In the backcountry of British Colombia, friends Chris and Robbie were navigating challenging terrain under heavy packs after felling a Thinhorn Stone Sheep. The going was tough as they traversed loose rock slopes, grassy gullies and an area of old burn on the way to their horses in the valley below. They’d travelled more than 12 hours by horseback and on foot and were deep in some of the country’s most beautiful wilderness.
Suddenly, Chris heard the distinctive woofing of a bear. “In that instant, I wasn’t sure where it was, but I knew it was close,” recalled Chris. Before even laying eyes on the animal, he yelled “Bear!” and immediately began running toward Robbie who was ahead of him near the tree line.
Everything is fine, until suddenly it isn’t…
“It’s right behind you!” yelled Robbie. Chris turned to see a grizzly and two cubs barreling down on him at full gallop. Within seconds, the bear had his head in her mouth and began shaking him.
“It was the most terrifying moment of my life,” said Chris. An experienced outdoorsman and a paramedic, Chris remembered self-assessing each injury as the bear continued attacking. “Okay, I can survive that one… That bite won’t kill me…”
To save his friend, Robbie charged toward the bear with his rifle, yelling aggressively. Unfortunately, when he’d grabbed his rifle the clip had fallen out and he had to find it and reload. He shot and she bolted toward him. Within seconds, the bear was on him. Robbie tried to fight her off by holding his rifle between them, but the grizzly was too powerful.
When the bear turned on Robbie, Chris immediately rolled toward his pack to activate the SOS button on his inReach device. Then he grabbed his rifle and went to help his friend.
Chris found Robbie tangled in a fallen tree. There were deep lacerations on his head and bites on his neck. They had both suffered extensive injuries, but Robbie was much worse off. A puncture wound to his neck had caused a trauma induced stroke, and the entire left side of his body was immobile.
Chris had several broken ribs, a fractured skull and numerous lacerations to his head which made it difficult to see. The grizzly had also torn open the back of his leg. The arm he’d used to shield his head and face from the bear resembled “hamburger meat”, Chris recalled, leaving him the use of one arm to treat Robbie’s serious injuries.
The grizzlies had run off, and he was unsure of their whereabouts. On high alert, Chris worked quickly to get Robbie stabilized. Darkness was falling, and Robbie was going into shock. They were a long way from civilization, and it would be awhile before help arrived. He needed to get a fire started.
With Robbie was stabilized, Chris began communicating the extent of their injuries to the emergency response centre using his inReach Explorer. He messaged Robbie’s family to let them know what had happened. “Help is on the way,” Chris reassured Robbie as he monitored his inReach for updates on the estimated time of arrival for the search and rescue personnel.
Robbie was tall, athletic and 190 pounds. His injuries had left him immobile. They were surrounded by fallen trees and other obstacles they would need to climb over to get him out. Chris knew they were going to need a long line rescue – a helicopter equipped with a rescue basket, various rescuer harnesses and a “long line” that can be adjusted for conditions such as theirs.
Using his inReach, Chris contacted his boss at the ambulance service who was able to help procure one of two Cormorant long line rescue helicopters in Canada to assist. With the stops required to refuel, it would take several more hours to reach them.
Daylight was fading when the first rescue helicopter arrived from Fort Nelson. It was a hot landing, and two paramedics and an RCMP officer jumped out onto the side of the mountain. About 30 minutes later, a second helicopter arrived from Fort St. John. The dark forced them to land immediately on the river below. The paramedic, conservation officer and two pilots carrying all of their equipment faced a precarious 1 km hike over rugged terrain in the pitch black night. It was 45 minutes before they reached Chris and Robbie.
They treated Chris and Robbie’s injuries and wrapped them in tarps to keep them warm until they could be extracted by the long line helicopter that was on its way.
It all seemed surreal to Chris, who described this night as “the longest wait” of his life. As they waited, Chris recalled listening to their rescuers talk about the Northern Lights around the fire – a welcome distraction to the pain of his injuries which had set in. Updates were coming in on the ETA of the long line rescue helicopter, which gave them hope. Two hours out. One hour… 40 minutes.
At about 3:30 a.m. the long line rescue helicopter arrived, and the rescue team prepared Chris and Robbie for transport. Dawn was breaking as they were lifted into the air.
“The Cormorant 442 long line helicopter was an amazing piece of equipment,” recalled Chris. Lying in the basket, watching the land fall away and thinking about everything that had transpired since the attack 10 hours earlier seemed to him like an out-of-body experience.
Forty minutes later, they landed in Fort Nelson where Chris’s boss and several ambulances were waiting. They were assessed and immediately transported to a jet which flew them to Vancouver General Hospital for treatment.
Thanks to the swift response of search and rescue volunteers, Chris and Robbie lived to tell the story of their survival and made it their mission to pay-it-forward.
According to Chris, the experience changed his outlook on life.
“My faith was restored that night,” said Chris in an interview after the event. “Everyone involved in our rescue was amazing.”
To show their gratitude to their rescuers, Chris and Robbie set up a GoFundMe campaign and later held a community fundraiser when Robbie was released from hospital. In February 2016, Chris and Robbie donated more than $33,000 to BC Search and Rescue, demonstrating their commitment to doing their part to help others in the future.
“We owe our lives to the inReach device and to my colleagues and everyone that came to our rescue,” said Chris. “Words can’t express how grateful we are.”