How a Chicago man hampered his own rescue from the Columbia Icefield, and what searchers learned from him.
“I think the whole event bothered the searchers more than it did me.”
– George Joachim, September 2013
When you ask members of the Jasper Parks Canada visitor safety team if they remember the search for George Joachim, a common response is a deep sigh, and something like: “Ah yes…George.” Four years later, the name still conjures head shaking and wary glances.
On Sept. 6, 2009, Chicago man George Joachim walked onto the Columbia Icefield and disappeared for nine days. At his family’s urging, Parks Canada undertook a search that cost Canadian taxpayers more than $30,000. In the end, Joachim walked off the Icefield under his own power.
On a search of this magnitude, Parks Canada uses a statistical model to help predict where the lost person might be. The model uses data collected from similar lost person cases to learn the size and location of the search area. Combining the experience of the searchers and research on the lost person, the model then suggests the likelihood the person will be in various locations based on how previous people in their situation have behaved.
Joachim unintentionally misled searchers by listing his destination incorrectly in the climber’s registry, and then behaved so unlike other people previously have in his circumstance that he was repeatedly missed in the search. Parks Canada’s search and rescue community considers his case a valuable learning experience and have since tweaked search protocols to account for other behavioral outliers.
Searching is both an art and a science based on the clues the lost person leaves behind, rigorous statistical models, searcher intuition and environmental conditions. What follows is an examination of how all these factors came together in the search for George Joachim, both from his perspective and from that of the searchers who looked for him.
Day One: Stuck
George Joachim describes his outing on the Columbia Icefield as “a day hike.” He was headed for Mount Snow Dome, having read that the peak was a hydrological apex, meaning melt water travels to the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
He was carrying light survival gear and wearing running shoes fitted with crampons. “Basically I had a day and a half of food in case I got in a pinch and had to stay over night,” says Joachim.
He parked his car at the climber’s parking lot and stopped at the registry to sign in. “When I got to that climber’s log, a few other people had signed in as going to the ‘North Glacier.’” George looked at the map and thought Snow Dome looked like it was in the north part of the Icefield. “So I also signed in as destination North Glacier.”
This would later prove to be a crucial error. The North Glacier is located on Mount Athabasca and is generally associated with mountaineer training. It’s more than eight kilometres away from Snow Dome and meant that search efforts were concentrated in that area.
Joachim then followed the glacier tour bus road up over the gritty moraine and onto a packed ice road that leads up the Athabasca Glacier. “About six of those bus drivers saw me,” he says. Three days later, when Parks Canada searchers interviewed the bus drivers, none of them could specifically recall seeing Joachim. It is not uncommon for bus drivers to see climbers on this road, a fact that may have accounted for their inability to remember seeing him.
From there, Joachim travelled up the glacier until he encountered a crevasse field located at a ramp where the Athabasca Glacier meets the main Icefield. Jasper National Park Canada visitor safety specialist, Steve Blake, says experienced mountaineers with proper equipment “commonly have minor crevasse incidents” in the area.
Miraculously, Joachim survived the crossing, although later he would tell rescue team member Max Darrah that he had partially fallen into crevasses along the way.
Throughout the day, snow squalls came and went across the Icefield. Around the time he was exiting the crevasse field, a storm front moved in and stayed, causing a whiteout. Joachim thought it would pass like the others. Instead it lasted three days. “I never did get to Snow Dome, but I was pretty close.”
In reality, at the end of day one, Joachim was likely three to four kilometers from Snow Dome (point 1A). He shook out his bivy sack and sleeping bag, dug a hole in the snow and likely tucked in somewhere above the crevasse-filled ramp that marks the beginning of the Athabasca Glacier outflow.
Day Two: Whiteout
On day two, Joachim attempted to go back the way he’d come, but fresh snow blanketed the crevasse field, making the fissures more difficult to see. He decided to try an alternate route, travelling across the main Icefield toward the Saskatchewan Glacier. He ended up dangling a foot into a crevasse along the way. “I didn’t fall down into it, but I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s five more miles to get out this way. The likelihood of me getting there isn’t good.’” Joachim retreated to just south of where he was the night before.
