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Choose Your Own Misadventure: When Wilderness Expeditions Take a Wrong Turn

Three harrowing tales from Canadians whose adventures turned into misadventures.

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Choose Your Own Misadventure: When Wilderness Expeditions Take a Wrong TurnPhoto: Jenny Bonar

Ghost in the Death Zone

By Tim Rippel, as told to Ryan Stuart

In 32 years of guiding, including 12 trips to Mount Everest with his company, Peak Freaks, Tim Rippel has never lost a climber. But he got close on Everest in 2008. Summit day-May 21-dawned with seven Peak Freaks clients making a push for the top of the world, including Sultan Al-Ismaili, of Oman. Throughout the acclimatization, the sultan had moved slowly, and this day was no different. When most of the team was standing on the summit, Al-Ismaili, still an hour away, phoned to say he was dehydrated. Rippel told him to head down, and rushed off the summit to catch Al-Ismaili at the South Summit, at 8,800 metres. He was sitting down and refused to move. Then he lost consciousness and stopped breathing. Rippel jolted him back to life with a thump to the chest. His client’s thanks? A few hard kicks, delirious Al-Ismaili’s crampons punching holes in Rippel’s boots and down suit.

Working quickly, despite running out of bottled oxygen, Rippel got Al-Ismaili’s crampons off, sent the other team members down to Camp Four to rouse some help and, with some Sherpas, began the process of lowering the climber down. He’d grown violent, heaving a rock at Rippel, hitting him square in the forehead and almost knocking him right off the mountainside. They waited for him to calm down enough to tie him up, but after 32 hours, much of it without oxygen, the Sherpas had had enough; they headed down. Rippel had no choice but to leave him.

At 8,100 metres, Rippel stuffed Al-Ismaili in a sleeping bag, convinced him to eat and drink, tied him to the mountain and descended to Camp Four for a few hours of sleep, knowing he’d have to begin the rescue again in the morning. Not long after he retired to his tent, a Sherpa reported that Al-Ismaili was dead. Rippel was devastated. But a few hours later, Al-Ismaili appeared at Camp Four. Two Indian Army climbers had passed him and noticed him moving. With their help, he was able to walk down the mountain and into camp. Aside from losing three fingertips to frostbite, Al-Ismaili had no lasting injuries and doesn’t remember anything from the day.

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Leopard in the Night

By Frank Wolf

I stared at my sea-water-soaked copy of Moby Dick as it lay covered in sand on the beach, swollen to the size of a New York City phone book. Dave Stibbe and I had just capsized our folding double kayak end over end in heavy surf on the most remote corner of Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park-a 1,206-square-kilometre uninhabited patch of Indonesian wilderness. Our kayak was destroyed-the wooden frame had exploded on impact. Our goal was to paddle the outer coast of Java over to Bali, but that plan had obviously changed.

Before us lay a 30-kilometre trek to the first road. The kayak was a loaner, so we were on the hook for it and had to haul its remains and all our gear out with us. The accident also took our stove, oatmeal packets and noodles, leaving us with a dozen tins of Spam. Spam is delicious but heavy-great for kayaking, not for hiking.

After folding up the busted kayak, we began walking with our 50-kilogram loads. I carried the shattered frame and Spam-stuffed skin of our boat, while Stibbe carried the rest of our gear in a giant, awkward duffle bag. He decided to walk barefoot on the beach after losing one sandal in the accident. “The sand feels good on my feet,” he said.

As dusk fell, we entered the jungle at the far end of the beach, following a faint trail into the dim canopy. By this time, Stibbe was limping noticeably, his barefoot tactic having backfired with an arch strain. I was about 20 minutes ahead of him when I reached an opening in the thicket that would be our campsite for the night. A sudden pang struck my stomach, and I barely got my shorts down to relieve myself. This was followed by another session a minute later, then another. Despite purifying our water, sampling small sips of the river for brackishness as I’d worked my way upstream earlier had left me with a stomach bug.

Stibbe eventually appeared, breathless and eyes wide, from the blackness of the jungle. Back on the trail, he’d been hobbling along with only his headlamp to guide him. Suddenly, a leopard had appeared in his light beam, then disappeared back into the darkness. A moment later, a guttural growl had risen from the night. He had wrapped his hands around his throat to defend against an impending attack. Nothing. Still clutching his neck, he had continued on to camp.

