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“I Won’t Sit Here and Wait for Death”: A Story of Survival in the British Columbia Wilderness

Cal Crombie thought he was a dead man when he found himself stranded in a British Columbia deep freeze. What happened next is nothing short of miraculous.

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Car stranded on winter roadPhoto: Shutterstock

British Columbia’s Record Snowfall

Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Cal Crombie stuck his head out the door of his camper. “Wow! We really got a dump of snow last night!” It was the morning of December 29, 1996. Two days prior, Cal and his brother Roy had returned to their logging camp after spending Christmas with their families. They had a contract to cut timber near the Coquihalla Highway, some 160 kilometres northeast of Vancouver in the heavily forested mountains of British Columbia.

On his way to camp, Crombie had stopped in Kamloops to pick up a new crystal for his two-way radio, the men’s only contact with the outside world. The shop had been closed for the holidays, but while there, Crombie had gone down the street and bought himself a belated half-price Christmas gift: a heavy-duty fleece-lined jacket.

Fifty-two-year-old Crombie had red hair, piercing blue eyes, and a moustache touched with grey. Long days of hard labour had left him in excellent shape. Pulling his new jacket over his muscular shoulders, Crombie prepared to drive from camp into Merritt, 90 minutes away, to buy diesel fuel for their logging machines—the men had run out during their first couple days of work.

Snowplows usually cleared the road to within about 10 kilometres of the Crombie camp, but that stretch had always been passable by truck. Even if the next part isn’t plowed either, the Tulameen—a secondary road that leads to Merritt—will be clear for sure, Crombie thought.

“Don’t try to get back if the roads are too bad,” warned 44-year-old Roy. “I’ve got enough groceries for a couple weeks. I’ll be fine.”

Though the two loggers didn’t realize it just yet, a record snowfall had covered the southern half of the province, closing roads everywhere —including the Trans-Canada and Coquihalla highways.

Crombie hummed a tune as he put chains on the tires of his blue four-wheel-drive pickup. Then he checked his fuel: nearly full. It was -20 C and snowing lightly. “See you later!” he called back to Roy as he pulled away at about 10 a.m.

The road he was on, a single lane bulldozed through the forest, was rolling and hilly, with several hairpin curves, and Crombie quickly realized he had a tough drive ahead of him. Even on the level stretches, the truck could barely push through the deep snow. Thank goodness it’s mostly downhill, he thought.

On the uphill grades, Crombie had to back up and accelerate forward. When the wheels began to spin, he’d get out to shovel the snow piled up in front of the truck, then move another few metres.

Soon the engine overheated, and Crombie could smell transmission oil. He shovelled snow into the back of the truck, hoping more weight would improve traction. But the dry, fluffy snow was too light to make a difference. Sweating, Crombie reflected that it was a great way to work off Christmas dinner.

Back behind the wheel, he glanced at the fuel gauge and was surprised at how quickly he was burning up his supply of diesel. He roared down one long hill and then slowed as he tackled another uphill grade. The knee-deep snow piling in front of the pickup broke the grille.

Again Crombie had to shovel, back up, force the truck ahead, then shovel some more.

Finally, he reached the top and headed down the other side. He strained his eyes to see if the road ahead was plowed. It wasn’t.

At noon he stopped, disappointed, and decided to eat. He finished off leftovers from the previous night’s supper at the camp: a thick soup he’d poured into a jar that morning.

Then Crombie resumed his effort, moving so slowly that snow melted by the exhaust pipe turned to steam, fogging the windshield. He rolled his window down and stuck his head outside to see where he was going.

More than six kilometres from the Tulameen Road, the fuel gauge hovered at empty. Dismayed, Crombie shut off the engine. It was 3 p.m. and getting colder.

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“I Have a Funny Feeling About Your Daddy”

I could walk in the truck tracks back to camp, he thought, but that’s mostly uphill. He could stay in the truck, but days might pass before this logging road saw another vehicle.

Crombie still wasn’t terribly worried. Having cut down his first tree at the age of 11, he was at home in the bush. The self-employed contract­or was used to working alone and making his own decisions. Growing up in a family of 11 children had fostered an independent spirit. His father, a logger of Scottish descent, had taught his eight sons and three daughters the value of hard work, a lesson Crombie had taken seriously.

He’d experienced setbacks in his life, but Crombie never wasted a minute on self-pity. Falling timber prices and machinery breakdowns had brought him close to bankruptcy more than once. Yet he saw each new problem as a challenge.

Weighing the odds, he decided his best bet was to walk to the Tulameen. From there, he thought, I’ll surely be able to flag down a car.

Crombie checked his clothing and supplies. Besides his new jacket, he wore heavy windproof pants, a warm toque and mitts. He tucked an orange into his jacket and slipped a book of matches into his pants pocket. Then he gathered up paper, a flashlight and a red plastic gasoline container, which holds about two litres of fuel.

Wading through the powder, Crombie noticed a faint impression of tire tracks, probably made by his own truck on the way in to the logging camp. The compacted snow of the tracks was a little easier to walk on.

An hour after he set out, night fell. To save the batteries, he turned the flashlight on just long enough to find the ghostly track, then switched it off and lumbered forward into the darkness.

As the day drew to a close, Crombie’s wife, Fay, and his 17-year-old daughter, Sara, finished supper at their home in Lillooet, B.C. “Want to play backgammon, Mom?” Sara asked.

“Not tonight,” Fay answered. “I have a funny feeling about your daddy.” Ordinarily Fay refused to worry unless her husband didn’t show up when he said he would. But tonight she paced around the house, staring out the windows. The mercury was falling—it was already -25 C.

