Ever take a shortcut that didn’t turn out quite right? This is an example of a shortcut that became fatal: a warning tale for anyone driving in the winter, who decides they know a better way. This also applies in the summer, when heat can be just as deadly.
Survival Excerpt from The Green Beret Survival Guide
In 2006 a family of four departed Seattle after a Thanksgiving visit and drove south to go home to San Francisco, with a stop at a resort along the coast of Oregon. I’ve driven the Seattle-San Francisco route several times, both by Interstate and along the coast, so I’m familiar with the territory. Let me chronicle their journey, while pointing out where mistakes were made.
They left Portland on Saturday morning, heading for a lodge near Gold Beach, Oregon. There were two roads they could have turned off on as they went down I-5: Route 38, which Google Maps suggests, or Route 42, further south. Regardless, anyone who has tried to cross the mountains along the northern California Coast knows how difficult any road through them is at any time of year.
This is the first problem: a failure to appreciate the time of year, late November, and the terrain, mountainous. Always a dangerous combination and a failure to do an Area Study.
They missed the turn off for Route 42. This is a mistake, pure and simple. But don’t compound one mistake with more. Instead of turning back, they consulted the paper map they had and saw a road that seemed to go through the mountains to the coast. It was only after they got trapped for four days did they note the fine print in the corner of the map: “Not all roads advisable. Check weather conditions.” Another mistake.
Remember you know my Rule of Seven? What are we up to now?
They took the road. Here’s something you need to understand: in different parts of the country, the word ‘road’ takes on different meanings. In Northern Maine, it often means unimproved logging roads. They were on a hard road, but it was narrow and curving. They also passed at least three signs warning: “Bear Camp Mountain Road May Be Blocked By Snowdrifts.” This is not a case of a generic warning, “don’t wrap the plastic from your laundry around your head” but a very specific warning.
Yet, they continued on.
One of the hardest decisions to make is often the decision to stop and turn around. To not do something. When your flight at the airport gets canceled, consider that it might be for mechanical reasons and while the airline is being overly cautious, it’s better than you being dead. Pilots often have to make weather decisions or take off decisions weighing safety against the schedule. The deadliest airline crash ever, between two 747s, occurred because one pilot, a senior one at that, was in a rush to stick to schedule.
As they drove up into the mountains, they encountered falling snow. Again, rather than continue on to higher elevations, where the snow would be worse, they should have turned back. As you gain altitude, temperature drops roughly 6.4 degrees Celsius or 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit every 1,000 feet (a little tidbit from Winter Warfare training with 10th Special Forces; or via Wikipedia). This is why you have that temperature gauge on your dashboard. People driving from Denver to Colorado Springs often fail to take into account the rise in altitude near Monument at they go down I-25.
In darkness, despite increasing snowfall and decreasing temperatures, they drove on.
The falling snow contributed to the next mistake. A spray painted sign on the road itself indicated which way to turn to go to the coast. Because snow covered it, they didn’t see it. They took wrong turn onto a logging road.
Another mistake, not the family’s fault: the gate to the logging road should have been locked. But because of concerns about locking in hunters, it hadn’t been. Since locking the gate was an SOP, failure to do so, was a major failure.
They finally could go no further and stopped. They kept warm by running the car’s engine. This indicates they did not go into survival mode immediately. The fuel was a precious, non-renewable resource.
Eventually they ran out of fuel. They then made a fire of wood and magazines.
Then they made a fire of the tires, trying to use the black smoke as a signal.
It took four days for a missing persons report to be issued when co-workers of the father noticed him not showing up. Thus, they had not made sure they had a point of contact who had their itinerary and when they would be checking in. Those lost days were critical.
Backtracking, authorities found they had used a credit card at a local restaurant. The search started from that point. Once more, let someone know your itinerary, when you can be considered overdue, and at least your planned route. Searchers can work off of that.
Finally, the father decided to go for help. He left, wearing clothes that were inadequate for the terrain and weather, but it was all he had. His next mistake was believing he knew where they were and where the nearest town was (he was off, much as the Uruguayan team was on the other side of the Andes, not the one they thought). But then he made an even bigger mistake by leaving the road and striking out cross-country. In the Area Study in the Survival Guide I suggest checking out cross-country routes in various terrain. The mountains along the coast of Oregon and Northern California are extraordinarily difficult to move in.
This is a case where staying on the road would have been the advisable course of action. Searchers tend to look in obvious places first, especially if they know you are in a car. Also, roads in rough terrain are the easiest to navigate rather than cross-country. It might look quicker to take a “short cut” but ask yourself why the road builders didn’t take that short cut?
One thing they did do right was, even though they weren’t picking up any cell phone reception, they sent out several text messages. Remember, texts have a greater chance of getting through than voice. Two cell phone engineers, checking records, found that the family’s cell phone had briefly made contact with a cell phone tower. Pinpointing this tower they were able to focus the search. A local man, flying his own helicopter in the search, spotted the wife and two children on a road and they were rescued.
The father was found, lying on his back in a creek, dead from hypothermia. The combination of cold and wet is quickly fatal. He’d walked around 16 miles, and died less than a mile from a lodge. It was a heroic effort.
Do you see how mistakes can pile on top of mistakes? The family did not make all the mistakes. The gate that should have been locked played a key role. But they made enough on their own to turn what should have been a minor problem into a disaster.
1. Plan your trip carefully. Map out alternate routes. Do not take an unknown route without checking it out; the best thing is to ask locals.
2. Have your car Grab & Go bag ready and in the car.
3. Do not leave the road in a car emergency. While cross-country might seem a quicker route, short cuts tend to not be.
4. When traveling, let others know your itinerary. Let them know when they should be concerned if you do not check in.
As an aside, when I go up to Oak Ridge to bike or even here in Concord Park on weekdays when I know there will be few people on the trails, I use ecrumbs from RoadID to let my wife know where I am. It sends an alert if I do not move for five minutes. The app is FREE. It’s worth your life. It could also be used while driving! But remember, it does need a signal to work.
And, like those late night commercials, that’s not all! Also free: the first book in my Duty, Honor, Country trilogy: West Point to Mexico, for those who sign up for my email list.