Mount Caubvick - Trip Report - Part 8Click here to go to the Peak Page for Mount Caubvick
Saturday, August 14, 2004
Hiking along the Koroc River
Today the five of us (Mitch, Sue, Jack, Billie, and I) had to make our way up the valley of the Koroc River for about seven miles to the gravel landing area where our plane would pick us up tomorrow. We also had to ford the Koroc River, and we hoped to find the canoe left behind by Dan and Susan last year and use it to ferry ourselves across.
I was up at 6:30 AM, and I saw it was a cool, overcast morning. Jack was totally sacked out, so I caught up on my journal in the tent for a while until the others were stirring. I finally woke Jack, and we slowly got out and fired up the stove for breakfast. Mitch and Sue were taking down their tent as we ate, and Billie was not far behind. Jack and I finally took down our tent and got our heavy packs all filled--they were lighter now that we had eaten most of our food, so they were pretty tolerable by now.
Andrew had given us the GPS coordinates of the canoe on the satphone last night, and they indicated a spot directly below us on the riverbank, about 500 vertical feet below our campsite. So Mitch, Sue, and Billie made their way straight down the grassy, bushy slope, and at 9:30 AM Jack and I followed, catching up when they were halfway down. Soon we were all on the north bank of the river, and I got out my GPS, which indicated that the exact spot was actually in the middle of the river. We scanned the banks in the area, but didn't see anything.
|Left-hand red line is our route back to the landing strip on August 14, 2004. Squares on map are 1 km each.|
In retrospect, we should have looked harder, or backtracked a bit, because the coordinates were not very accurate, probably just a rough guess based on the map graticule. The riverbank had some low bluffs and hidden coves, but we checked the actual shores very closely. We had to head east (upstream) to get to the landing site, so we started hiking along the north bank, keeping an eye out for the canoe. If we could not find the canoe and had to ford the river, it was obviously best to wait until we were upstream as much as possible, near where we had crossed last week.
So for the next several hours we just hiked along, hugging the north bank of the Koroc. It was not particularly easy going, since there were many tributary brooks to cross, plus a mixture of ankle-high bushes, sand, bog, rocky shore, mudflats, and meadows in a constantly changing mix of terrain. So even though there was no elevation gain whatsoever, the going was still a bit tiring. We kept our eyes peeled for the canoe, but the further upstream we got the less likely it seemed we would find it. It did seem odd to us that Dan and Susan had canoed downstream so far from the landing site to their cache, forcing them to hike back a couple miles before they could ascend the Bennett Brook valley to the Caubvick basecamp, but either this was a mistake on their part, or our coordinates were wrong. All we found was a Clorox-bottle bailer lying on the shore at one point.
As the five us of hiked along the biggest issues were brook crossings. Most of them were narrow enough for us to find a likely spot and leap, but one major stream was so wide that everyone but me took off their boots and waded. As the tallest person in our party, I braved the leap and my Gore-Tex boots shook off the slight dunking they received. Not long after this crossing there was a big lagoon, and Jack detoured inland, while the rest of us hugged the bank. When we regrouped Jack pointed out the place were he had cached his boats on his 1997 trip, and he wanted to have lunch there. I was a bit tired and hungry by now, but agreed to plug on a bit further.
We arrived at Jack's old river camp area at about 1 PM, and the grassy and lowland areas were teeming with tons of mosquitoes, despite the cool overcast weather. However, we discovered a sandy bluff overlooking the river where a constant breeze kept the bugs at bay, and here we had a nice, leisurely lunch break. At this point we had given up on finding the canoe--later we learned that it had been spotted all banged-up on a rock in the middle of the river, presumably the casualty of a year's worth of river flow. We had not really been looking in the water at all, just on the shore.
Underway once more, we soon arrived at the confluence of the Koroc River and the snowmelt-swollen Bennett Brook, the stream we had followed up to our basecamp last week. We all took off our boots and waded across the swift stream, up to the knees of most of us. My feet were instantly numb from the water that felt like 32.01 degrees Fahrenheit, and the rocks on the streambed were painful on my soles, but it was a short crossing. I waited to make sure the short women on our team made it across safely while Mitch and Jack went on ahead, keeping their boots off and staying on the sandbars. Their plan was apparently to ford the main Koroc here, too, as long as their boots were already off.
So Sue, Billie, and I followed once we were across the Bennett Brook, and it wasn't too bad hiking on squishy sand in bare feet for about a half-mile while we probed the Koroc for a likely crossing spot. The main annoyance to me was my hiking boots around my neck, but it was convenient to be able to just walk right across several shallow but wide water channels. I even put my pack hip-belt back on.
By staying on sandbars and working our way into the middle of the wide, braided channel, Mitch finally found a narrow, knee-deep channel that afforded a surprisingly painless crossing of the main Koroc, and soon we were all on the grassy tufts of the south bank, drying off our feet and putting our boots back on. We were only about a mile from the landing site, too.
