How One Couple Survived the Tubbs Fire

27 Dec

We always knew fire was a possibility. When it came that day, there was no warning. We smelled smoke and that was disturbing, so we got on our phones and tried to find out what was going on. All five neighbors on the dead-end road where we lived had left. We decided to throw stuff into our cars and drive down to check our exit route—but by then the fire had reached the end of the driveway. We could see it on the ridge coming toward us. I thought, This is not possible.

What actually saved our lives was a motorcycle trip we’d taken about six years earlier to Big Bear Lake, in Southern California. We’d stopped at a coffee shop and the guy who ran it told us how a fire had come through and he and his buddy had survived in a pool. After that, I always had that in the back of my mind as a last resort. Jan called 911 as we were running and told the dispatcher we were going to the neighbor’s pool. Luckily, it was only five feet deep, so we didn’t have to tread water. When the fire hit, the tree went up behind the pool, it got so hot. We were underwater holding our breaths and then coming up and sucking air, and then going back down. We did that for, I don’t know—it was timeless. There were ashes flying all over and the neighbor’s house was burning, so we moved as far away from it as possible.

Once the trees, the houses, everything was consumed, I thought, We’re going to be OK. Jan’s phone had melted on the pool deck, so we had no way of connecting with the outside world. We decided to get out of the pool and see if our house had survived. It hadn’t. We stayed there, keeping warm by a burning railroad tie. I think it was 48 degrees that night. We huddled around that little thing until dawn, then walked three miles, barefoot, to the road at the bottom of our hill. We ran into a sheriff, who took us to a friend’s home. When I got out to thank him, he saluted me.

As told to Will Cockrell.

Sink or Swim

27 Dec

Sydnie and I had never met, but that’s normal when you’re putting in hours. When we took off, all signs were normal. After we climbed to 2,000 feet, the plane started to rumble a bit, but it wasn’t enough of a concern to turn back. After about an hour in the air—at the widest part of the channel between Maui and Kona—the right engine went out. Sydnie got on the radio to tell air traffic control that we may need assistance. Then the left engine went. We declared emergency right away. We were basically gliding.

We weren’t that high—I think about 3,000 feet—which doesn’t give you much time. I remember looking out at the ocean as we were descending—it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. I don’t know how we didn’t die on impact. We were probably approaching at 70, 80 miles per hour, and the plane only had lap belts, no shoulder straps. Sydnie said that she landed it like a regular plane on the ground. She did an amazing job.

As we were getting our bearings, the water was already halfway up the dashboard and gushing in the door. We exited onto the wing and next thing you know, the plane is gone. But I wasn’t really panicking yet, because I was thinking, We just survived a plane crash, and the Coast Guard knows where we went down.

We crashed at about 3:15 p.m. and saw the first rescue aircraft about an hour and a half later. There were a few planes circling, and then a couple of helicopters. But the water was really rough—six-foot whitecaps—so they couldn’t see us. One plane flew right over us. After the sixth or seventh pass, I started to lose hope. Then the air cartridge on my life vest fell off and it deflated.

We realized we had to do this on our own. The good thing about the Big Island is that it’s got two large volcanoes, both nearly 14,000 feet. So even though we were about 25 miles away when we landed, we could see land. By the time we decided to swim it was dark, but we could see lights on the island. We just switched gears and agreed to keep each other positive.

After swimming for a while, I was getting to a point where I couldn’t even keep my head above water. This was my lowest moment. Then Sydnie noticed something on my vest—I hadn’t pulled the toggle to inflate one side. I was like, Holy shit, I’m back!

Then Sydnie swam into a massive jellyfish. She screamed in pain and rolled onto her back, her eyes closed. She was breathing heavily, and she wasn’t responding. She slowly came back, and then she just switched on. She said, “We gotta get outta here.”

At first light, we got the sense of how far we’d swum. It was amazing. We even began talking about the first meal we were going to eat after we made it to shore. That’s when we saw the shark, about ten feet below us, probably six or seven feet long. It made a big slow circle around us, like you see in movies. It stuck around for about 30 minutes and then disappeared.

Eventually, we saw a Coast Guard helicopter, but it flew past. Then I heard one behind us and, without even looking, I knew it was coming for us. Once the guy got down to us, he said, “Man, we are so happy to see you.”

The crazy thing is, we were probably five miles from shore. We would have arrived around sunset, but we definitely would have made it on our own.

As told to Will Cockrell.

How a 13-Year-Old Saved His Dad’s Life

27 Dec

David Finlayson: I’d been taking Charlie into the backcountry since he was a baby. In 2015, when he was 13, we planned a trip to climb these granite towers about 13 miles into Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, in Idaho. A week in, we were about 1,000 feet up a tower. There was loose rock, so I anchored Charlie off to a tree to belay me while I did some route finding. That’s when I heard the crack.

Charlie Finlayson: I didn’t see the boulder hit him, but I saw the rock flake he was standing on come off the wall.

David: My left arm was above my head, and the boulder snapped it, crushed my helmet, and broke my back and my left leg. I ended up 40 feet below Charlie.

Charlie: I couldn’t see him, because there was this bush in the way, so I didn’t know if he was alive. He was silent for like five minutes. I kept shouting, asking if he could hear me.

David: I woke up and heard Charlie yelling. I told him I was OK but bleeding and needed the first aid kit. He lowered it down, then rappelled to me and lowered me another 20 feet to a ledge, where he helped me get bandaged. We were so far up the wall, I thought I might bleed out before we got down. But I just couldn’t say, “Hey, I might not make it.” I told him that if I passed out, he should tie me off to the wall and go. It took us until nightfall to reach the bottom.

