Cathy Jacob – June 2005
This story was emailed to me several weeks after the incident occurred.
I took two of your classes several years ago with the Wilderness Medical Society in Snowmass CO.
(My husband is the doctor). On June 12th I went to the Artic National Refuge in northern Alaska for a 2 week rafting trip down the Kongakut River. It is an indescribably beautiful place. The very last day, a group of us, 4 total, decided to climb the highest peak in the area to see the Artic Ocean. There was too much ice in the river to paddle all the way to the coast, which was our plan. Half way to the top, 2 in the party decided to turn back, so just 2 of us continued on to the top. It was a fairly long distance from camp, about 6 miles. The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky etc. Even though we had to cross two ridges and two valleys, the camp was always visible, even though very faint. This as it would turn out caused me to make a huge mistake. I have always carried your survival kit in my day pack, no matter how short a hike I’ve taken. On this day, I also had an extra layer of clothes plus rain gear. Because the weather was so nice, I did not use my compass or map to take bearing to the top. The weather turned on us in about 2 minutes after reaching the summit. I have never before experienced a change in weather as drastic. The temperature dropped dramatically. It started snowing and the wind was so strong it was difficult to stand up. I told my companion that we must get off the mountain and start back down immediately. My mistake was that I did not force her to comply. She wanted to stay until the weather cleared a bit so she could see the Arctic Ocean. In a matter of minutes, it became a complete white out. You seriously could not see your hand in front of your face. I immediately realized the danger of the situation. Everything you said in your course came back to me. I found a rocky outcrop that gave us some protection from the wind. I sat down. I kept my head and tried as best as I could to feel my way down and try to recognize any landmarks. In the white out it was impossible to tell direction and even if we were going up or down. The danger, besides the weather, is that the area is just so BIG. If we came down the mountain another side or direction from where we came from, no one would ever have found us. The tundra is so immense and there are no trails. Nothing to indicate which way to go down was the correct way. I got my whistle out and started blowing the SOS signal. I had my compass ready in case the weather cleared enough just for a second to take a reading and I must admit, I prayed. I knew I had the survival “tent” in my pack but I also knew it would be difficult to survive the cold and amount of snow. After about 30 minutes there was the slightest thinning of the clouds. I saw the river far below and was ready with the compass and took a reading. I grabbed the woman’s hand and started down, continuing to blow the whistle every minute or two. Although we could not see anything, literally, I kept following the compass. About half way down, I was able to see a tiny speck of yellow, the parka of one of the guides who had come searching for us. They were way off to the left, but I knew then we were safe. I can’t tell you what that felt like!! Peter, there is no doubt in my mind that if I had not had your course, I would still be on that mountain somewhere. It was so hard to remain calm and clear headed. I had to completely focus on staying calm. I thought of my children for a brief second and had to forcibly put them out of my mind because I felt the fear come up through my stomach. I also constantly told myself to think positively. I pushed every negative thought out of my head. I also realize that my skill level was not adequate for this type of crisis. I wanted someone else to take charge and save us. The scariest moment was when I realized that I had to do this by myself or we both were not going to make it. I have never been in a more dangerous situation and it has changed my life. I’m not sure how or if I can thank you enough for saving my life
Sincerely, Catherine Jacobs