'Tis the season. And every year about this time, true stories of survival situations crop up. This one is about the Keith and Jennifer Lee family on a Christmas tree hunt in the high elevations of the Oregon mountains. With their Forest Service tree permit in hand, they drove an all-wheel-drive Subaru to the Siskiyou Mountains in search of the perfect silver tip fir. After cutting the tree and lashing it to the top of the car, they headed home. Unfortunately, they didn't make it.
As Keith worked on a fresh solution, Jennifer prayed and thought about how it would impact their children and other family members if they never made it home alive. During the day, it was warm enough. At night the couple huddled under blankets and ran the car engine for 15 minutes each hour to use the heater. They had plenty of drinking water and blankets, but no food. There was no cell coverage where they were, so their cell phone was useless. And even though they knew they were going high in the mountains where the snow can get deep, Keith had failed to bring tire chains.
Back home, a close friend named Sophie Smith was watching the Lee children and the dog. When the Lees failed to return home to pick up the children by the next morning, she called the police. Unfortunately, nobody knew exactly where Keith and Jennifer had gone to hunt for their Christmas tree. The only clue the searchers had was the fact that the year before, the Lees had gone up into the Siskiyous to get their tree. That's about like saying someone went to Los Angeles to buy food. It's not much of a clue. The Siskiyous are huge and empty and rugged. Needle in a haystack.
Nevertheless, a search was begun using a helicopter, snowmobiles, and ATVs. But the search turned up no sign of the stranded couple.
Finally, on the third day, Keith shifted his strategy by placing the rocks differently under the tires. Luckily, the car moved far enough that they were able to drive out of the snow. As they were traveling home, they heard on the radio that a search was underway for them. They called 911 to report that they were safe, then phoned Sophie Smith to let the kids know.
A happy ending, but it could easily have been so terribly different. As we analyze this case, it's easy to see what was done right and what was not. Topping the NOT list is the fact that the Lees failed to let anyone at home (or at the forest service office, or the sheriff office) know exactly where they were going. That alone could have resulted in an early rescue when they didn't come home as expected.
Another item on the NOT list is failure to take self-rescue equipment like tire chains, when the expectation is that there is likely to be snow up at the elevation where they were going. Or how about a shovel, or a winch?
Another NOT is failure to have sufficient survival supplies in the car. A tent and cold-weather sleeping bags would have been so much better than huddling under a blanket inside the car and wasting fuel to run the engine for heat.
How about the failure to take effective signaling devices such as a PLB (personal locator beacon) or SPOT Satellite Messenger that can call in the rescuers immediately to their exact GPS coordinates? Or what about building a signal fire with a dense smoke column to attract attention from miles away?
So what did they do right? For one, they didn't give up and quit trying. Keith was willing to keep working on a solution and trying different approaches. I've got to hand it to him for that. And Jennifer kept praying. I'm a believer that God helps those who ask, so bless her for her faith.
As a side note, a year ago, the Lees got lost in the mountains while hunting for a Christmas tree. So we're starting to see a pattern here that is not very good. My suggestion is that Keith and Jennifer get a PLB or a SPOT for Christmas, and start leaving a flight plan with friends and family before venturing into the mountains again. Oh yeah, and stock up the car with appropriate supplies and equipment.
Merry Christmas to the Lee family. You already got your present.