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Footprints in winter forestPhoto: Shutterstock

A Body in the Snow

As the cold worsened, Crombie stopped more often. His flashlight beam picked out a sign: Tulameen Road, three kilometres. At the rate he was going, the road was still more than three hours away. He tried to pick up the pace, but the snow sucked at his feet like quicksand.

In the silent night Crombie heard nothing but the pounding of his overworked heart. Sweat rolled down his face and froze solid. Icicles hung from his red moustache like the tusks of a walrus.

Another hour passed. Two kilometres to go. Then another hour. As Crombie’s footsteps slowed, the road seemed to stretch into infinity. In the darkness, with only the faintest track to follow, he doggedly put one throbbing leg in front of the other.

Another half a kilometre, then a hundred metres. Crombie plunged on, straining his eyes. Finally! There was the road, dead ahead. He turned on his flashlight, ready to wave it if he saw a vehicle coming, and urged his reluctant feet to move faster.

Then he saw it: the Tulameen Road hadn’t been plowed.

Ahead Crombie could distinguish a dim glow in the sky: the reflection against the clouds of the Coquihalla tollbooth lights, another eight kilometres past the Tulameen Junction. He had pushed his body to the limit to get this far. Now he was exhausted and half frozen.

All right, he told himself, as long as I have fire I can survive. He broke off some dry balsam limbs, put paper underneath and poured fuel on top. Tearing off his wet mitts, he reached into his pocket for the matches. They were soaked with sweat. Still, he tried one, then another and another.

For the first time Crombie felt real fear. He was now almost halfway between the highway, eight kilometres ahead, and the truck, some six kilometres behind him. Blindly he retrieved his orange, which was frozen solid. He gnawed the skin off and chewed up the frozen segments.

In a haze of fatigue, he stared down the road—and saw a body lying in the snow. It wore a red jacket and a blue and white toque, just like his. Crombie stared harder. A wave of horror passed over him: he was hallucinating, seeing what the next traveller on this road might find—his own frozen corpse.

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British Columbia winter wildernessPhoto: Shutterstock

“I’ll Walk Until I Die,” He Decided

Crombie climbed a snowbank and sat hunched in the darkness, facing down his own death. He thought of Fay. All I’m going to leave her is a few pieces of logging equipment and a pile of bills, he thought.

With a deep breath he gritted his teeth, mustering what his wife called his “red-headed Scots stubbornness.” I won’t sit here and wait for death, he decided. I’ll walk until I die. He opened his eyes and looked up into the dark sky. “God, I need help,” he prayed.

Tossing aside his gas canister, he set out again. Within minutes, the wind began to howl. It tore the freezing snow off the trees and flung it into Crombie’s face. Now he could see nothing but swirling snow. To protect his stinging skin, he walked backward.

As Crombie struggled on, the wind abruptly died down. Strange, he thought. The air felt different. He brought his mitt up to his face. I have feeling in my skin! With each breath, blessedly warm air rushed into his lungs. There could be no doubt: inexplicably, the temperature was rising—and quickly.

With the first flicker of hope, Crombie forged forward. The sugar from the orange gave him a tiny boost of energy. He paced himself by stopping to rest every 200 steps.

But still he wondered whether his legs would hold out. When he sat down, they were too rigid to relax. He lay down on his stomach and rested his face on his left forearm—just for a moment. Soon he was fast asleep.

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Snowmobile in winterPhoto: Shutterstock

“My Prayers Were Answered”

Crombie awoke in a panic. He wasn’t sure how long he’d slept, but in a nightmare he’d once again seen himself as a corpse in the snow. He clambered to his feet, shook his head and stumbled on. The sky grew lighter as he dragged himself along, managing only a few dozen steps between rests. He passed a sign: Coquihalla Highway, five kilometres.

Coquihalla Lakes Lodge was filled with 40 stranded travellers, including snowmobilers Martin and Julie Lucas from Chilliwack. They had returned to the lodge that morning after getting stuck once too often on snowmobile trails covered with deep drifts. In the lobby, Martin struck up a conversation with two fellow snowmobilers. “Let’s try one of those logging roads up the mountain,” one of them suggested.

It was another two hours before Crombie finally reached a sign that read: Coquihalla Highway, four kilometres. From the mountainside, he could see snowplows, as small as toys, working below. Either he would make it to the highway and survive, or he would collapse from exhaustion and die of exposure.

The air had cooled again, and Crombie walked on a thin crust of ice, breaking through with every step. Now he could take only 10 steps between rests. He floundered over a small bridge onto a level patch of road. Then he lay down. He felt dreamy and peaceful.

Crombie was only semi-conscious when he became aware of a faint buzzing sound. With an effort, he forced his eyes open just as three snowmobiles roared over the edge of the hill and drove straight towards him.

The first two swerved to miss him, but the third driver, Martin, stopped. Nothing of Crombie was visible except his face and toque in the deep powder. Even his footprints had been erased. Did this guy fall out of a plane or what? Martin wondered.

“You’re the answer to my prayers,” Crombie mumbled.

Crombie was found before noon on December 30, nearly 20 hours after he had set out. He was taken to the Coquihalla Lakes Lodge, where he immediately telephoned Fay.

That afternoon, a Ministry of Transportation and Highways truck swung by to give Crombie a lift to Merritt, where he met his sister and brother-in-law for dinner at a local restaurant. He never saw a doctor after his ordeal. Though his legs were stiff and sore, he made a full recovery within days.

And the sudden warming that helped keep him going? The scientific explanation is that the Arctic air mass that had plunged the temper­ature to close to -30 C had suddenly been supplanted by warm air sweeping over the continent. In the higher altitudes, the temperature rose almost 30 degrees in a single hour.

Crombie and his family feel his prayers were answered. “I don’t believe that it was just a coincidence,” he says.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada