The ordeal of a 55-year-old Vancouver Island woman lost for two days on Heather Mountain, west of Cowichan Lake, had a happy ending on Friday afternoon when she was found safe and sound.
Members of Cowichan Search & Rescue were joined by teams from Ladysmith and Metchosin, and two other mutual aid teams, the ATV club, an RCMP helicopter as well as a search dog and its handler, on June 27 in the search for the Duncan area woman, who went missing on the mountain at around 4 p.m. on June 26.
The woman, whose name has not been released, was hiking on Heather Mountain, a 1,250-metre summit west of Lake Cowichan, on Wednesday afternoon when she became separated from the group of four people on the snow-capped mountain.
“They were almost there [at the summit] but the last stretch is very steep and three of them wanted to return, but she wanted to do the last stretch,” explained Cowichan Search & Rescue’s Patty Abbott. “They said they would wait for her to return. It took her just 15 minutes to reach the summit.”
But things weren’t going as well for the three hikers the woman had left behind. One had been stung and needed to head back to their camp immediately. In touch through text, the woman said she would catch up with them.
“They were comfortable with that as she is very comfortable in that type of environment,” Abbott said. “We do not have the details as to what happened next, but do know she found herself on the trail to Heather Lake, which was in the complete opposite direction.”
The weather had started to change as well, with heavy cloud cover coming in quickly, something that would later hamper search efforts, as air support couldn’t get visuals until Friday.
Meanwhile, the woman’s friends had made it back to their campsite and were beginning to worry.
“We were called in and started our planning for the night and the next day,” said Abbott of Search & Rescue crews.
Alone, lost on the mountain with a chilly wet night setting in, the lost 55-year-old hiker did everything right, Abbott said.
“When she realized that she was in an area completely unfamiliar, she knew the best thing was to build herself a shelter and stay put, as it was getting dark. Unfortunately the next day brought lots of rain with wind and very low cloud cover. She made a very wise decision to stay put and hope for the best.”
Search and Rescue methodically began searching all of the side trails, with the help of the ATV club whose help Abbott calls “phenomenal”.
One of the teams that made it to the top of Heather Mountain on Thursday actually started down towards Heather Lake a short distance and noticed a print in the mud, and made a notation of it, Abbott said.
On Friday, the cloud lifted and air support was finally able to begin dropping teams at the top to descend to Heather Lake.
“The first team was a dog team [Pickles, from Campbell River and her handler Sheila] that was airlifted up and then trackers were next to go up and did a quick fly over Heather Lake, when she was spotted waving her emergency blanket and jacket,” Abbott said.
The search changed into a rescue operation at that point, with an RCMP helicopter sent in to airlift the woman to the command station.
“She was extremely cold and wet and relieved that her ordeal was over,” Abbott said.
The woman was taken to Cowichan District Hospital.
It’s a lesson for anyone who wants to go hiking, Abbott said.
“Even though she is a very experienced hiker and outdoors woman things can go wrong. She did all the right things, first by staying put when she realized she was lost. Making a shelter to protect herself from the elements as best she could and travelling with a pack that had some basic essentials,” she said. “She also had the most important thing and that was the will to survive.”
On Friday, searchers were in a celebratory mood.
“For us as searchers, to get that call over the radio that someone has been found alive and well leaves this most amazing feeling in our hearts.”