A Salmo woman berry picking with her family went missing Monday afternoon and after a harrowing night in the woods and becoming injured was found by Search and Rescue late Tuesday morning.
A group of five people was picking huckleberries on Rusty Ridge, a site they’d been frequenting for many years just off Porcupine Road south of Ymir. The pickers weren’t in sight of each other but maintained contact through frequent calls. At one point, a call went unanswered by the missing woman.
“Everyone was concerned and went looking for her but couldn’t find her,” said Chris Armstrong, search manager of Nelson Search and Rescue.
Around 2:15 p.m. Monday, NSAR was called in by Salmo RCMP who had received a report of the missing woman. The search initially involved a truck and ATV along with a ground crew and helicopter. NSAR expected the woman to be easily found because the terrain included several roads and logging clear cuts.
But there were complications. The woman had her cell phone with her and was just on the edge of getting service which puts her phone into SOS mode, explained Armstrong.
“That SOS mode only allows her to call 911,” he said.
NSAR’s helicopter flew into the area and was spotted by the woman who called to let rescue know. The call was routed through dispatch in Kelowna who then called back in Ymir who told the NSAR manager who relayed the message to the helicopter.
“In that lag time we probably moved on about four to five hundred metres around the mountain,” he said. “We spent a great deal of time trying to pin point where she was flying over and over but the lag time and the size of the area made it impossible.”
The cell phone likely ran out of power by mid-afternoon and the crew moved into ground search mode, said Armstrong.
“We searched until one o’clock in the morning and we searched all the area where we thought she should be – on the easy ground, we call it,” he said. “We saturated that section of woods and we could hear each other yelling from all corners of it so if she was in there, she should have been able to hear us and we should have been able to hear her.”
At that point, the search manager predicted the missing berry picker had been gone “down one of the tight draws that drop into the valley.”
“It’s very steep, dangerous, rocky terrain — really, really thick forest. It’s just terrible. After dark I couldn’t send my members down in there because it was too dangerous to go,” said Armstrong.
On Tuesday morning, Armstrong sent three men, fit and capable, who likely thought their instructions were “crazy” down the draw he suspected the berry picker had travelled.
“I believe once she was in there, she was so tired and thirsty and lost — it will take so much effort to go back up, your mind tells you it’s best to go down hoping to hit the road,” he said.
Correctly estimating her behaviour, Armstrong said the woman was found after two hours. Unfortunately she had run into further trouble.
“She ran into some terrible ground and injured herself,” he described. “She basically had to grab onto branches and crawl down the rocks into a creek bed. In doing that, she fell several times and hurt herself and got to the point where she was just stuck.”
The woman suffered a head injury, a scrape on her forehead and many more bumps and bruises. Scott Spencer, one searcher heard the woman from about 30 metres but couldn’t see her until he was four to five feet away.
“She was about 30 metres out of the creek bed, up on a bank,” said Armstrong. “It’s very lucky. If they had not heard her, I wouldn’t have sent another team down there. We would have gone down another gorge. And it would have been days. She’d likely not have survived. She was in peril.”
Found at 10:20 a.m., it took over two more hours for heli-rescue to get the woman and the rescue team out of treacherous terrain. Because of provincial regulations, certification of local long line equipment has been challenging and a year has passed with no official recognition due to red tape. A long-line team had to come in from the Okanagan.
“We have those tools here. We could have gotten them off that mountain in less than an hour,” said Armstrong.
Nelson Search and Rescue led the search calling in Castlegar, Creston and Rossland and South Columbia teams. On Monday, 21 people helped in the search and on Tuesday there were 16 participating.
Armstrong advises those heading into the backcountry for any purpose to ensure they carry the essentials. Even berry pickers shouldn’t become complacent, he says.
The essentials include a light, a whistle, fire starter, extra clothes, pocketknife, a shelter or tarp, water and food, a first aid kit, a compass and a cell phone.