By the end of day two, a Parks Canada rescue team member had reviewed the climber’s registry, saw that Joachim was overdue, and had reported a possible missing climber to the visitor safety team.
Day Three: The Search Begins
Given the crevasse hazard and the persistent whiteout, Joachim decided to try to follow a ridgeline down. The ridgeline was part of an outcropping located to the south of Mount Andromeda. Bands of snow and scree made travel difficult. “It took me a few hours to try and go a half mile. I was exhausted, and [where I was] seemed like a pretty good place to stop.” Joachim hunkered down in a snow band and decided to spend the night.
Meanwhile, a Parks Canada representative had spoken to Joachim’s family and work colleagues, and had established him as missing. Blake immediately assembled a search team, hired helicopters and began gathering as much information as possible to help them find Joachim quickly.
Day Four to Day Seven: The Joachim Profile
The next day, the sky was clear and the sun was shining. Joachim says his focus “became conservation, energy and food, drying myself out and being in a place I could be rescued.” He decided that place was exactly where he was. He stayed there for three days and nights, assuming he could wave down a helicopter that came “within a half mile.” He was more than six kilometres away from the North Glacier on Mount Athabasca, and seven kilometres southwest of Snow Dome. “He was in an odd no-man’s land,” says Darrah.
Later, Joachim would tell journalist Ben Gelinas (then of the Edmonton Journal) that:
“A lot of it was really pleasant, sunny beautiful days. I had a beautiful view of Mount Columbia. I lay in the sun like a cat, pulled up my shirt, suntanned my back. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I might die, but it’s a pretty nice way.’”
Meanwhile, back at search headquarters, Blake began the process of using the computer model to establish search parameters. “The science element of this is very much like any social or biological science in that we are using very robust data sets to create a whole bunch of possible scenarios.” The first step was to determine Joachim’s level of experience with mountain travel so that his subject category (for example climber, hiker, skier, etc.) could be entered into the model.
RCMP and Parks Canada officials visited Joachim’s apartment in Fort Saskatchewan (where he was working temporarily), and hacked into his computer. An analysis of his Internet research revealed that he had repeatedly researched a non-technical route up to the AA col between Mount Athabasca and Mount Andromeda. He was also active on a number of websites where adventurers and “survivalists” share information about their conquests. His comments on these sites gave the impression that he had an understanding of some fundamentals of winter travel.
“Because of where he said he was going and the routes he researched, we defined him as a beginner mountaineer,” said Blake.
When this information was entered into the software, the model then incorporated into the search profile statistics about the behavior of missing mountaineers, and biased the search probabilities toward searching for this type of person.
In reality, Joachim had no mountaineering experience. “I’m not a climber. I’m a distance hiker.” Joachim says that at the time he would have described the Icefield as “a big lake of ice, almost flat, with a few rolling areas.” He had read that if he went to Mount Columbia he would go through a “ditch” and climb up the other side. “You know, it’s not necessarily a wild, technical climb. I believe a lot of people ski it.”
In some ways, he fit the profile. After simply being overdue, the most common reason for beginner mountaineers to be missing is by becoming stranded.
However, he veered off the profile in significant ways. Mountaineers tend to remain on or near designated routes, whereas Joachim was unfamiliar with standard routes and registered the wrong destination.
Mountaineers also tend to travel when the weather is good and to hunker down when the weather turns foul. Joachim did the opposite, deciding to dry out and rest on the best search days.
“On those days, we would have rated the probability of detecting George very high, especially given fresh snow on a glacier, because the light was good, and any tracks would have been perfectly visible,” says Blake. The profile suggested Joachim would do something to make himself more visible. “Instead he was sitting in rocky terrain, essentially camouflaging himself.”
Joachim thought he would be able to wave a helicopter down if one “came within a half mile.” At one point, helicopter GPS locations confirm that searchers flew past Joachim within roughly half a kilometre (or a third of a mile) of where he was. Joachim didn’t see the helicopter, and the searchers didn’t see him.
“People are very difficult to see from the air in that terrain,” says Darrah. “We can have someone’s exact location and still have trouble finding them.”
