Braving the storm

Lessard and Yao with Cormorant

Cpl Lessard (left) and Yao (right) pose in front of the Cormorant search & rescue helicopter that carried them to safety after four days of being stranded on Mount Jutland in Strathcona Park.

Cpl Jean-Simon Lessard had to put his survival skills to the test when he was trapped for four days in the mountains of Strathcona Park.

The electrical distribution technician left Sept. 28 with friend Christopher Yao for what was to be a two day hiking trip on Mt. Albert Edward.

Arriving at the park, Cpl Lessard says there was no indication such a drastic change in weather was on the way.
“We didn’t hear anything about a storm when we talked to the park attendant,” he says. “The weather reports said it would be mild until Sunday, which was when we planned on leaving. We had no idea what we were in for.”

The pair began their hike towards Mt. Albert Edward, following the well-worn trail past Circlet Lake and up towards the alpine. About one kilometre from the top of the mountain, Cpl Lessard and Yao realized something was wrong.
“It was snowing a little bit and we found a small sign covered in snow. We brushed it off and it said ‘Mt. Jutland’,” he says. “We were on the wrong mountain. We decided to turn back then and make it back to Circlet Lake.”

It was then the weather took a turn for the worse. Within minutes the 20km/hr wind kicked up to a blistering 100km/hr, bringing a blinding curtain of snow with it. Cpl Lessard and Yao were forced to make camp and wait out the weather.

“We thought if we just waited for the storm to let up we could leave early the next morning,” he says. “We set up our tents next to a cliff and hoped for the best.”

In the morning Cpl Lessard and Yao woke up to another world. Where the day before there were lush green pines, breathtaking views, and bare rock, there was now over 40 centimetres of snow, a thick blanket of fog, and winds as strong as the day before.

“When we saw what had happened we decided it was time to leave,” he says. “The trail had disappeared but there were markers on some of the trees so we tried to follow them back down to Circlet Lake.”

After an hour and a half of slogging through almost waist high snow Cpl Lessard and Yao came up short when they emerged on the lip of a 100 foot cliff face. They were lost.

“We thought we probably weren’t going to make it into work on Monday,” he says with a smile. “We found a relatively safe place between two cliffs, set up our camp, and started figuring out what we were going to do.”

With just two days of food in their packs, they needed an exit strategy. The two decided if they kept their calorie intake down to 300-400 calories a day, their food could potentially last them for seven days.

“We knew we’d have food for at least a week,” says Cpl Lessard. “Obviously, we were hoping to get out of this before that but if we had to stay we could.”

After another cold and windy night in the tents, Monday offered the pair a bittersweet revelation.

“We heard helicopters, but they couldn’t find us,” says Cpl Lessard. “They couldn’t figure out where we were because we ended up on a different mountain than we said we’d be, but we knew they were looking for us.”

Tuesday was more of the same. Throughout the cold and windy days and nights Cpl Lessard says he and Yao didn’t let the possibility of failure enter their minds.

“When we talked we were planning,” he says. “With nothing else to do we set our minds on getting out of there. It was the only thing we could do.”

After a meagre meal of camping food the sound of helicopters filled the air again, and the hikers decided to try making themselves more visible.

“We took anything we had with some colour and started laying it out, trying to cover as much area as possible,” says Cpl Lessard. “In the end it was just too foggy and snowy, so they passed us by again.”

Wednesday morning, with their rations running low, they decided to move. Due to the lack of food, their energy was low, but Cpl Lessard says they knew if they didn’t start trying to get more visible they might never be found.

“We brought all our gear with us, and started trying to head back to Circlet Lake,” he says. “We were tired and hungry, but we knew this might be our only chance.”

After a few hours of walking, their salvation arrived.

“The sky cleared on a rocky outcropping and we knew this was our chance,” says Cpl Lessard. “We spread out all our most colourful gear and started waving the tarps of our tents. The helicopter saw us and we knew we’d been found.”

With the arrival of search and rescue personnel, Cpl Lessard recalls the feeling of elation as nothing he’s felt before.
“I can barely describe it,” he says. “It was the happiest I’ve ever felt in my entire life.”

Cpl Lessard says it was his military training and a healthy understanding of wilderness survival that gave him and Yao the edge they needed to stay alive.

“My training saved my life,” he says. “Without those skills, and without our gear, I’m not sure we would have made it off the mountain alive.”

Now fully recovered and back at work, Cpl Lessard says he won’t let his ordeal scare him away from camping.
“I still love it, and I plan on going again fairly soon,” he says. “This time, though, I’ll probably bring an SOS device and a GPS.”

-Shawn O’Hara, Staff Writer

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