Tim Helmer remembers hearing the sound of rocks tumbling, and then nodding off back to sleep early Saturday morning.
He was just a few kilometres up Silver-Skagit Road in Hope, and it was still dark out. The rain had been pouring all night. Helmer had been tenting out in the area, but on this occasion he had chosen to sleep in his car.
His next memory is being hit with the full force of a mudslide. It spun the car around, he says, about 180 degrees in just a few seconds time. He was trapped in his car, in the dark, on a gravel road. The car was taking on water, and while it had stopped spinning, it was slowly creeping downstream with the flow of the slide.
Helmer called 911.
Over the course of about two hours, he stayed on the phone with dispatch as rescuers arrived on scene and assessed the slide. Eventually, the torrent from the mountain slowed, but Helmer and his car were lodged against debris.
“It took them two hours to get to me,” he says. “I was trapped and the water was raging for the better part of two hours.”
Throughout the ordeal he kept his engine on, miraculously, and was able to see his surroundings with his headlights. He took photos now and then to document as water poured over his windshield and through a window he had opened in case he needed to escape.
By the time he had been rescued, the sun had risen.
Helmer is an experienced outdoorsmen and mountain climber, which aided the rescue. He has climbed about 75 mountains in his lifetime, and has been recently living in a tent, and before that an RV, to embrace an outdoor lifestyle even more.
“It’s an experiment,” he says, smiling. He’s sitting in the Hope Starbucks days after his harrowing experience, with a strong coffee and his laptop. He’s wearing the jeans he had on during the mudslide, and they’re still marked brown on his thighs.
He toggles through the images he took, during and after the rescue. Some are pitch black. Some show the rushing water. Some show the debris in the light of day. He also has a Google image saved of the terrain map of the area, showing the valley where the water flowed from.
“Slides take the path of least resistance,” he says.
And it’s a common pathway for water in the Silver-Skagit valley — something Helmer didn’t know when he parked there on Friday night.
“Apparently this has happened many times before,” he says of the mudslide. “There have been cabins torn away in years past. But I was told this is not as bad as last year.”
He suggests that signage in the area would help travellers who are camping or pulling over for the night. As a freelance web professional, Helmer has had the freedom to take his job on the road. Many common rockfall or mudslide areas are marked with signs, he said, something he’s noted is not as common in Canada as it is in the United States.
Helmer thinks he wouldn’t have been so lucky had he been just a few metres up the road, where another vehicle was parked.
“It really clobbered me,” he says, but he’s thankful for all the rescuers who came to the scene, including both the Hope and Chilliwack Search and Rescue teams, the Hope Fire Department, the Hope RCMP, Hope Towing, and Tri-West Contracting, who cleared debris off the road.
Helmer’s experience in the mountains meant he was confident enough to walk out with rescuers once the waters slowed down enough.
“But this was really challenging terrain,” he says. “There was a lot of loose debris and sketchy footing.”
Later in the day, he took to Facebook to the popular page Hope BC Bulletin Board. He shared a photo of his ordeal, thanked his rescuers, and asked if anyone had space for him to sleep for a few days. It didn’t take long for someone to offer him space, he says.
“I’ve always had ‘Hope,’” he says. “I’ve always wanted to come to Hope. Just the name.”
He’s not sure if this experience means the end of his ‘experiment’ of living outdoors. He wants to impact the environment as little as possible, and is passionate about nature. But he’s not sure if he’s ready to return to condo living, either.
In the meantime, he says, he’s catching his breath and being thankful for each day he has on earth.
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