Risk and rescue in a northern BC cave

🕔Aug 04, 2010

Strange, subterranean sounds trickle upwards from the endless dark below. Shifting shadows melt into drafts of air as currents of water course through the ground itself—a shivering, barely-explored world, locked away by millions of tons of rock. The world beneath the ground can be a dark and foreboding place, a place of trolls and goblins, mysteries and nightmares.

One thing for sure: it is dark. Deep underground in the famous Horne Lake Caves system on Vancouver Island, I shut my lights off. I can’t even see my hand in front of my face. And if there were anyone with me there in the dark, they wouldn’t be able to see the grin plastered on my face. Forget nightmares; this place is a wonderland! But like Alice’s world inside the rabbit hole, things here can turn scary without warning.

Caving is addicting. It’s fun, it’s challenging—both mentally and physically—and in northern BC, it provides yet another reason to get out into the incredible landscapes that stretch endlessly across the province. Clive Keen, editor of BC Caver and an early player in the Northwest’s caving scene, says caving at this latitude is incomparable.

He rattles off a list of attributes that distinguish caves here from their southern or overseas counterparts. “Caves elsewhere are usually heavily used,” he says, “and thus heavily worn.” In a cave environment, just touching a speleothem can change its colour from an alluring shade of pearly white to muddy brown and has the potential to destroy it entirely. Speleothems are calcite formations such as the ubiquitously recognized stalactites and stalagmites as well as more exotic examples like soda straws, popcorn, or draperies. Found in caves carved out of limestone in karst landscapes, these formations are stunning, otherworldly, and they’re all decidedly susceptible to outside influence.

Difficult access
In northern BC, caves are hard to get to. “Helicopter access is often needed,” says Keen. “All are a week’s walk to the nearest pub.” Most of the known caves in this part of the province are up in the mountains—5,000 feet and above, says Keen. And these aren’t just holes in the ground; the caves here are often vertical inside, requiring rope work and often tricky maneuvers just to get inside. They’re cold too, regardless of the time of year.

But above all, Keen continues proudly, the caves here are beautiful. “Fang and Redemption are undoubtedly two of the finest caves in Canada.” The name of one northern cave, Close To The Edge, demonstrates that cavers around here are not without a dark sense of humour.

Although caving is alluring to some, these ethereal northern caves are remote, challenging to get into, and come with a real potential for disaster.

A good day turns bad
Late in 2009, four outdoors enthusiasts from Prince George hiked Fang Mountain, a hard, steep trek up into the Hart Range of the Rocky Mountains. All were experienced adventurers, used to extreme environments. Entering the cave system through its middle entrance, they set up ropes to descend and ascend the steep and slippery sections inside. But while climbing back up that afternoon in a notoriously tight passageway known as the Corkscrew, group member John Huybers met a savage twist of fate when a 500-kilogram rock fell on him, pinning him to the ground in a pool of water. The others hurried to him, and by nearly inhuman effort moved the boulder off of him. But the rock’s fall had started an incredible chain of events.

By great coincidence, Tammera Kostya, a member of the Northern BC Caving Club, happened to be nearby, leading a group of her own into the cave. “We heard them calling for help from below,” she says. She had recently completed a cave-rescue training course and her initial thoughts were that it was a less serious situation. “I thought: ‘Cool, I can actually use my skills!’” she laughs.

The first group had a satellite phone and together with Kostya managed to place an emergency call. The call mobilized BC Cave Rescue, Prince George Search and Rescue (SAR), military search-and-rescue helicopters from Comox, and the RCMP. Bob Rutherford, president of the Northern BC Caving Club and a member of the rescue team, received the call and within a couple hours was on a helicopter racing the encroaching darkness to the closest landing site, a meadow above the entrance. It was now 6 pm.

After getting the call out, Kostya headed down into the cave to assess the situation and practice her newly learned skills. “I peered over the edge [of the underground cliff] and could see him curled up into a ball,” she says. Despite obvious injuries he was still moving, breathing and talking, and Kostya rappelled down until she found herself standing on the fallen boulder, now wedged against the opposite wall. “I was amazed they actually moved it,” she says. “It’s that whole adrenaline thing.”

A cold, dark wait
Wet and severely injured, drifting in and out of consciousness, Huybers—an experienced alpinist himself—helped the group assess the situation. He was very cold by this point, lying as he was in a pool of icy water, so they covered him with all the clothing they could muster. Kostya sat with him for hours, perched on a small ledge. They passed the time by telling stories.

For much of this time Huybers was hopeful, bolstered by the anecdotes of his friend. But towards the end of their wait, while Rutherford and other rescuers hurried to the site, he started to realize that this trip into the mountains might be his last. When he spoke at all now, it was with a sense of finality. Kostya was starting to seriously worry.

“But once we heard voices his eyes lit up again,” she says. “It’s amazing what hope can do.”

Rutherford arrived at the accident site and coolly assessed the situation. “His breathing was very rapid and shallow and he was very cold to the touch,” he wrote in a report shortly after the rescue.

Kostya explains that everyone, including Huybers himself, was aware that the injuries were serious and that nothing could be done about them as long as they were out in the wilderness. Besides several broken bones, he had a collapsed lung that was filling with fluid, making his breathing difficult. But as the event’s momentum changed from an accident to a rescue, his mood changed too. “His eyes were glowing,” says Kostya, “but he was obviously scared of being moved.”

The rescuers lowered a stretcher into the cave. By connecting a rope to his climbing harness, Huybers was lifted onto it. “Due to the cramped quarters the stretcher had to be loaded in a vertical position,” says Rutherford. Every step of the rescue had to be performed with the light from their headlamps alone.

“There was a combination of the surreal and ignorance,” says Kostya. “You just shut off your emotions and hope.” The precarious rescue continued in this subterranean environment for some three hours.

Aboveground again
When Kostya finally followed the stretcher out into the dark, cold night, she was confronted by a strange and beautiful sight. “You could see this snake of headlamps going down the mountain,” she says. “And there were bright red flares all over the sky.” About 50 or 60 SAR volunteers swarmed the mountain, including four military SAR techs who parachuted onto the road and hiked up the steep trail. This bizarre chain of headlights and helping hands passed Huybers’ stretcher hand over hand, down the steep slope for 2,000 vertical feet. The injured man didn’t arrive at Lunch Rock, the closest available site for airlift, until nearly 6 am, 14 hours after the accident.

“I remain amazed that everything worked so well,” says Keen, who was in the command post set up on the road. “The chief rescuers deserve major awards.” Huybers spent thirteen days in hospital, including three in intensive care, and says he owes his life to SAR.

The rewards of caving are high no matter where one goes, but risk is an intrinsic part of the experience. The long chain of events that tumbled like rocks from the mountain link together the efforts of an incredible and efficient group of volunteers who, for one night on Fang Mountain, lit up the night with their heroism.