Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

HOME AGAIN - Canadian Ranger Derek Holmes sits on the skimmer-turned-survival-shelter which is being credited for his good health after he was stranded for six days in the Coast Mountains near the Haines Summit. Holmes was found Wednesday, after he was reported overdue Tuesday.

Missing man rescued

After two days of being pinned down by driving snow, Derek Holmes decided last Sunday he would try to compass his way back along the seven kilometres to the Haines Road.

By Chuck Tobin on April 9, 1998

If a mistake was made, Holmes said in an interview this morning, it was his decision to pull up stakes in whiteout conditions.

As he was making his way, his snowmachine and the skimmer the Whitehorse man was pulling flipped into a ditch-type crevasse that was 1.5 metres or more deep.

“The machine flipped, the skimmer flipped and I flipped,” he said from his Porter Creek home. He was speaking just 24 hours after being rescued by recreational snowmobilers during his sixth day of being stranded in the mountains.

Holmes is a member of the Canadian Ranger Patrol, and a former sergeant of the Whitehorse Patrol. Using his experience, he righted himself, his machine and skimmer, and continued along the ditch, as the steep walls prevented any exit.

Eventually, he came to another ditch running perpendicular, which led into a stream.

“I heard the stream before I saw it.”

Holmes said it was then that he decided to make camp and wait for help to arrive.

Even with his significant wilderness knowledge, Holmes doesn’t pretend that wasn’t scared during the experience, which began last Friday afternoon and ended at about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.

He was well-equipped, with all the right gear for winter survival, and enough food when he was found to last him five more days - at one meal a day.

“I was scared, sure I was,” he said. “I am not a guy who takes risk easily.

“I was calm. I would not say I got excited but I also would not say I was not afraid,” he said.

“If you look around and realize the position you are in, you know you have limited options, and measuring those options gives you a certain sense of your own mortality.”

Protected by a makeshift shelter that attached to the skimmer, Holmes said there wasn’t much to do in whiteout conditions but sleep.

When the sun finally showed - he believes it was Tuesday morning – Holmes climbed a steep embankment onto a mountainside. He placed a red gas can, a section of his skimmer, and another piece of equipment to form a triangle.

He stamped SOS in the snow with his feet. And he flashed his signal mirror, while scanning the countryside with his binoculars.

Holmes had the comfort of knowing where he was. He could see the highway, but felt it was best to stay put. He’d given Cory Bruneau, a friend and co-Ranger, his itinerary, and an approximate location of where he’d be.

“You have to take inventory of your options, and just stick with them, and don’t panic,” he said. “It went from snow, to sleet, to rain all within a two-hour period.

“So if you are walking around in that stuff, it does not take long to get hypothermic.”

Holmes said he knew Bruneau would be along, at some point. And he still had enough food until this Saturday, at one meal a day.

He said if Saturday had come, he would have started to walk out, because the area would be abuzz with snowmobilers catching the last of their season.

It wasn’t Bruneau who found them, however, but rather recreational snowmobilers.

Holmes said early Wednesday morning, when the sun came up, he climbed back up the hill.

“I could see where everybody was parked on the highway and I just started signalling them with my mirror.”

When the first snowmobiler came around the corner a couple of hours later, he asked Holmes if he had a signal mirror, explaining his wife had seen something flicker while she was taking an early-morning walk.

“I said to him, ‘Your wife has incredibly good eyes.’ ”

The search team was notified that he’d been found.

A veteran of solo winter camping, Holmes said he accepts the criticism that it might not be the wisest thing to do.

“My wife (Brenda) would say that,” he said. “And, as a matter of fact, from this point on, I would agree with her.”

Holmes said he has to offer special thanks to Bruneau, who helped his wife initiate the search Tuesday. He’s also grateful to the RCMP and the Haines Junction emergency measures organization.

“My three-year-old daughter told her day care worker her dad was a little bit lost, ‘but the good Rangers are going to find him, so I am not worried.’”

RCMP Cpl. Larry Kavanagh credits the makeshift shelter for Holmes’ good condition when he was found, in addition to his bush sense and preparedness.

“As far as I am concerned, it may have saved his life,” the search coordinator said Wednesday, after returning from the area where Holmes was found.

Kavanagh also credits the quick response of Kluane Search and Rescue, and other volunteers for finding Holmes as quickly as they did.

The detachment was notified at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday by Brenda Holmes, after she was notified that her husband hadn’t attended a Haines Junction meeting he was scheduled to attend earlier in the day.

A helicopter went out that night and located his vehicle at a highway pull-out at the summit. By Wednesday morning, he said, there were 15 to 16 snowmobilers involved with the search. They were joined by a helicopter, two RCMP officers, five members of the local search and rescue squad, and four Kluane National Park wardens.

Aboard the helicopter with Kavanagh was Yeti, the Canadian avalanche rescue dog.

Kavanagh said they had already stopped to check one avalanche site before Holmes was found.

Had the search gone beyond noon, efforts would have been augmented by the Atlin Search and Rescue team, and many more Haines Junction residents who were ready to join in with their snowmachines, he said.

It’s a great advantage having that type of search and rescue response capability in the Kluane area, Kavanagh added. “I mean, it makes our job a whole lot easier.”

The corporal is cautioning recreational snowmobilers who will be at the summit over the Easter weekend to adhere to weather reports, watch for signs of avalanches, and travel in groups.

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