When Adam Braverman came to the clearing below Mt. Brunswick, time was running out.
Braverman, a 27-year-old from Vancouver, had already camped for one night in the snow-laden North Shore mountains.
He woke Wednesday morning to see high winds had erased his snow tracks. He knew he would have to push the pace to make it back to Lions Bay.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t packed his snowshoes.
By 2 p.m., heavy grey clouds were pressing in. It was gusting snow, and as he stood at the top of Hat Pass, he looked for a long time at Mt. Brunswick, an imposing rocky peak with a single icy waterfall on its face.
It stood like a warning. If he crossed the pass below Brunswick, he would make it to a relatively easy trail out. But he would expose himself to a high-risk avalanche path.
He decided against pressing his luck. He triggered his emergency locator transmitter and at about 3:45 p.m. the Squamish RCMP were in touch and patched him through to Lions Bay Search and Rescue team.
Team leader Sandro Frei told Braverman to hunker down and dig a snow trench for cover as a storm moved in.
After a gruelling hike in gusting snow, Frei and his team of seven located Braverman 1,600 metres up. Standing on Brunswick Ridge, about 400 metres away from Braverman, they saw an SOS signal from a single headlamp.
Frei decided against risking his team member’s lives by testing Mount Brunswick’s avalanche risk and crossing the path.
Even excepting the risk, Frei believed his team could have been stranded for three days with the foreboding snow forecasts.
“We have this saying,” Frei says. “You close yourself into a box and once the lid is closed, you run out of options.”
Luckily, a Cormorant helicopter crew from CFB Comox was in the air on a night training flight.
Capt. Jean Leroux, commander of the chopper crew, was approaching Hat Mountain within 60 minutes of Frei’s call for help.
A low cloud ceiling meant Leroux had to ponderously climb the side of the mountain in a whiteout looking for Braverman, as winds buffeted the 23-metre craft perilously close to trees, which the five- member crew use as reference points in low visibility.
Often they came close to abandoning the operation because of the dangers, Leroux said.
They attempted multiple passes looking for Braverman, only to be rebuffed as downdrafting winds sent them pitching toward the snow. They once had to retreat blind in full cloud cover, the hairiest moment of the rescue, Leroux said.
Finally they located Braverman, at about 10:40 p.m.
“I told my guys it doesn’t have to be pretty, let’s do this quick,” Leroux said.
Corp. Nick Nissen was dropped on a 21-metre longline with a rescue harness. Braverman, who was guiding the chopper with a headlight on his helmet, didn’t even see Nissen coming.
“It’s the most unbelievable feeling,” Braverman says. “The snow is gusting and all you can see is a big light hovering about 20 metres above you. Suddenly there’s a man behind me.”
“We’re getting the hell out of here!” Nissen yelled. “Keep your head down. Let’s go flying.”
From the moment Nissen touched ground, to his harnessing Braverman and spinning upwards towards the chopper while being buffeted in by 85 km/h winds, to finally entering the cab, took about 10 seconds.
The crew checked Braverman’s vital signs and found he was in good condition. Soon he was in Lions Bay, and Frei drove him to his car.
“He said he was happy to be alive, and he wouldn’t go out without snowshoes ever again,” Frei says.
Leroux and Frei both believe Braverman could have survived the night, but that his chances would have dropped substantially as heavy snows continued to pound the North Shore mountains on Thursday.
Leroux says the high-wind, low- visibility rescue was probably the hardest his team has ever pulled off.
“If any of the crew is uncomfortable we call off a mission,” Leroux said. “We all pushed our limits this time.”
Without a doubt, Braverman and his family got a Christmas gift they will never forget.
“If they hadn’t got through, I would have been on my own for a while,” Braverman says. “I’m eternally grateful to both Lions Bay SAR and CFB Comox 442 squadron.”
Braverman says he was lulled into overconfidence by his ample experience in the North Shore mountains, but he won’t hike solo again.
Despite the shame Braverman feels at triggering a rescue that put others at risk, he wants to share his story in hopes of saving the lives of “eager young hikers who might be tempted by summit fever.
“You don’t go out alone and you have to be ready to turn back,” he says.
A helicopter search and rescue crew braved high winds and poor visibility to pluck a stranded hiker off the top of a mountain north of Vancouver on Wednesday night.
The young man was stranded high atop Hat Mountain, along the Howe Sound Crest Trail in Cypress Provincial Park. He activated his personal locator transmitter after he became lost on the snowy mountainside after dark.
With a storm moving in, the local search and rescue team was unable to reach the man on foot, so they called in a Cormorant helicopter crew from CFB Comox.
Capt. Jean Leroux, the aircraft commander on the Cormorant, said the crew had to battle 85-km/h winds in the dark to reach the hiker.
“This was one of the most challenging missions of my career,” said Leroux.
“The man was stranded at 1,600 metres on the side of the mountain. We reached the estimated location of the hiker by slowly flying up the side of the mountain," he said.
"The helicopter was subjected to strong turbulence because of the 85-km/h winds coming down on us. We also had to deal with very little visibility since we were at the clouds’ level. We had to attempt multiple passes until the visibility was good enough for us to fly over the man’s location,” he said.
As the stranded hiker signalled his position to the Cormorant with his headlamp, the helicopter pilot positioned the aircraft 20 metres over him and a search and rescue technician was hoisted down to retrieve him.
The rescued man was then hoisted up into the aircraft and flown to a waiting ambulance at nearby Lions Bay.
The rescue crew said he is in good condition, and despite getting stranded, he had been well-prepared for his hike.
“The man was well-equipped and experienced for the hike he had undertaken,” said Sgt. George Olynyk, SAR tech lead.
“He had planned his trip well. Unfortunately on his way home, the inclement weather slowed him down and he lost his track," said Olynyk.
"Once the sun was set, he was confident he wouldn’t find his way — that’s when he activated his beacon. He dug himself a trench [in the snow] and took the appropriate actions to survive. The backcountry is unpredictable even when you know what you are doing,” he said.