In Need Of A Hero: Three Steps Back And Nothing's There
Could you keep hope alive 100 feet down in a glacial crevasse? As you watch your supplies fly off the side of a mountain in a storm? As you plunge through the ice into frigid water?
Canada’s territories are populated by people whose bravery can match whatever danger is out there.
On a Good Friday, 15 years ago, two RCMP members were patrolling the mountains 125 kilometres south of Haines Junction, near the Alaska-B.C. border, on snowmobile. It was an uneventful patrol, more a couple of friends—Ken Putnam and Kirk Gale—sightseeing in the mountains on a beautiful day. They turned back home with the intention of travelling the next day to a valley they’d spotted from the top of a bluff.
The next day, they found a frozen riverbed and kept following it up to the moraine of a glacier. There were other snowmobile tracks and the partners motored up the moraine and onto the glacier, where the established trail breaks off in three directions. “We never got to it that day or ever did,” says Putnam, “but you get high up enough on that glacier and you get to an area where it descends down into the Alaska side, and people like to go there and have lunch or whatever, and you can see the ocean from there. It’s somethin'.”
They followed what looked like the beaten track until the snow became loose and powdery and a steep descent lay ahead. The pair stopped their snowmobiles and Gale walked ahead to check out the slope.
“We didn’t want to get stuck down in a valley and not be able to get back up,” said Putnam. “Had that happened, we had our gear with us inside of our snowmachines—we had a little stove, extra food, everything. What we didn’t have was any rope, and we purposely didn’t take any rope because we knew where we were going there was nothing to rope onto.”
But, as it turned out, there was one situation they didn’t foresee.
Gale walked forward and said to Putnam, “Look around at where we are.” The sky above them was pure blue and the snow on the glacier was pure white. Putnam, still wearing his snowmobile helmet, took off his gloves and got out his camera. “I had this yellowish orange snowmachine, and I wanted to get that in the foreground with that pure white snow and blue sky,” says Putnam. “I’m walking back to fit it in the frame. One, two, three steps back... and there’s nothing there. It just opened up.”
Putnam, 52, had slipped into a crevasse in the ice. He lunged foreward and caught the lip of the crack with his forearms, above the elbow, and yelled for his partner. “Everything from my neck down was below the lip of the crevasse,” says Putnam. “I remember swinging my legs around looking for something to put my feet on and there was nothing there. So I knew I was in trouble.”
Gale came running back, sprawled in the snow in front of Putnam and grabbed his friend’s hand. “He says, ‘I gotcha, buddy, I gotcha,’” says Putnam. “I knew that wasn’t going to last long either. I felt our hands slipping. We were barehanded. Just slipped and slipped. And I went down.˚
“I always describe it as, you’re in a room and someone hits the dimmer switch. It just gets darker and darker. It probably took me three seconds. It wasn’t a straight fall. I was crashing against the sides. And I sort of landed just above my butt, on my lower back. And the next thing I know, it’s like I’m in this dark room.”
Putnam and Gale yelled for each other repeatedly and neither could hear the other. The snow wicked away all the sound.
Putnam was 100 feet down in the crevasse of a glacier, and had just experienced a miracle: He landed on a small lip in a hole that just kept on going. Once his eyes began to adjust to his surroundings, he took stock of what he had. He was wearing an insulated RCMP jacket. His radio had disappeared in the fall. His helmet had been ripped off. Neither were anywhere to be found. His fixed-blade knife had cut its way through its leather sheath and was gone. His gloves were on the surface. He still had his Schrade multi-tool, and he had a pen in his shirt pocket. He took out his pen and dropped it down the hole to see if he could hear it land on the bottom. He couldn’t. “That was stupid because, one, I didn’t have anything to write my last will and testament with, and, two, I found out there was a lot further to go. Which I found kind of depressing.”
He felt the cold seeping through his clothers and used the multi-tool to chip away at the ice beneath him and make a little platform on the sloping lip that he could stand up on. It was about 14 inches long and eight deep, and only his right foot felt like it was really on secure footing.
Now that he had a moment to think, a thousand things filled his mind at once: This is probably where I'm going to die. Even if a rescue is mobilized, it’ll take at least seven hours for them to get here. Maybe longer. It’s Easter weekend—they’ll have to track everyone down. And where’s Gale? Why couldn’t Putnam hear his partner yelling down the hole? “I’m thinking maybe he fell. Maybe when I fell I lunged at him and pulled him in. Maybe he’s down below me. Maybe he’s dead.”
It’s at these moments, says Putnam, that one finds religion. “I yelled, ‘God, if you’re here, if you’re with me, I need help. I need a sign. I need something from you to tell me that things are going to be okay.’ And within about 25 seconds at the most, I heard a radio go off.” The radio that he lost on his way down was somewhere in the hardpacked snow above him. “I hear Kirk saying ‘Okay, I’m back at the highway. Give me an update.’ ‘Search and rescue in Haines Junction has been advised. Park wardens in Haines Junction have been advised. [The RCMP Emergency Response Team] have been advised.’” Kirk’s okay. Rescue is on its way.
Putnam was getting worn down. He was 52 years old. His shoulder was at least dislocated in the fall, maybe fractured. He chipped little chunks of ice off the wall and let them melt in his mouth, and did some neck rotations as he started to feel the toll the fall took on his body—“and all of a sudden the inside of the crevasse lights up like a Christmas tree.”
There were five rescuers on the surface. Two helicopters had come in and landed about 200 feet from the hole, “and I didnt hear them—that again tells you how much the noise is absorbed.” One rope came down, with Putnam’s thermos, full of tea, tied to its bottom. He took the tea and tied the rope around his waist with a bow line knot. A second rope came down with a bag on the end containing a radio, gloves and a climbing harness. He tied that one around his waist too.
The rescuers sent down senior park warden Glenn Kubian to help Putnam, tired and injured and on dubious footing, get the harness on. And after 12 hours in the crevasse, Putnam was hauled to the surface.
Putnam has five reasons why he thinks he survived: He stayed calm. He was in good shape (and didn’t smoke). He’d taken survival training. He had trust in his colleagues and the searchers. And he didn’t listen to the tricks his brain played on him. At one point, he saw a ledge below him that looked a little cozier than the one he was on and almost jumped down before realizing how bad of an idea that could have been.
Most of all, Putnam says this isn’t his story so much as that of his rescuers: Kirk Gale and Rachel Sewell at the RCMP; Doug Hladun and Doug Makonan at Trans North Helicopters; Park wardens Kubian, Rick Staley, Craig MacKinnon, Lloyd Freese and Rhonda Markel—and Putnam’s wife Lana, who assured me herself that she never once thought he was dead.
For more from the In Need of A Hero feature, check out the February 2017 issue.