The Torngat Mountains
Walking as far as he could before the plateau he was on narrowed to a knife-edged ridge, Christophe Vany came across a curious item. Here, high up near the summit of Eastern Canada's highest peak, was a climbing harness. It was sitting on the ground, next to a stone cairn. It was in amazingly good shape - the leg loops still had the factory folds in them, and the attached carabiners and climbing hardware were bright and shiny. Looking around, Christophe could see nothing else, other than the rugged and stark beauty of mountains around him.
Christophe Takes off
Christophe, a Nunavik Rotors helicopter pilot, was at work in the Torngat mountains of northern Labrador / Quebec, ferrying members of the Quebec Parks service to and fro. Parks Quebec was toying with the idea of making the Quebec side of this vast and unspoiled landscape into a provincial park, and to do that required on-site investigation. So, here he was, on a barren windswept plateau at over 5000 feet, his AS 350 Helicopter sitting idle, waiting while parks staff conducted their affairs nearby.
Not thinking anything was amiss, when it was time to leave, Christophe picked up the harness and took it back with him in the helicopter. What was the story behind this harness? Although Christophe did not know it at the time, the harness he held in his hands was a major clue in a drama that had recently taken place on this mountain.
Susan and Dan
The harness belonged to Susan Barnes. Sue was an employee of the Gillette corporation in Brampton, Ontario. She was the happy and loving companion of Daniel Pauze, of Mississauga, Ontario. Dan worked in a computer-related job for the Canadian National Institude for the Blind. Dan was fond of the outdoors, and, through him, Susan had become involved in outdoor pursuits as well.
The two of them had dreamed up an exciting trip: travel to northern labrador and Quebec and combine a climb of the highest peak in the region with a whitewater canoe ride down a wild and untamed northern river. It was, by all accounts, an ambitious and strenuous goal: the Torngat mountains are remote and completely uninhabited. There are no roads, no trails. The only way in is by plane, boat, or snowmobile. The area is entirely north of treeline and has only the briefest of summers, and even that is short and shot through with bouts of unpredictable bad weather. The river they intended to run, the Koroc, drains a very large area, and in spots is difficult and challenging.
Dan and Roland on Mt Rainier
Dan himself had been introduced to the outdoors by hanging around with his best friend, Roland Hanel. Roland was Dan's primary outdoor buddy, and Roland considered Dan his best friend. Together they'd hiked, winter and summer, in the nearby wilderness of Ontario and in the mountains of New York and New England. Eventually they progressed to the point where they tackled the popular western mountaineering objective of Mount Rainier in Washington State. Two tries it took, but eventually Dan, together with Roland and his brother Rudy, stood atop the 14,410 foot volcano. Life was good.
Being interested in both highpointing regional summits and in long river runs, Dan dreamed up the idea of summitting mount Caubvick/D'Iberville, the highest mountain in Quebec/Newfoundland, along with a complete running of the Koroc, a major river draining a good chunk of northern Quebec east of Ungava bay. To those in the know, there was some trepidation about this adventure: Michael Peake, Editor of the Journal of Canadian Wilderness Canoeing, had strongly cautioned Dan and Sue about going up there by themselves. Roland had also expressed his misgivings about the adventure as well. Still, the spirit of adventure was strong in Dan and Sue, and in the end, they decided to have a go at it.
Dan and Sue depart Roland's place
Dan and Sue met with the first Canadian highpointer, Jack Bennett. Jack was an American, from Ohio, and had gained some fame as the first person to summit all of the Canadian provincial and territorial highpoints. Dan and Sue drove to Ohio to consult with Jack about the mountain portion of the trip; Dan consulted with canoeing experts about the Koroc river. And, after much logistics and preparation, Sue and Dan headed off on August 1, 2003, in their Toyota RAV-4, bound for Labrador.
They never returned.
Dan, Sue, Jim and Katherine at Koroc River
What is known is that they made it as far as they could drive, then continued by air to within 15 km of the mountain, landing on a gravel sand bar beside the Koroc River. They had arrived with another couple, Jim and Katherine Rickard of Colorado, who were also climbing the peak, but from a different side.
Dan and Sue on Summit
A few days later they ascended the mountain in worsening weather, managed to make it to the summit, but had some sort of accident on the way down. By the time the alarm was raised and a search started, it was too late... Weeks had passed, winter had come to the Torngats, and searching revealed nothing. They were presumed lost.
