Elise Héon credits her survival to the keen ears of a dog named Pebble.
The Toronto doctor had been stranded on a ledge in a canyon in Arizona for almost 24 hours when her screams for help finally attracted the attention of a nearby dog and its owners.
“It took a while for them to realize that the dog was barking because of me. So I had to make the dog bark and bark and bark and bark again,” she recalled in an interview.
Several hours later, the 50-year-old was finally rescued – injured, dehydrated and cold.
Dr. Héon, who is the chief ophthalmologist at the Hospital for Sick Children, was in Arizona for a relaxing spa vacation. Instead, she became stranded in remote Oak Creek Canyon after she lost track of a pine-needle-covered trail during a morning hike Thursday outside Sedona.
“You know when you start imagining a trail? So I went around and around and at some point I realized that I had no clue where I was going and I had to go down,” she said.
Dr. Héon, who could see a road and houses in the distance, improvised her descent down the canyon, rock climbing in sneakers, a T-shirt and cropped pants and sometimes hanging onto tree branches to lower herself. At one point, she lost her grip and fell about 15 metres, injuring her knee. She gave up after encountering a cliff that was so steep she couldn’t hear rocks land when she threw them over the ledge.
So she started yelling – and waiting. She cleaned up her “camp,” a narrow triangular ledge with a cave about 200 metres from the bottom of the canyon. She didn’t have any food or water, so tried to conserve her strength, taking short naps as night fell. Mostly, she worked on her plan to be rescued, thinking about how to project her voice further so someone would hear her.
“I didn’t panic. I had to troubleshoot and I was determined to get out of there. I had decided there’s no way I was going to die. But I knew it could happen. But I would do everything for it to not happen. So the whole night, that’s just what I thought of, just saying, ‘How am I going to get out of there?’”
Without her knowledge, authorities had been alerted by staff at her hotel, who became concerned by 11 a.m. on Thursday, when she didn’t check out of her room, which still contained her wallet and cellphone.
Search-and-rescue crews began looking for her when an employee recalled her asking about nearby hiking areas. When the sun rose on Friday morning, Dr. Héon says she was even more “determined to be heard,” having preserved her voice by chewing on grass and pine needles to maintain a source of saliva. Finally, her screams for help attracted Pebble’s attention.
What Dr. Héon didn’t know is that Sally Gebler, Pebble’s owner, initially heard one of her screams, but doubted what it was until Pebble, a three-year-old mutt, started barking. “I know her behaviours and I know when something’s different and when I really need to pay attention,” said Ms. Gebler, a 56-year-old office manager. “When she barked, it’s like we need to do something.”
At that point, Ms. Gebler’s husband Tom grabbed his GPS unit and hiked in closer to Dr. Heon.
“I said, ‘I found you, I know where you are.’ I heard her starting to cry. She’s like, ‘Please help me.’ And then she said she didn’t want to die,” said Mr. Gebler, a 53-year-old interior designer, who passed on the co-ordinates to two sherriff’s deputies.
But Dr. Héon still had to wait for hours before search-and-rescue teams pulled her off the ledge.
A rescue team stayed at the bottom of the canyon while a helicopter came and went because of high winds. “I would sob, ‘They dumped me,’” she remembers. She could still see the rescuers, which reassured her. But at another point, they disappeared, but she took solace in knowing that an ambulance didn’t move.
Finally, around 4:45 p.m. on Friday, a team of paramedic rock climbers reached her by rappelling down the canyon. One persuaded her to climb up 15 metres so she could be rescued by helicopter – a feat she didn’t think she could manage.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do that.’ And he just looked at me with a smile and said, ‘Yes you will. I’ll help you.’ And he says, ‘We will go back up together and it’ll be fine. You’ll see, it’ll be fun.’”
Back in Toronto, Dr. Héon is nursing her knee but thankful to be alive. “It’s a happy ending. I’m extremely grateful.”