Charlie: There was one point where I knew he was delirious, because he said, “OK, you can scramble from here, it looks pretty flat.” We were still 100 feet up.

David: Charlie went to our camp in the dark to get sleeping bags, water, and food. We stayed up all night talking. He’d doze off, then pop up to make sure I was awake. At first light, he got me moving very slowly back to camp. Many times I said, “Charlie, I can’t go any farther.” He’d say, “Let me help you make it another inch.” At camp, I told him he had to go get help.

Charlie: I said, “No, I’m not going out by myself.”

David: That was emotional. I wasn’t too worried about him getting lost, but there might not be anybody at the trailhead. The next morning he was ready. He said, “I guess I better get going.” He gave me a big hug and left.

Charlie: About three miles from camp, I ran into a couple of hikers, who told me there was a big group behind them. I asked them to check on my dad, and I kept going. At first I didn’t see anyone else, so I blew my whistle. This guy ran up to me and then went to get a ranger. That’s when I knew that my dad was going to make it.

David: I had my final round of surgeries in December. I’m still recovering, but we did an all-day climb a couple of weeks ago.

As told to Will Cockrell.

A High Case of the Bends

27 Dec

Our team was diving in Lake Sibinacocha, in Peru, which is at about 16,000 feet. We wanted to collect data on the effects of diving at altitude and also look for Incan artifacts. I’d been a rock climber and a diver most of my life, and I thought of the trip like a first ascent.

My dive partner on the third day was Geoff Belter. We were heading down to around 200 feet, with four tanks each and battery-powered scooters. At about 165 feet, my scooter died, which was a serious enough failure that the dive was essentially over and Geoff would have to tow me up. At about 110 feet, my first tank ran out of gas, so I switched to the other and it immediately ran out. That was a surprise. We weren’t supposed to get close to blowing through that much gas. We’re still not sure what happened with the tanks, and in any case it’s clear our judgement was compromised for some reason—most likely we got too cold. Geoff tried to give me a hose so I could share his air, but I realized that his tank was empty, too. We immediately went up to 80 feet, where it was safe to switch to our remaining tanks, problem solved. I signed to Geoff to send a signal bag to the surface, where another diver, Umberto, was standing by in a kayak. But we were really unstable in a water column, suddenly oscillating up and down and away from each other. The last I remember seeing Geoff, he was holding the bag in his hand in a peculiar way that I’ll never forget. Then he was gone. His body was never found.

I got pulled all the way back down to 110 feet. I hit a button on my drysuit to use air from my new tank to help me get back to a shallower depth. But I lost control and shot to the surface. I yelled to Umberto, who picked me up in the boat, put me on oxygen, and paddled me frantically to shore. Bubbles were forming in my body, and I was expecting to have a massive stroke. I was hypothermic and shivering violently, so the team put me in a winter sleeping bag. After an hour, I could feel my toes. A helicopter evacuation wasn’t an option, so they put me on a horse, but after 30 minutes I lost control of my abdominals and fell off. They carried me in an inflatable boat over a 17,000-foot pass, then drove me to a decompression chamber in Cusco. Back in the States, after rehab, I did my first dive in 2015. Last year, we all went back to Lake Sibinacocha and recovered an ancient artifact from the bottom. There’s now a memorial to Geoff in Florida’s Jackson Blue Springs Cave.

As told to Will Cockrell. 

Way Off-Piste

27 Dec

I’m a ski instructor, but not a backcountry skier. This was my first time at Monarch. I was with a friend, and we spotted some powder at the edge of a run. At no point did we duck a rope. We skied for a long time before we realized that we were lost. I checked my phone, which had just enough battery life to show us how far we’d strayed. That was around 3 p.m. Instead of backtracking, we headed in the direction we thought would take us to the highway.

Just before dark I built a lean-to. It was a cold night. I had stepped in a creek, and my foot was wet. At one point, I went out to pee and fell over. I got up and started yelling, “We’ve got to move—if we stay here we’ll die!” I was crying. My friend calmed me down. He said that if we went wandering in the dark, we really would die. He was right.

In the morning, we retraced our tracks. We spent the day sidestepping and tripping through snow up to our thighs, encouraging each other not to give up. At dusk we reached a road and decided to follow it, each in a different direction. If either of us came upon some reason not to keep going, we’d turn around. We’d either meet up again or know that the other person was farther down the road. After a while I saw a sign: CURVES AHEAD NEXT 19 MILES. I threw my skis in frustration. I have a vivid memory of falling into a snowbank and feeling like I was wrapped in a warm blanket. I just wanted to sleep. But I thought about how it would affect my family and friends if I gave up. That pushed me to keep going, even though it meant turning back.

My friend had turned back, too, after he came upon a giant snowbank in the road. That night we made a snow cave. We were delirious. I had dreams of going to a 7-Eleven for taquitos and beer. I pissed myself. In the morning, I couldn’t take another step. My friend offered to scout and come back to make sure I was alive. He headed straight up the mountain until he collapsed. A backcountry skier had to jump over his body to avoid hitting him. Then my friend popped up and explained that we were lost and had been out for two nights. The skier sent him back to me with peppermint tea and granola bars and went to get help.

My friend returned, shouting, “I have snacks! I have tea!” I can’t describe the relief. When ski patrol reached us, my internal body temperature was near 80 degrees. I went into shock on the helicopter. Somehow the doctors saved my foot, except for a small piece of my big toe.

As told to Will Cockrell.