We had instantly noticed after our river crossing that the mosquitoes were darkening the air in huge, thick, mass-formation attacks. We took off as quickly as we could, and, in a futile attempt to avoid them, headed south across grassy, boggy terrain to the very foot of the mountains ahead and then along their base. The bugs were still ferocious, and even though I was hot in my jacket and hat with ear-flaps, I still kept them on to keep away the worst bugs of the entire trip. The jacket prevented them from their past habit of repeatedly biting my left shoulder right through my long-john shirt.
After contouring around the base of the mountains on the south shore of the Koroc, with minor ups and downs, the five us turned a corner and saw the airstrip area. It was a very different scene that the one we had left ten days earlier--there were now many large white canvas tents set up for the Quebec Parks survey team, a generator making a racket, and their helicopter buzzing about. As we got closer we saw the tent city of our team, off in a grassy area just to the south of the gravel bed. With 19 members of our expedition, plus at least ten more in the survey team, this little spot was temporarily one of the largest settlements in northern Labrador.
Just before getting to camp we crossed a tiny brook, and Sue and I stopped to fill up our water bottles, since our memory of the airstrip area was that there was no good water nearby. We all then trickled in to camp, Sue and I last, to find that our entire team of 19 was now together for the first time in ten days. The five of us were the last to arrive. However, the low, grassy area where everyone else had pitched their tents was a total mosquito sink where one could not stand still and chat for even a seconds, so the five of us elected to set up camp on a high gravel bluff nearby, where a strong and steady wind kept the bugs away more consistently.
Adventures of the Other Teams
The rest of the evening was a very social experience as I gradually heard the stories from my teammates of their various adventures. After we left Roland, Andrew, François, Tom, and John, they accompanied the Quebec Parks archeologists to the stone ring, and later that day all of them but Tom got a nice ten-minute helicopter tour of the upper part of Mount Caubvick. While this was going on the three Canadian canoeists had climbed up towards the peak, and one of them somehow got separated from the rest once down in the Bennett Brook valley. So Roland, Andrew, John, and François had formed a search party and spent until midnight hiking down the valley looking for the guy, who it turned out was OK and back in camp anyway. This was called a "bastard search".
Due to weather and other issues, they never got up the Peak 4800 south of Caubvick. Instead, they hiked down to the Koroc the next day, camped there, did some fishing, made campfires, and finally made their way back to the landing strip early today (Saturday).
I also caught up with the north team for the first time since I had seen six of them on the summit of Caubvick last Sunday. The next clear day, Wednesday, the six Caubvick summiters (Jim, Katherine, Paul, Luc, Ward, and Beth) had climbed Cirque Mountain, an impressive peak long thought to be the highest in Labrador. Bill, Scott, and Mike, turned back from Caubvick on Sunday, attempted it again by an easier route and had met up with the three canoeists near the football field--these were the six figures my west team had seen from Peak 3992 that day. However, the treacherous exposure of the Minaret Ridge had spooked Mike and two of the canoeists, so only Bill, Soctt, and Joel the canoeist has made the summit. That meant that of the 19 on our trip, only Jack and Mike had not summited the highest peak in Labrador (Jack, though, had climbed it in 1997).
Over the next couple of days the North Team had made its way back to the landing site, arriving on Friday night, so they had been here all day. I chatted with Luc, who, with the boundless energy of youth, had somehow ranged off away from the main north team by himself on a number of occasions, climbing the Adler Lookout sub-peak, three small peaks south of Cirque Mountain, and also the high summit looming over the airstrip site to the south.
Hanging Out at Koroc Ikalu City
For the rest of the day, aside from chatting with my teammates, we did random tasks. Jack and I cooked our last meal, some couscous pasta that needed more seasoning than the tiny airline packet of salt Billie donated. We all made sure our cached gear and the stuff the helicopter had brought back was all OK, and talked to the survey team. At one point a botanist came by and gave us a long talk about the lichens on a boulder--he knew all about the twenty or more different species of lichen on your typical Torngat rock. We also visited the massive tent city the survey team had set up, complete with generators, cook tents, and Inuit cooks.
At one point the survey team decided to get some fresh fish for dinner, and heard that we had a fishing rod. John, owner of the rod, was not around, so they quickly grabbed Luc, Katherine, and Mike and whisked them off in the helicopter to a stream to the north that supposedly had some Arctic char. They returned an hour or so later, our team members happy for their little ride and the survey crew people bringing back some just-caught fish for their cooks to prepare. They shared some with our team.
All this activity was somewhat jarring after the remoteness our west team had just experienced. Things started settling down by late evening, though, and Jack and I retired to our tent by about 8 or 9 PM and were soon trying to sleep in a roaring wind. Our exposed bluff-top camp spot was great for fewer mosquitoes, but the wind was so strong I could barely sleep due to the tent flapping.
