Sharon Ward and her search team. Ringing bells, attached to Kunga's collar, helped me hear them from a mile away. I knew salvation was near.
When I saw Kunga coming toward me I could not help but crack a smile. As the searchers came into view, flashlights piercing the darkness, the grin broke into a mile-wide smile across my face.
Learning the hard way
Getting lost is bad enough. Getting lost in the dark can lead the mind to play tricks. Noises are heard, visions appear, sounds that are familiar in the daylight become suspect and even scary.
Certainly, I knew my rescuers would find me, but I really didn’t know when.
I did know that if I had even a few of the ten essentials – like fire for warmth and light or water to quench a thirst – I’d have been far more comfortable while waiting for rescue.
There were quite a few lessons learned on my exercise – lessons learned the hard way.
I hope you do better when you head outdoors this winter or spring.