In their 30 years of friendship and hunting trips, Gibsons residents Rob Graham and Brad Beggs have never experienced road conditions like they did on Nov. 15, when they and nearly 50 other vehicles were trapped by mudslides on Duffey Lake Road.
Two mudslides on Highway 99 between Lillooet and Pemberton trapped multiple vehicles and swept others over the bank, as an atmospheric river event hit much of B.C., causing severe flooding and widespread damage. Between Nov. 15 and 19, search and rescue teams recovered four bodies from the area of the mudslides. As of Nov. 22, one person was still reported missing, but the weather and site conditions hampered search efforts.
Duffey Lake Road was the only route open when Graham, his son Cameron, and Beggs were returning from hunting in Kamloops. The friends say that road is bad at the best of times.
“We went against our better judgement, though, by taking that road. We just wanted to get home,” Graham said.
There were rocks on the road the whole way and they could see muddy water streaming down the sides of the mountain, undercutting the area above. When they came to a stop on the road behind other vehicles, the Grahams got out of Beggs’ truck to assess the situation and how long they might have to wait.
“It was not a good place to be. The impending doom feeling was hanging in the air big time,” Graham told Coast Reporter. “When the mountain came down, Brad was still in the truck.”
“We heard the rumbling of the mountain coming down,” Beggs said. “And I'm in the truck and I can't tell where it's coming from. It's just a big thundering noise coming down in the valley that we're in.”
Beggs had left enough room between his truck and the car in front of him to be able to move around it. He fired up the truck to move further down the road, and the car behind him followed. Other vehicles behind them were hit by the debris.
“There's guys coming out of the mud, covered head to toe. All you saw was their eyes, their mouths wide open,” Beggs said.
“They were just in shock.”
Two young men were able to escape by climbing out a window of their car after it had been turned upside down. Graham and Beggs gave them dry clothes from their hunting trip and warmed up one of the young men, Luke, in their truck while his friend was warmed up in another. Beggs gave him water to sip, and kept him talking to help ward off the shock.
A woman asked them to help look for her missing son, but the slide was too large and the area too dangerous. The Grahams grabbed all the equipment they could, but it was “useless”.
“The mud was like a concrete slurry… and the gulf of it was so large,” Graham said.
Beggs and Graham credit an off-duty firefighter with taking control of the situation, and helping people remain calm. A traffic control officer and forest engineer who also happened to be there helped move the stranded people to a safer spot and conducted a head and vehicle count in case there was another slide.
The Grahams and Beggs kept busy, trying to find ways to help.
“We all wished we could have done more,” Graham wrote in a Facebook post about the incident.
When the area was cleared up enough to leave, they took the young man to Pemberton, where he was taken to the hospital. They have since been in touch through Facebook to check in on how he’s doing. When Luke asked how he should give them back their clothes, Graham told him he could keep them as a reminder of what they’d all been through.
A week later, the friends were still feeling the effects of the ordeal they lived through. Graham couldn’t focus the next day and Beggs said he wasn’t able to sleep for the first few days back home.
“The speed and the noise that came down with that mountain when it came down behind us was something I'll never forget,” Beggs said. He questions why they survived when others didn’t.
“If we'd have been five minutes ahead, we would have been through the slide and not even known. If we'd have been two cars behind or three cars... we might not be here.”
Their thoughts go out to the families of the deceased.
Now, that they’re home, Beggs and Graham are also encouraging others to bring crash kits and equipment on the road with them.
“Just be prepared for the unexpected,” Beggs said. “If the little voice in your head says don’t travel that day, maybe don’t travel that day.”
With files from Pique Newsmagazine and Alanna Kelly/Glacier Media