The lesson? Know where you’re going.
Ultramarathon runner Allison Tai has had her share of press, but she’s making new headlines after being rescued from Mount Horne by a military helicopter Saturday night.
“As soon as I saw the helicopter I was immediately embarrassed,” she told The NEWS on Tuesday from the comfort of her home in Vancouver.
Having won Canada’s first UltraBeast Spartan Race and placed well in international races, Tai is an experienced runner and backcountry hiker, but she admits she didn’t do enough preparation.
She planned an easy, 17 km, two-hour run past Mount Horne along trails and logging roads from Port Alberni to meet her husband near the Horne Lake Caves and be back in Qualicum BEach for dinner with her parents.
“It looked straight forward on Google maps, but it wasn’t, there were hundreds of backroads,” she said, admitting her biggest mistake was not talking to people who know the area. “If I’d known there were hundreds of roads like that I wouldn’t have gone,” she said.
Tai said her second mistake was not turning around when she started to realize things weren’t going as planned.
“The biggest irony was, I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone by having to drive back to Port Alberni to pick me up.”
Tai had mapped out her route on her smart phone with GPS locations and pictures of junctions, but she was surprised by how many turns weren’t accounted for.
“It’s very rugged terrain and there are so many new logging roads in the area,” agreed Arrowsmith Search and Rescue (ASR) search manager Ken Neden.
A few hours into Tai’s hike, her husband John was getting nervous on the Horne Lake side when an RCMP officer happened to be driving by.
“He (John) just flagged down (the police officer) and asked if she’d seen a woman running along,” said Tai.
“Initially the RCMP officer planned to come and get me herself, but the roads weren’t suitable so she called in search and rescue.”
Tai didn’t have cell service, but her phone was a crucial lifeline full of coordinates and maps, until the cold killed it and it suddenly dropped from 80 per cent battery to dead.
Thinking it might be the cold, she put it against her skin and about three and a half hours after leaving from near Coombs Candy in Port Alberni, as she was starting to worry, she received a call from the RCMP officer who was with her husband.
Tai gave her exact coordinates and agreed to stay where she was, then lost contact again.
“Meanwhile, I had no idea what was going on. I thought a couple guys on an ATV would come pick me up. I was up there miles away from everything, at one point I e-mailed my mom and told her to send Doug to pickup John,” Tai said, explaining she thought it might be a while and she should let people know.
ASR got the call at 6:45 p.m., quickly established a command post at Horne Lake and soon had 24 members to the scene. They also called in their colleagues from the Port Alberni side, where they had a logger and local experts who all had trouble navigating the mountain roads that were now dark, foggy and receiving a fresh blanket of snow.
Tai put on a brave face, but things started to get rough. She was getting cold fast and started worrying about things like cougars, occasionally flashing her light to scare anything away.
“Staying sane was probably the hardest part,” she wrote in a blog post. “I kept seeing and hearing stuff. A raven bobbing its head, a man in a black hoodie, a pile of square baled hay, an old truck, people talking, headlights. Every time I started to hallucinate, I’d say out loud, ‘that’s not a thing.'”
The last text she received before her phone died explained it would be another 40 minutes because they didn’t think she was still on a road, but she was sure she was.
Hours later, while she admits “I was rapidly loosing all mental capacity,” she heard an ATV off in the distance and went sprinting off through the dark to catch them, but it turned out to be the Alberni Highway across the deep valley so she went back to her original spot.
“The last couple hours got pretty tense,” said ASR’s Neden, especially once the texts stopped. They assumed the battery had died, but became anxious to find her in her light running gear near the top of the mountain in the snow.
Around 10 p.m. the RCMP and ASR decided to call 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron out of Comox, knowing it takes them a couple hours to launch, Neden said, pointing out they’re not sitting there in the helicopter waiting for a call.
Around midnight, nine hours into her hike and five and a half hours since she’d spoken to the RCMP officer, she heard “some kind of plane across the valley” and used the strobe light on her flashlight to try and get their attention.
“Initially I felt a punch in the gut from the immense guilt that comes with requiring a helicopter rescue from your own stupidity,” she wrote, but that quickly turned into elation at being saved.
The wash of the rotors almost knocked her down before “a little orange puffy suited man launched out of the bottom and I ran in his general direction.”
Captain Pete Wright, one of the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter’s two pilots, said they got the call just after 10 p.m.
“We had fairly accurate coordinates from the RCMP,” he told The NEWS. “We fly at night with night vision and when we got close she had a flashlight so we saw her from three or four miles away. It can be difficult to see people on the ground at night, especially in the trees, but when you see a light on a mountain where nobody’s supposed to be, it’s pretty clear.”
Within moments of seeing the helicopter, Tai was safe and warm on board eating a ham sandwich and she was taken to the Qualicum Beach airport to wait for her husband.
Neden said the main lesson that can be taken from this incident is to be aware of the terrain you are headed into, ideally going with someone who knows it, or driving it first.
He said the phone contact and GPS coordinates made all the difference, compared to the old days when they would just have had to start driving the backroads and hoping to get lucky.
Tai lavished praise on everyone involved. “Words don’t express how thankful I am to the police and the helicopter crew and search and rescue.” She said she kept expecting police and rescuers to scold her, but “they were all so friendly and supportive.”
“I alone made a huge mistake that cost many amazing people time and resources. That feels pretty terrible. But I am glad to be found and the experience has definitely humbled me,” she wrote.
“The people on those search and rescue crews are just amazing people, if you’re looking for something to join or someone to give money to those are great organizations.”