Victor’s Insider Scoop on An Unexpected Moment of Weakness When I Had to Depend on Others …
March 2nd, 2012 | top of page
We entrepreneurs like to think of ourselves as the strong, independent type. In fact it’s an essential characteristic to survive. But, just as there are times in business when you need the help of other people to survive (you just can’t do everything yourself), the same is true in life.
The following is a reprint of a magazine article that was the cover story in the August 1979 issue of Calgary Report. It details a time in my life when I literally needed others to survive.
A RESCUE DRAMA
After five lonely days on a four-foot ledge
As darkness approached on Saturday afternoon of the August holiday weekend, the Banff warden service received a routine overdue alert. Two climbing instructors were a day late getting back to the National Army Cadet Camp. They had left a week before to climb ice-covered Mt. Bryce. It was too late that night to begin a search, but shortly after nine the next morning, chopper pilot Jim Davies lifted from a baseball field behind the Lake Louise ranger station with alpine specialists Cliff White and Clare Israelson, and the slings and ropes needed for a quick rescue. An hour later, however, the wardens knew their task would be neither quick nor straightforward. Climbers Norman Letnick, 21, and Victor Allison, 26, were apparently trapped on nearly perpendicular slopes, and the increasingly unsettled weather was making helicopter work at high altitudes risky.
Meanwhile, thousands of feet above them, and 10,200 feet above sea level, a discouraged Victor Allison sat alone, tied to a four-foot wide ledge. Earlier that morning his partner, despairing of rescue, had begun a bold solo attempt to bring help. However, Mr. Allison could do no more than wait—as he had done for four days and nights—ever since a falling boulder had smashed his elbow and left the broken bone exposed. That accident scuttled the pair’s attempt to scale frozen Mr. Bryce.
“I heard the rock coming,” recalled Victor Allison from his bed in Calgary’s Foothills Hospital after surgery last week. “But since I was tied on (to an ice screw buried in the glacier) I could only move a couple of feet.” The boulder, perhaps 500 pounds of limestone, had been loosened by the warm afternoon sun. After the accident Mr. Letnick climbed past his partner to the rock ledge several hundred feet away. Gradually, painfully, Mr. Allison was able to crawl to the same position, holding the rope and using the footsteps prepared by Mr. Letnick. Once secure on the ledge the two settled in to wait for rescue.
North Face of Mt. Bryce from about the 9,000 ft. level
They were reasonably prepared for emergency. Both carried sufficient clothing—wool socks, knickers, wind pants, mountain jackets, bivouac sacks (nylon body sacks for such unscheduled stops) and perhaps the most important, foam insulation pads—and they had a full day’s ration of food, including granola, a chunk of salami, peanut butter, some cheese and bread, and a light-weight mountaineering stove and a half litre of white gas. “Neither of us was expecting to die,” says Mr. Allison. “Unless the temperature plummeted to 30 degrees below. We were well equipped, and we were surviving.” They had signed out for a Friday afternoon return to the cadet camp, and expected to be found by Saturday afternoon at the latest.
Almost a mile below them, Bryce Creek burbled into the British Columbia wilderness. To the two climbers perched on their ledge, the noise began eerily to mimic the drone of helicopters. On their second day, in fact, they did hear a chopper making a routine pick up thousands of feet below. By the fourth day on the ledge, the climbers concluded that a rescue search had begun, failed and then been called off. Thus, Mr. Letnick tried an abortive climb out on Sunday morning. Back at the cadet camp, however, the other instructors had decided to give the pair a day’s grace, figuring it was reasonable to be a bit late on a six day trip. As it turned out, that 24-hour delay almost cost the climbers their lives. While Saturday had been perfect flying weather, Sunday was not. “If it had closed in,” says rescuer White, “they could still be up there.”
On Sunday morning, after the rescuers failed to find the climbers in their initial flight, pilot Davies began again at the base, taking his $300,000 Bell Jet Ranger through 200 foot traverses of the probably climbing path. At 10,000 feet, one of the spotters at last spied Allison, waving weakly. No one could see Letnick. With thunderstorms now passing every hour, coupled with the dangerous downdrafts by the mountain’s face, the crew knew that a simple vertical pick-up was impossible.
From Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay, the best rescue wardens were summoned. Another chopper was brought in from Jasper, and used to ferry the arriving climbers from the park freeway up to the rescue site. By noon four main contingency plans had been mapped out.
The first and simplest, was to drop in a pack with hot food and added clothing to fortify the victims until the weather cleared; perhaps by the next day. The second was for two climbers to approach the ledge from a nearby landing spot, carrying a Jenny bag (for lifting the injured), and chopper harnesses. The hovering helicopter would complete the job.
A tougher option was laying 900 feet of ropes on fixed ice screws from the closest safe landing pad, and hauling Mr. Allison across to be flown out. This technique, perfected in the European Alps, requires a large team of mountain rescue experts.
At 1 p.m. Sunday the chopper was taken through a final sweep across the north face of Mt. Bryce. This time Mr. Letnick was spotted descending a ridge back of the summit. They also found a level spot where the machine could land. “I saw the chopper, knew this was really it, fell down and cried,” recalls Mr. Letnick.
The wardens set up a communications center, brought in ropes, climbing hardware (ice screws, carabiners, pitons and so on), food and tents, preparing, if necessary, for a major assault to rescue the injured Mr. Allison. Wardens White and Israelson started setting ice pegs across the ice face. Then late in the day the weather began to clear and the winds settled down. Pilot Gary Foreman, brought in to replace Mr. Davies whose machine was due for an overhaul, managed to slip his chopper by the face. The Jenny bag holding Mr. Allison was hooked on, his anchor rope cut. Quickly, the rescue was completed. By that night all the wardens and their specialized equipment had been removed from the area.
For the mountain rescue squad the afternoon’s work was not all that unusual, though the weather added to the complexity. In the previous four days, after all, they had carried off three other vertical lifts, two involving fatalities, the third yet another climber injured by falling rock.
Interim superintendent Peter White describes his wardens as the “only professional team in North America meeting the international standards for mountain rescue.” And the Park needs them. Since 1970 the Alpine Club of Canada reports its membership has doubled. Lately, in the main Rocky Mountain National parks, climbing accidents have become almost routine.
In 1976, the first year that separate climbing statistics were kept by Banff (including Lake Louise), wardens completed 70 rescue operations, using up 1,199 man hours. That year saw three fatalities. In 1977 there were fewer accidents (60 rescues) but fatalities rose to six. Last year another six mountaineers died, and there were 73 rescues. So far this year six have died, and 37 rescue operations have been carried out, requiring over 1,300 hours of warden labor. In fact, most of the mountaineers were experienced. Messrs. Letnick and Allison were full time climbing instructors, with ten years of climbing between them. They carried good equipment.
On the other hand, many mountain accidents are due to carelessness or inexperience. Last week, for example, Quebec climbers Ronnie Schouela, 19, and his brother David, 27, fell 1,400 feet to their deaths in full view of 25 tourists at the Moraine Lake Lodge. The brothers were traversing a wide patch of ice with rope, but wore no crampons for ice travel on their boots. The climb, which should have taken two hours, stretched to 10 before one fell, dragging the other with him.
Even considerable experience can wind up meaning little. On Wednesday, about the same time Mr. Allison was clipped by the falling boulder, Edward Dann, a climber visiting from the granite cliffs of Colorado, fell 500 feet to a gory death on Mt. Assiniboine. He had filed to tie himself to the rock face while he was preparing ropes for a descent. Again the fall was watched, this time by a tourist looking through the spotting scope at Sunburst Lake.