Sunday, August 15, 2004
The 19 of us in our expedition were all up by 8 AM or so, and Roland was on the satphone to Air Inuit, our charter plane outfitter, before 9 AM. It was another overcast and windy day, but with no rain and the clouds pretty high, so our flights were a go. They were only sending two planes instead of the three we had needed to get in, since we had less weight of food, and, more importantly, there was much less fuel in the planes on the return.
We all packed up our tents for the last time, Jack and I happy to not have to face more nights in ripping wind. By 10 AM all nineteen of us had all our gear ferried the 1/4 mile from our camp to the Koroc Ilaku gravel bed, and we made huge piles of our packs, bags, and other stuff.
Roland gave us a final debriefing while we stood in a circle, where we discussed what worked (most things) and what didn't (mainly the radios). After that we all made a pile of our cameras and had a survey crew member take pictures of all 19 of us with all our cameras, so we all would have a good group shot.
The two Twin Otters landed about 11 AM, needing only about 100 feet of gravel to land and come to a complete stop. We loaded up the gear, and I hopped on the second flight. It was a much smoother ride than on the way in, and I didn't feel sick at all. Our pilot cruised up to 10,000 feet high, above the clouds, so we did not get much scenery on our flight back to Kuujjuaq. We arrived first back at the airport, even though our flight left last, and I was disappointed to learn from others that their flight stayed low, under the clouds, and they had great views of the Koroc valley and its caribou herds.
At the tiny Kuujjuaq airport terminal we retrieved the gear we had left behind, re-packed everything, and checked our bags for our commercial 727 flight to Montreal. It did not leave until 4:45 PM, and it was only about 12:30 PM now, so we all decided to walk the mile into town and see what sights we could. Kuujjuaq is the largest town in northern Quebec, a major transportation hub with a population of 2000, and it didn't seem too bad compared to other northern towns some of us had experienced. The government had put a lot of money into town, and it had paved roads plus a new hospital, school, community center, and other facilities.
Our motley group of haggard, smelly Gore-Tex clad adventurers must have looked a little like space aliens to the Inuit population of the town that seemed to be continually motoring around on four-wheelers. We all stopped in a small gift shop near the edge of town, and then found the main supermarket, a surprisingly well-stocked store where we bought some food and t-shirts and saw our first newspapers in many days. They had a fast-food restaurant annex where François bought a big pile of "poutine", french fries covered in gravy, for us.
We all wandered back to the Kuujjuaq airport in separate groups, Jack and I taking a residential side street teeming with Inuit children playing. The nice new visitor center was open but not manned, so soon we were all back at the airport. At 4:20 PM our flight loaded up (no delays like last week), and soon we were all jetting back to Montreal across the cloud-covered endless lakes of the Canadian Shield. I had a window seat next to Luc, and I chatted with him about his plans to leave for an intensive mountain-guide training course in British Columbia in less than a week.
Our flight arrived in Montreal at 7 PM, and in the crowded chaos of Dorval/Trudeau airport we all stayed together until the luggage carousel, where our massive duffel bags and packs were slowly reclaimed amid hordes of other travelers. Here is where the good-byes began, as Tom and John went off to get their flight to Toronto. Most of the rest of us got our stuff on carts and waited out at the curb for the shuttle bus back to the Sheraton hotel, but several people, including Mitch and Sue, elected to get a taxi to their car and avoid the wait, so we said our goodbyes to them. About 12 of us eventually wound up at the hotel, and I got my own room for the night so I could shower and organize my gear without being in anyone's way.
I said goodbye to Roland, Andrew, François, and Luc, all headed back to Ottawa tonight, and then I went up to shower (aaaah!). When I got back down to the hotel bar after my shower, though, they were still there, and soon we were joined by Jack, Billie, Paul, Mike, Jim, Katherine, and maybe some others. Many of us were getting flights home tomorrow, so we had time to chat and get the latest news Roland had gotten about autopsies, photos, and other matters (see Postscript below). Gradually people left, to eat, shower, or leave on long drives, and we all had heartfelt goodbyes for our companions on what had been a truly extraordinary trip.
This seems like about the best place to end this account. After many good-byes I went up to my hotel room to get some good sleep in a real bed for the first time in ten nights, and the next day I caught a flight from Montreal to Detroit to Seattle, arriving home mid-afternoon on Monday.
After the busy days on Mount Caubvick when the bodies of Dan and Susan had been recovered, it was apparent that in many ways more questions had been raised than answered. Which route had they ascended? If they ascended the Koroc Ridge, why was there no rappel anchor there? If they had not come that way, why did they try to descend a route that would require them to climb a 30-foot wall with no top rope? Why were their bodies separated? Why was Dan's rope lowering a pack down a sheer cirque wall?