Unpacking our gear to the hum of malarial mosquitoes, we discovered we’d either lost or left our tent poles and pegs at the crash site, 18 kilometres behind us. We tied the tent corners to the surrounding trees, and I stumbled around the campsite looking for adequate peg sticks. Fireflies flitted like a galaxy of stars in the inky blackness. As I darted my light back and forth, I noticed two especially large and still fireflies. Taking a closer look into the bushes, I saw they weren’t fireflies at all, but the glowing eyes of a crouching leopard. Too tired to care or react, I returned to the tent.

“Hey, Stibbe, your leopard is back.” He looked at me for a moment, nodded in unflinching acknowledgement, and then we both dropped into the tent, resigned to whatever fate had in store for us. The next morning, after taking ciprofloxacin for my gut and seeing no further sign of the leopard, we hiked a few more hours through the bush, eventually coming upon a ranger encampment. Over steaming cups of tea, we learned the Cikeusik River mouth we’d crossed was home to a healthy, ravenous population of saltwater crocodiles. Considering this, Stibbe and I thought our visit to Ujung Kulon had gone quite smoothly after all.

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Dead If You Do, Dead If You Don’t

By Jon Turk

A floating ice pan two metres thick and as large as a football field drifted into the cliff and jammed against the rock, causing the ice to spin and stop. From the north, smaller pans crashed into the stalled ice, clustering tightly around it like piranhas on the attack. Caught in the compression, the original pan exploded against the cliff with a sharp crack. Erik Boomer whistled softly, “If we try to paddle into that mayhem, we’ll be crushed to death in seconds.”

“But we’ll die of starvation and cold if we stay here long enough,” I replied. We were in the vast Arctic wilderness of northeast Ellesmere Island, midway through circumnavigating Canada’s third largest island. We faced a rapid death if we got into our kayaks and a slow one if we waited. It was still July, we had food in our boats, and we were resting peacefully against sun-warmed rocks-there was no sense dying today.

Two weeks passed, our food supplies diminished, and the sun dipped ever closer to the horizon. Gnawing concern about our situation morphed into desperation. A text from my wife via satellite phone told us that the Canadian Coast Guard offered a Plan C: make a mad dash to a large pan of thick, multi-year ice that had already survived the ravages of the northern Arctic Ocean, then ride safely atop the pan until we passed through the most dangerous portion of the channel. Boomer almost laughed as he read the message, watching the ice crashing and splintering. “They have to be kidding,” he said. “Those guys have no idea of the power out there.” But over the next few days, as our rations grew smaller and hunger gnawed at our bellies, the idea began to take hold. One morning, Boomer said simply, “Let’s do it.”

We searched until we spotted the biggest, most formidable chunk of gnarly old ice that was close enough to be reachable and far enough away not to jam against the cliff. At slack tide, we paddled and jumped onto the safety of this floating platform. We watched the GPS with satisfaction as we drifted 0.6 kilometres an hour southward and toward a less-congested channel where the ice would be spread out and we could paddle. We pitched our tent near a pool of meltwater and took a nap in the sunshine. At this pace, we had all the time in the world and nothing to do but relax.

But then our pan of old ice-the faithful platform that was to be our salvation-caught a mid-channel back eddy, turned and sped northward at four kilometres an hour, leading us back into dangerous territory. In the middle of the night, there was a catastrophic collision with the south-moving ice. We jumped from our sleeping bags and raced toward the north edge of the floe. The ice, tightly compressed just a few minutes ago, began to relax, and a cold, forbidding void of grey-black water appeared where there had been only white. Then the watery lead disappeared, and our faithful platform began to buckle and crack. “What beauty,” Boomer said.

“Yeah, so beautiful-we gotta get outta here,” I responded.

Nature is both beautiful and potentially lethal in its chaos: back eddies in the ocean current, sudden thunderstorms in the mountains, hidden weak layers in the snowpack or buried snags in the river. That day, on the frozen pack ice off Ellesmere Island, Boomer and I didn’t die. Maybe because we were lucky, or maybe because we had built a little extra margin of safety into our planning-to expect the unexpected. Whatever the explanation, we had enough fortitude, luck or internal strength to abandon the ice sheet and return to land.

A week later, chaos turned in our favour and a southwest wind blew the ice offshore. That night, in the perennial Arctic twilight, we paddled serenely, ducks flying overhead, across a mirror-smooth sea, southward toward home.

National Geographic nominated Jon Turk and Erik Boomer as one of the Top 10 Adventurers of the Year for their successful 2,400-kilometre, 104-day circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island in 2011.