Many of the accidents are, frankly, deserved, say the wardens. A new generation of climbers is trying tougher routes than anyone dreamed of even fifteen years ago. These days winter assaults on vertical stone or ice faces are commonplace. Up to three years ago, for example, only one party a season would attempt the north face of Mt. Deltaform. Now it is scaled three times a month. New fangled equipment has certainly played a role. Space age protective material can insulate, repel water, and yet breathe to prevent condensation. Sleeping bags are featherlight. Screws and special axes have opened up vast areas of ice previously inaccessible. Hardware advances include the RURP (Realized Ultimate Reality Piton) made of space age titanium alloys, actually wafer-thin blades which are driven into incipient cracks in the rock. Modern ropes offer landing for over-extended climbers by gradually stretching 40% to absorb the bone-jarring impact of a fall. And climbing techniques are constantly improving and advanced by the competition-minded climbing fraternity.
Confronted by these developments is the park rescue service. In the Rockies, truly professional mountain rescue began only in 1957 after 12 deaths, (eight school children tumbled from Mount Temple, four Mexicans fell off Mount Victoria), when the parks hired a Swiss guide, Walter Perrin. “Before that time rescue amounted to wardens throwing the bodies over the backs of horses,” says current program head Peter Furhmann. “That was the first attempt to train the wardens, then essentially cowboys, into mountaineers.” Mr. Perrin improvised a rescue system using rudimentary ropes and wires.
Mr. Furhmann replaced Mr. Perrin in 1968, just as climbing gained mass popularity. Canadians were inspired by the Centennial Climbing Camp in the St. Elias range of the Yukon, the arrival of Senator Bobby Kennedy to commemorate newly-named Mount Kennedy, and the general rising interest in the outdoors. The climbing accident rate mounted in response, from five rescues in 1967 to 35 in 1968. Mr. Furhmann spent the full months of July and August moving among accident sites, receiving his supplies by helicopter. “It’s much more complex to run a rescue service here than in Europe,” he explained last week. “You have four times the land size of Switzerland in the Rocky Mountain National Parks alone. There is a wider variety of conditions—changeable weather, and limestone, some granite, ice and snow.” In 1968 the parks weren’t ready for the climbing onslaught in these tough conditions.
By 1971 Mr. Furhmann established contact with the International Commission of Alpine Rescue, and started importing their advanced equipment and training methods. Special rescue systems were developed for the parks, the most advanced for Banff, scene of the greatest number of accidents. Through continuing training programs and constant recruitment of climbers, the warden service built up a core of specialists in winter and summer operations.
The most important innovation came in 1971. Using European equipment, Mr. Furhmann and pilot Jim Davies practiced using sky rescue techniques. “We took it to MOT,” says Mr. Furhmann, “but they were reluctant to give approval.” The next week the pair made two life-saving vertical rescues, including one of a cadet who had suffered a severe head injury. The army was impressed and its support helped gain the necessary official approvals. Since then more than 100 vertical lifts have been made, at least a dozen of them classed as life-saving. The fast chopper rescues are often cheaper than overland operations, as well as time-saving for those injured.
In the remote wilderness of the national parks, disaster is never far away. The Bryce expedition is a good example. Once Mr. Allison had sustained his smashed elbow, the climbers sat five days, four nights on the sloping rock ledge, lashed by sleet and rain, in danger of further rockfalls, without food and on the verge of death. By the fourth day the pair—Mr. Allison was well on the way to joining the slender ranks of Canada’s professional guides, Mr. Letnick was recently nominated for a Rhodes scholarship after finishing his fourth year in Business Administration at University of Calgary by age 21—began to loudly curse their fate. “That we were too young to die,” says Mr. Letnick. In their weakened condition, however, it seems likely the young men would not have survived without the warden rescue service.
But neither has given up the mountains. Will they change their approach? “Maybe carry a little more food,” suggests Mr. Allison. “Getting off the exposed face when the afternoon gets warm,” says Mr. Letnick. He intends to try Mt. Bryce, noted as a classic difficult Rocky Mountain climb again. Probably not this year however.
Norman Letnick, Keith Webb & Victor Allison before the ill-fated climb
Norm Letnick currently resides in Kelowna, BC and is the Liberal MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country. Keith still lives in Banff, AB and was not on this climb.
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