A swamped truck, stranded rock climbers, and a recovery in The Ghost.
Sunday, June 7, 2020, 10:30 am:
Marc Lomas and Kenna Ozbick are sitting down to coffee at home in Banff, Alberta.
It’s Kenna’s phone, but Marc sees the caller: **GOA Parks and Rec**
Marc has lived in the mountains long enough to know what that might mean, “Ehh. This could be bad,” he thinks.
“Is this Kenna?… Do you know a Marc Lomas?… Can we talk to him?…”
At this point, Marc was wondering, “Oh man. Who died?”
“Do you know a James Walter?”
“Yes. Is he ok?”
“He’s fine. He and Amy just need someone to pick them up at the Ghost River—And some warm clothes.”
Relieved, to say the least, Marc caught his breath. “I knew their truck would be in the river. So, we loaded up recovery gear and everything you’d usually take wheeling—And some warm clothes.”
James Walter and Amy Gnutel are active rock climbers and make the trip to the Ghost a half-dozen times a year to climb the limestone walls in the summer or frozen waterfalls in the winter. What climbers call “The Ghost” is a corner of the Ghost Public Land Use Zone just outside of Banff National Park with the Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park surrounding it.
It’s where the Rocky Mountains end suddenly in vertical walls, which drop hundreds of meters down to the river, the gravel flats, and then the foothills.
Climbers love the rock here, but the driving can present a challenge. Summitpost.org warns climbers, “A shovel and sleeping gear are a must in the Ghost. Tons of horror stories to go around, including losing vehicles to the river.”
James and Amy heeded the warning, but by the time they needed it, their camping gear was underwater.
James drives a stock 2004 Jeep Cherokee (red). It handled the Trans Canada, the 1A, Highway 40 and the Ghost Valley Road to the Big Hill easily. Once the road ended, the water crossings and alluvial fans had not posed any problems that morning either.
The pair enjoyed a gorgeous day. They climbed 280 vertical meters in the sun on a classic route called the Wraith. They returned to their rig at Devil’s Gap, happy to lay in a hammock and cook some food.
When they started home, though, James saw, “There was substantially more water running than in the morning. It had been cookin’ hot all day, so there was a lot of snowmelt.” The water was also opaque now with runoff silt, making it difficult to spot the shallows or deeper areas.
They made it safely to the last river crossing below the Big Hill and the start of the road. In the morning, the water here had been to the top of their tires.
“We rolled in there and the front end just dropped.” James remembers, “I drove right into a hole in the river. The entire hood was underwater, and there’s water up to the bottom of the windows. I felt it drop, and I skinny pedalled it to see if we could hop out. Nope!” The Jeep lost power and stalled a second later.
“We were fully perpendicular to the river. The water was hitting most of the way up the doors, pushing the Jeep sideways. The windows were up, the electronics were shorting out, and I was thinking, ‘this thing is going to roll.’ We wouldn’t be able to push the doors open with that water pressure, but luckily we managed to get a window open and climb up onto the roof.”
They were now helpless on their tiny red island in the river.
The water was deep and fast. Even James, at six-foot three-inches, couldn’t wade to shore. Lucky for the couple, it was a busy weekend, and the far shore had a diverse crowd watching the show. There were families with 5th wheel trailers, bachelor parties, off-roaders, and drunken teens. All would get involved as the night wore on.
There was a crew driving a lifted 80’s series Land Cruiser with a snorkel on it who were happy to help. They drove out and were able to throw James a tow strap. The current was too strong though, and James couldn’t get it connected to the Jeep’s tow points, three feet underwater. Eventually, they gave up and put a strap around the roof and through the windows. The Land Cruiser held it tight while James and Amy dragged themselves across the torrent.
The Jeep at this point was full of water, like a fishbowl with garbage floating around in it. “It was shorting out, so the windshield wipers were doing their thing, and the windows were going up and down like a clown car,” James remembers.
Once James and Amy were safe, the Land Cruiser crossed the river again. They were able to attach to the Jeep’s rear tow hitch and at least drag it back out of the water. There it could dry out, on the wrong side of the river, for the night.
Drenched head to toe, the couple were taken to the bachelor party’s “whisky tasting tent” and while they sipped, their hosts found dry clothes for them.
“Everyone was so generous and helpful. People were offering everything. But most of it was alcohol.” James thought, “Well, we either stay here and have a great evening, and tomorrow still sucks. Or we go for a walk and get cell reception to get the gears moving.”
They carried an InReach satellite communication device for their climb, but it was now flooded somewhere in the Jeep. So, they start the 10 kilometre march up the Trans Alta road to get cell coverage.
They started by calling a friend who used to work for Kananaskis Dispatch. With limited cell phone power themselves, they hoped he could organize things, including a tow truck for the next morning. After that, it was the two-hour walk back. One hour in, just to top off the good times, lightning struck nearby, and it began to rain.
Marc drives a 1995 Land Cruiser and is an old ski patrol friend of James’s. His truck has a three-inch Dobinson Suspension lift, open differentials front and back, and 33” tires. When a Conservation Officer showed up the next morning and asked who he could call for them, Marc seemed like the right choice.
Two hours after getting that call from GOA (Government of Alberta), Marc and Kenna reached the bottom of the Big Hill. James and Amy were huddled under a tree, and the tow truck was stumped. It turns out the towing company has a policy of not getting their tires wet, and the cables they had were not long enough to reach James’ vehicle.
They promised to return with longer cables, but Marc was not happy to wait. He first drove across the river and rescued all the gear from the Jeep (a climber first, James was more worried about his gear than his vehicle). Marc then waded up and downstream, mapping out possible routes.
Marc had been on rides with the Gear Shop and had witnessed a few recoveries with them. YouTube taught him the rest. “I’m pretty confident I can do this,” he told the crew.
He found a shallow gravel bar mid-river that he could pull from and used a kinetic strap together with a static strap to reach the Jeep. Without a third vehicle to do a snatch block, he had to reposition and reset often.
First, Marc towed the Jeep a couple of hundred meters upriver. Then he repositioned to pull across the deepest water. “I wanted him to fjord across while facing upriver a bit so that the full force of the water wouldn’t be on his side and roll him.”
From here, they drove downriver a couple of hundred metres on a gravel bar to position for the final fjord across to the bank. Each change of direction needed numerous resets, and James managed the dead Jeep, with no power steering or brakes.
When all eight tires finally reached the shore, they switched to a static tow strap and kept right on going up the Big Hill and on towards Highway 40. Every kilometre they covered decreased the towing bill—and added to the quality of scotch James would be buying.
The tow truck met them on the road and took the Jeep safely from there, but the damage was done and it was later declared a write-off. James has moved on and bought a Toyota FJ to replace it. He has no plans for a snorkel or lift kit at this point.
What the crew learned:
-Big Hill Towing will get you out of a jam in many places up there, but it’s better to have your own team with the skills and tools to do it.
-Waterways change quickly and get serious fast.
-Communications are crucial. If James and Amy had the InReach on them or another way to call out, they could have avoided a cold, wet night. Of course, they wouldn’t have as good a story to tell.
The next Gear Shop ride is Saturday October 24th
Stay tuned for the next recovery course on the website.
Ghost Public Land Use Zone
Big Hill Towing