Off the Beaten Path
Follow the Light
When Eli Yon set out for his longest-ever training run in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country last March, his biggest worry was whether he’d make it to the start line for Sinister 7, the notoriously punishing 100-mile ultramarathon through the Rocky Mountains. Only an hour from Calgary but home to difficult, mountainous terrain, avalanche warnings and often more bear than people sightings, Kananaskis was to be Yon’s ideal training ground for what was supposed to be the biggest endurance test of his life. But when poor weather and bad visibility threw him significantly off course on his way back to his car, Yon found himself trapped in a far greater test of his mental and physical endurance – a 10-hour battle with -25 C temperatures, disorienting darkness and his own dark worries that he might not get off the trail – and back to his family – alive.
Ileft the house around 6:30 a.m. and started running by 8. It was my first 50k . It was beautiful out, but cold, maybe -20 C. Throughout the day, though, the weather started to turn – fog and mist rolled in, then light snow. I hit the 47–48kilometre mark at the top of Ranger Summit where I could get cell reception, so I sent my wife, Bethany, a message that I was a few kilometres from the car. This was around 5:30 p.m. The sun was starting to go down.
Coming down the trail, it was overcast and the snow was falling hard. There wasn’t a predominant marker saying, “OK, you need to go this way.” I went with the big path, and it felt like I was on the right track. I made my way back down into the valley and thought I must be close to the car. But there was a bridge that was not at the beginning of the trailhead from the parking lot. I decided to go up the trail to see if I could spot any markers. I managed to get up the other side of the valley and that’s when I realized – I am not where I need to be.
It was now -27 C. I’d brought two phones, and tried to find gps, but in just one minute the cold froze one battery, and then the other. That’s when panic started to set in. I thought, ‘I’m screwed. I’m not where I’m supposed to be; I have no means of communication. And the sun had gone beyond the mountain range so it’s getting a lot darker and colder.’
I started screaming. I hadn’t seen a person on the trails in 45 minutes. My voice wasn’t carrying in the valley, even though I yelled at the top of my lungs for the next 30 minutes. The sun was down, and the sky was still overcast and getting really
dark. Ultimate panic set in. I had nothing to light the way; I was a novice trail runner, and packing for the day, I thought, ‘I’m going to do 50 kilometres, and then I’m going to go home.’
I tried following the track back, retracing my steps to the place where it went all wrong, because obviously I wasn’t in the right spot. I did this for an hour, and I kept going up a biggrade elevation. That’s when the mental games began; I kept thinking, ‘No, I’m walking too far for too long without hitting the trailhead.’
I started second-guessing myself. So I went back down to the valley, and that’s when the clouds started to dissipate, revealing a nearly full moon. I was able to see. I got back up to the top of the valley, got my bearings and noticed far off in the distance, over the top of the valley, a light. I figured it was either a highway or a parking lot.
I told myself to just follow the light. I went down into the valley, and went to take the trail back up again, but I was exhausted. There were so many zigzags in the trail, it just didn’t feel right. So again, I went back down into the valley, and tried to get to as high a perch as I could. It was now around 10 p.m. I’d run out of water, and I needed to make a decision: either dig a hole to make some kind of shelter, or just keep going. I had no supplies, and no means to keep warm. It was at the third traverse of the valley where I finally said to myself OK, ‘ just keep moving, and follow that trail until you find something.’
I finally found my way back to the trailhead. But I couldn’t see the trailhead map because it was so dark. So I ripped it off the post, and looked at it under the moonlight.
I had taken a left turn when I should have gone right. But it was really dark through the canopy, so at some point the only way I could gauge where I was was by feeling the firm trail on my feet. I kept running into fresh snow. I became hyper-focused on just getting out, even though I had no idea where I was. I thought, “Just listen to your breath, just concentrate on that, and watch and feel your feet.” Luckily, each time I veered off, sometimes by 20 m, I was able to get back on the trail. Then I heard the siren.
The trail system shifts and switchbacks constantly. With every sharp right or left, the siren would switch sides, in front or behind me. And then it would stop. But I remember vividly when the siren finally started getting closer. As soon as the siren stopped I started yelling, but when nobody responded, I kept making my way closer.
I yelled out one last time, and that was when I heard my brother’s voice in the distance. I started running towards him. He came charging down the path toward me, and about five feet away, he tripped over something and rolled, and I just remember him grabbing my legs, and almost bursting into tears as he called out my name. When I f inally t a lked to Bet hany, I just sa id, “I’m sor r y.” A few days later, looking at the map I realized that I’d covered approximately 90 kilometres over the course of 20 hours on the mountain. Looking at it and mapping it all out was when the real terror set in. Because, looking at the map, and had no idea how, with no light source, and only a limited amount of moonlight, I was able to get out of there. On July 7, 2017, Eli and his brother Levon completed three legs of Sinister 7 despite peak temperatures of 45 C in the Crowsnest Pass area that day. (The race is renowned for its low completion rate, with only 18 per cent of solo racers crossing the finish line.) Eli insists it was a walk in the park compared to his night in Kananaskis.