However, Darrah adds that if Joachim had made a bunch of tracks in the area, they likely would have seen them. He points to other cases where mountaineers have been successfully rescued by doing so. Many on the rescue team wondered why Joachim didn’t do more to be noticed. Some wondered if he wanted to be found at all.
Day Eight: “If I’m going to get out of here, I’m going to do it myself.”
By the end of day eight, Parks Canada searchers had found no sign of Joachim. Because he had only travelled in snowstorms, any tracks were likely covered along the way.
Says Darrah: “We put people on the ground and put them in danger of being hit by rock fall and other hazards. We checked crevasses. Our people accepted a great deal of risk to find him.”
Not finding Joachim was unusual for the team who has a very high success rate finding lost people. With all leads exhausted, they turned the investigation over to Jasper RCMP.
Meanwhile, sun had been belting down on the slope where Joachim was for three days. The band of snow he’s been nesting in was quickly disappearing, and he was concerned that without it, he would roll down the slope in his sleep. He also felt that if another storm came along, he would be too exposed on the ridge.
He decided to try following the ridge down again, being careful to keep his distance from what he assumed was a cornice. As he trudged along, he noted, “a good place to dig a snow cave.”
From there he had a view to a route below him that would take him along the Athabasca Glacier. He thought the slope looked gentle enough for him to descend, and that the sun had melted snow enough to see the crevasses. If travel was not good, he would stay in the cave.
“My calculations at that point were that I could live for 20 days in that snow cave. I had about 700 calories left. Basically, it would have been about 50 calories a day, but after a few days of living on 50 calories, I wouldn’t have the strength to walk out. Remember this was at 11,000 feet.”
Day 9: George Returns
On the ninth day, Joachim backtracked to where he thought he could get down. “It was a lot of scree fields. There was no coming back up. Had I got stuck, I wouldn’t have gotten out.”
Once down the ramp, he travelled through the crevasse field, but this time hugged the rock wall along its south border. “I had to go down into crevasses and back out.”
Not much later, Joachim could see the ice buses, but they were finished for the day when he arrived at the packed ice road. He told Blake that he passed a couple of people on the way out, but didn’t stop to talk. He arrived at the climber’s parking lot and was dismayed to see his car had been towed. “There was a bag of chips in there,” he said.
He followed the highway back to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, and borrowed some change to get a candy bar and call his wife in Chicago to let her know he was okay. He says his wife told him the search had been called off so he didn’t call park officials until the next day. He spent the night in his bivy sack behind the Centre.
“Where’s my car?”
This was one of the first things Darrah remembers Joachim asking when he received his call the next morning. The surprise on Darrah’s face must have been obvious to search team members sitting around him. No one could believe Joachim was alive.
Darrah and Blake interviewed Joachim once they had him at headquarters. While Joachim was keen to talk about how he had survived, they were surprised at his apparent lack of awareness of the effort put in to find him, or the extent to which his actions prevented them from doing so.
From Joachim’s feedback, the team was able to determine how little knowledge of the inherent dangers he had originally been aware of, and they understood immediately that he had listed the wrong destination in the climber’s registry. His behavior baffled them. When they had expected him to move, he stayed put. When they expected him to wait out storms, he had been travelling in them. It was way outside the parametres of how people normally behave in this kind of terrain.
As a result, Blake realized they had overlooked an important clue. At the time of Joachim’s disappearance, footsteps had been spotted at the point from which he left the ice bus route and struck out on the glacier. “We were so biased against this route,” says Blake. “It was unfeasible to us that someone could survive the gauntlet of hazards alone – that they would travel there without ropes. We didn’t see [the footprints] as a clue. We saw them as belonging to other mountaineers.”
“Since this case, we write our assumptions on the command board where they are visible throughout the search,” says Darrah. He adds, “Searching is a big game of probabilities. You need to make assumptions because you have a limited number of resources in a limited number of time.”
While George admits there were a few “miscommunications” like his climber’s registry entry, he still feels that he did what he should have in his circumstance.
“Looking back on it, I got stuck, and I did the right thing. When it wasn’t safe for me to get out of there, I stayed put. That’s what you’re supposed to do. And when the time came and the snow had melted, I walked back out.”