Over the next few days and weeks, Roland was in contact with the Parks-Canada folks and more information trickled in. Some of it he heard via satphone while on the mountain, some he told us while in the hotel at the end of the trip, and some he relayed to us team members in follow-up e-mails.
Dan and Susan's bodies were somewhat decomposed, but autopsies were performed, and they showed no broken bones. However, they could not tell if there had been any significant soft tissue injuries, such as a twisted ankle or torn knee ligaments, due to the state of the bodies.
The photos in Dan's camera were developed, and they clearly showed that Dan and Susan had ascended the Koroc Ridge--there are photos of Susan at the inukshuk where the ridge starts becoming technical, and even a shot of their rappel rope going over the step. The two strands are right next to each other, suggesting that they had the rope in a sling and not just wrapped around a horn--in that case, the strands would be far apart (and hopefully even an inexperienced climber like Dan would know that you never rappel with a rope directly over a rock horn). There are summit shots, and all of the pictures show an intense white-out.
The most plausible theory is that Dan and Susan climbed to the summit via the Koroc Ridge according to plan, and made it back to the base of the step without incident. Then, something probably happened while Dan was climbing the step--most likely the horn or boulder the rappel sling was around broke loose, causing him to fall and suffer a serious soft-tissue injury that immobilized him. This would explain why no slings were found on top of the step, and also why Susan had to go for help by re-climbing the peak and then descending the Minaret Ridge.
Dan may have fallen and hurt himself without the rappel anchor failing, but in that case Susan's belay had not caught him (very unlikely on top-rope), and the sling would still be there, and Susan could have climbed the step, if Dan was still OK enough to belay her. So in all likelihood the rappel anchor failed. Billie and I, when setting up our rappel anchor at this exact spot, had seen two rock horns, one solid, and one questionable. Had there been a third horn, now broken off? We will never know. Maybe the sling will be found later, far below.
So Dan was injured, and Susan's only option was to go for help by re-climbing to the summit and then descending the exposed, class-4 Minaret Ridge solo in a raging snow and wind storm. Given her likely emotional state and relative lack of climbing experience, this was an amazingly courageous alpine achievement and probably the first-ever traverse of the summit of Mount Caubvick.
Dan, left behind at the base of the rappel notch, was probably very cold, being unable to move. The wind was certainly ripping through the notch (the Rickards said the wind that afternoon near the peak could blow a person over), so he might have thought he could lower his pack and himself to some shelter below. He might not have realized in the white-out that the south side of the notch was sheer cliffs for over a thousand feet, and he might have been trying to lower his pack when he may have succumbed to hypothermia.
Susan, once at the safety of the football field, left her harness behind, but we will never know where she was headed next. There were two places she could go: descend the easy south-central ridge to their basecamp and its satphone down in the Bennett Brook valley; or try to reach Jim and Katherine Rickard, who she knew might be climbing the peak from the north on this day. Descent to basecamp seems like the most logical option for her--Jack had told Dan and Susan about the south central ridge and how easy it was, and for all Susan knew the Rickards had totally bailed on climbing the peak and she had no idea where their campsite was. The Rickards had indeed been very close to the football field, but in all likelihood that was much earlier in the day.
Given the bad weather, Dan and Susan had probably not had much of a view of the south central ridge on their ascent of the Koroc, so Susan probably had no idea of where to find its start, even though she had already done the hardest part of the descent. Perhaps her plan was to see if she could hail the Rickards, and failing that, descend to camp. She probably probed around the football field, and, looking for a way down, either slipped on loose rocks or a wind gust blew her over the edge. We don't know if she survived her fall to the ledge or not.
Dan and Susan's bodies were returned to their families, and their memorial service was held on Friday, August 20th in Brampton, Ontario. Roland, Andrew, François, John, Tom, and Jack were all present. The Barnes and Pauzé families had finally gained the closure that had eluded them for over a year since their terribly tragic loss.
Even though it was not our expedition that had found the bodies, we feel that the existence of a large, well-prepared, private search party was a major reason that the professionals from Parks-Canada had come in with their helicopter and found what they did. Our expedition certainly would have found Dan--indeed, three of us were about an hour away from his body when the chopper swooped in--and we would have needed to call in a helicopter for body removal anyway. I don't know if we would have found Susan (the consensus seems to be that only a helicopter would have spotted her), so having the Parks-Canada team there was crucial in that regard.
This was one of the most intense, and meaningful outdoor experiences of my life, and I am sure that everyone else on the trip feels the same way. It was a fantastic group of skilled climbers coming together for a higher purpose than just climbing a peak, and the strong levels of emotion, lack of any real personality conflict, and beautiful rugged terrain all combined to create a most memorable adventure.
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