A memorial service was held in Brampton in October of 2003. As everyone searched for answers, the idea of a privately-mounted search expedition took shape. This was partly driven by the fact that the authorities appeared to lack conviction regarding further searching. Both Jack Bennett and Roland toyed with and started planning just such an expedition, eventually combining their efforts into a single venture. The expedition gradually took shape: an 18-member team, all volunteers, led by Jack and Roland, would return to the Torngats in August of 2004 to look for Sue and Dan. Also among the searchers were the Colorado couple that had been the last to see Dan and Sue alive.
Roland addresses the search team
There were no guarantees: everyone had to be prepared for the possibility that not a trace of them would be found. There was word of bad weather and unusually heavy snows this year, so the team was prepared for the worst.
Gord Irwin and Parks Canada Helicopter
After hundreds of hours of planning, the private expedition was ready to go. Leaving on August 3, 2004, the team received some basic Search and Rescue training, then headed up to scour the peak. The attack was multi-pronged: 9 team members would approach and search from the north, and 9 from the south. Teams were linked by satellite phone and radios to each other and to parks Canada, who, although not absolutely committed, were still thinking of search the area again themselves. In fact, RCMP had first authorized, then cancelled, then re-authorized the Parks Canada team, such that it looked like the private expedition would indeed be the first to search the upper mountain.
The summit of Mount Caubvick / D'Iberville
All went according to plan. What was reported as excessive snow cover turned out to be false - there was little snow on the mountain. On Saturday, August 7, the south team split up into 3 parties and simul-climbed the three southern approaches. The most important and likely places to search were (a) the location where the harness was found, (b) the summit, and (c) the so-called "Koroc Step", a more difficult section along the mostly likely ascent route Dan and Sue used.
Investigating at the Koroc Step
By roughly mid-morning, the Koroc ridge search team was perhaps 45 minutes away from the first major point of interest, the Koroc Step. Parks Canada finally managed to make it in, and with their AS 350 helicopter, raced in to examine the upper mountain and the Koroc step. It was there hovering above the notch, that Dan was found, lying on his stomach, with one leg crossed over the other. He was directly on the ridgecrest in the step, partly in Quebec, and partly in Labrador.
Side View of Minaret Headwall Cliff
The next day, the search helicopter, scouring a section of cliffs of interest near where Christophe picked up the climbing harness, found Susan. She was found 150 feet down from the top of the thousand-foot headwall of the Minaret Glacier. It appears that both Dan and Sue succumbed to exposure. The Parks Canada helicopter airlifted both Dan and Sue to Newfoundland, along with Dan's pack, which carried their GPS, Camera and Video Camera. What took weeks and weeks last year was over in less than 24 hours of searching. Strange what a difference a year can make.
Overview of Possible Scenario
surrounding Sue and Dan's last day were now much clearer. It appears,
then, that Dan and Sue successfully climbed the Koroc Ridge to the
very summit, where they left a short but powerful note:
2003 - Daniel Pauze and Susan Barnes, in a wicked snowstorm
Shortly thereafter, descending the Koroc Ridge, something happened - likely Dan was climbing back up the Koroc step when some part of their rope system failed, causing Dan to be injured. Not able to move, and in worsening weather, they both knew Sue had to go for help. She couldn't take the most direct way down, because that involved climbing the 30 foot step of rock that their rope had just fallen off of. Instead she had to climb back over the summit and over a different, almost as treacherous knife-edged ridge of slippery, snow-dusted rock.
It would have taken a lot of bravery and courage to do this by herself, testimony to her determination and love for Dan. The fact that Sue had not climbed much in her life, and certainly never in such conditions ever before, makes it all the more amazing. At the end of the knife-edged ridge, she reached the upper football field of level ground, and left her harness behind on the ground. From there she crossed the field and was looking for some sort of way down when she either fell, was blown off or downclimbed to the spot where she was found on the Minaret glacier headwall.
Wondering what happened...
The day after Dan was found, Roland sat down on a boulder in the Koroc step next to a water bottle that marked where Dan's body had lain for exactly 1 year. The day was sunny, warm, and there was not a breath of wind. There was a haunted and contemplative look in his eyes, as he tried to make sense of what had happened here a year before to his best friend, in the driving snow and fierce wind.
Later, near the cairn above the spot where Susan was found, Roland inched forward on his stomach to the cliff's edge and surveyed the ledge directly below, where Susan would have spent her last moments alive. He lay there, still, for many minutes. Then, after some quiet, gentle sobbing, Roland stood up, regained his composure, and continued on down the mountain.
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