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Michael St. Laurent speaks to the media from the Lions Gate hospital in North Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Michael St. Laurent speaks to the media from the Lions Gate hospital in North Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Survival

B.C. hiker humbled by near-death experience; astonished at frostbite Add to ...

Somewhere between Days Three and Nine, a wet, cold and stranded Michael St. Laurent became certain he had already saved himself.

The experienced hiker had thawed out his ice-block feet and calves, shimmied down steep mountain terrain to Vancouver and personally arranged for search and rescue to send him a lift.

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He peeled out of his single-tarp shelter and packed up the makeshift Grouse Mountain camp in pitch darkness.

“And I’m waiting for this helicopter to stop by and then after a while I clue in: ‘Hey, I’ve been hallucinating again,’ ” he recalled on Wednesday, three days after a bone fide chopper really did retrieve the North Vancouver man in perilous condition.

“There’s no distinction between what a dream is and what reality is.”

The 45-year-old’s dire predicament was solved by chance last Saturday, when a jogger, who was an off-duty search and rescue worker, and her boyfriend stumbled across the man in a rarely visited area of the mountain north of Vancouver.

The pair gave him dry clothes, first aid and tomato with beef soup, caring for him until the fly-in could take place at first light the next morning.

Sitting in a hospital wheelchair, Mr. St. Laurent half-chuckled, half-scoffed as he described how he wound up having the near-death experience.

He had planned to spend only a day or so wandering through autumn sunshine around the backside of the popular Grouse Mountain on Oct. 13.

In his backpack he carried water, food for two days, a flashlight with batteries, a change of socks and a single tarp.

He had made the same trek twice before, and didn’t bother telling anyone where he was headed.

He didn’t get as far as he’d hoped by dusk, so set up his tarp with warm weather in the forecast.

But it was a much chillier night that brought cold rain instead. In the morning, he massaged his muscles and decided to move forward.

But sore feet turned into puffy feet, and as he climbed off-trail in search of firewood to warm up his limbs, they seized up.

“I sprained my left knee, my right hip, and my legs decided to quit on me at that point,” he said. He ended up on all fours.

“I am familiar from textbook perspectives with symptoms of frostbite, but up until I actually got stuck with my feet being immobile, I didn’t know it was frostbite. I thought I was just a little bit cold and I could move on.”

Day Three morphed into Day Four, and that’s when he started getting worried. Wood was wet and he had no matches or dry tinder to send out smoke signals.

By about his fifth day without food, he spotted a search party in the distance.

“I could see them, I could hear them, I yelled down to them,” he said. “But they didn't hear me, they didn’t see me. And the helicopter flew right over me. That was the first time I lost motivation.”

A missing person report was filed after his car was found parked in the lot at the base of the mountain. Teams had gone out looking, but their efforts were fruitless.

He was hypothermic, losing energy and in agonizing pain. His hallucinations kept flowing just like life.

“When I was dreaming, I thought I was going to work, downtown, out with my friends,” he said. “And something that my friends were begging me to do, dancing. Of all things, with my feet being like that.”

Around his seventh or eighth day, St. Laurent scrawled his name, date of birth and medical conditions on his arm with a felt-tip pen. He figured it would help identify him if anyone found his body.

“I’ve got lots of plans, I still have things I want to do,” he thought, feeling a deep cold settle into his liver and intestines.

“Frostbite in Vancouver in the middle of October?” he asked.

When his salvation arrived on Oct. 22, his hazy mind thought he’d been lost in the backcountry for three weeks.

“It was a great moment of relief,” he said, noting the kindness of his rescuers.

He said the ordeal has left him humbled. Next time he sets out – and definitely, there will be future hikes – he’ll tell someone where he’s going first.

And he said he’d bring flares, a GPS phone and other survival gear.

“In retrospect, yes, I should have left word,” he said, adding that as his exposure to the elements dragged on, he thought he was at the end of his rope.

“If the search and rescue people hadn’t found me, it would have been a while before people with snowshoes would have been going in.”



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