On October 25, 27-year-old Tyler Townsend and his climbing partner Geoff Brown, 24, were topping out on the route named Middle Earth, a class three ice climbing route in the Columbia Icefields area.
After navigating overhung cornices and avoiding the route’s known rockfall hazards, at 4 p.m. Townsend activated his Spot Satellite Messenger, a Satellite Emergency Notification Device (SEND), notifying his dad that he had made the 3,540 m summit and that the duo was in good shape.
“Close to 5 p.m. we were at the top of the gully, getting ready to [rappel] off,” Townsend said from his home in Calgary.
However, after building an anchor to which the men would affix their rope for the first pitch of the long descent, Townsend and Brown ran into a problem: their rope became stuck in the hard, wind-crusted cornice. They tried for an hour and a half, unsuccessfully, to free the rope.
“We lost control of the rope and we were sitting on the face,” Townsend said.
Soon, the pair were getting desperate. They were high on the mountain, unable to ascend back over the cornice, and not only was daylight fading but the weather was turning ugly. At 7 p.m., with a storm brewing, Townsend said they made the difficult decision to call for help. They activated the Spot’s 9-1-1 signal and then, to conserve battery power, promptly turned the unit off.
“The weather was changing dramatically,” Townsend said. “We thought there’s an hour of light left, maybe we can get a chopper in or get someone who can help get the rope unstuck.”
As Townsend and Brown maintained an icy foothold at 11,000 feet, hoping their distress call might somehow materialize into an air-lift to safety, a rescue operation was indeed beginning to roll out. However, although the SOS had been broadcast, the data that local rescue personnel had to work with was critically incomplete. Because Townsend had shut off the Spot device, its GPS locator was inert. The only coordinates that rescue personnel had to work with were those sent when the climber pushed the All’s-Well button on the summit—and even those appeared compromised.
“We had low confidence in the coordinates,” said Max Darrah, Parks Canada’s public safety specialist and the on-call rescue leader that night.
Darrah had been alerted to the distress signal by Jasper Dispatch, which had taken the call from the Texas-based International Emergency Response Coordination Center. But cryptically, the signal put Townsend and Brown more than a kilometre away from their actual location.
“We had one point of data and it didn’t jive with what his dad was telling us,” Darrah said.
After investigating the call—talking to the climbers’ family members and establishing that the men were fit, well-equipped and familiar with the area—and after notifying partner agencies that their assistance might be required, Darrah had a tough call to make. Should Parks Canada send a rescue team out on a glacier to search blindly in the stormy night? Although it was difficult to say so to Townsend’s father, the answer, based on the limited information they had, was no.
“Part of the response is that the safety of our crews is top priority,” Darrah said.
Instead, Darrah prepared his team for an early start, assembling an arsenal of rescue implements—including crevasse rescue gear, avalanche equipment and a mobile rescue base—and placing two different rescue helicopters on standby.
Meanwhile, the climbers were freezing on their perch and coming to the realization that help would not be on its way that night.
“We realized they weren’t coming until the next day...maybe not even,” Townsend said.
Bolstered by the severity of their situation, Townsend decided to make another attempt at freeing the rope.
Bracing himself on the ice screws themselves, Townsend “aided out” until he could get in a position to hack away at the snow cornice and unhitch the line. Lowering back down to his partner, Townsend knew the climbers were out of their predicament, but far from safe and sound.
“The spindrift was unbelievable,” he said. “Avalanches were going off every 20 minutes.”
Groping their way through the darkness, descending the mountain in a whiteout and battling fatigue, hunger and dehydration, Townsend said at that point he didn’t think to hit the Spot’s OK signal. For one, he said they “weren’t out of the woods yet,” and for another, they felt their situation justified asking for help.
“We made a couple of bad management decisions, but we’re not up here in tennis shoes and windbreakers,” he said “This is fairly legitimate.”
Reflecting further, Townsend said they should have kept the PLB on so that the device could record their forward progress. He also admitted that, at the time, the full picture of what resources are mobilized with the press of a Spot rescue button didn’t occur to them.
“We didn’t think of the people who were on their toes all night,” he said.
Before dawn on Saturday morning, after negotiating the crevasses and millwells that can swallow a climber whole, Townsend and Brown finally made it off the mountain. Flooded with relief, they initialized the Spot device and alerted family members and rescue agencies to their safety. One hundred kilometres north, in Jasper, a three-member initial strike team was getting ready to set up a mobile rescue base at the base of Andromeda and a second wave of technicians was on stand-by. EMS, STARS air ambulance, the RCMP and rescue helicopters in Banff and Valemount were waiting for the word. At 6:45 a.m., Darrah called a stand-down.
“It was the best possible outcome we could have hoped for,” he said. “But for future people using SEND technology, this is a situation we can all learn from.”
Darrah said it’s critical for climbers to give rescue teams as much information as possible, to know the functionality of their devices and to ensure they’re using it appropriately. In this case, keeping the unit active would have corrected the skewed GPS location and shown rescuers that the climbers were moving on the mountain.
“It would have given us the ability to adjust the response accordingly,” Darrah said.
Further, Parks rescue technicians hope to avoid situations where people alert local response teams “just in case” they run into trouble.
“If you find yourself in an emergency, sometimes pressing the Spot is the best thing to do,” Darrah said. “But when you press that button, realize that’s the only information we have. You’re initiating a rescue.”
BOB COVEY // BOB@THEJASPERLOCAL.COM