Murray Naswell points to the spot on the map where he was stuck on a cliff above Moat Lake. He was eventually able to get to a cabin below where rescuers found him. Photo by Mike Chouinard/Comox Valley Record

Hiker survives five-day ordeal on Vancouver Island mountain range

Fog forced Courtenay man onto cliff before he found safety in lake cabin at Strathcona Park

It was supposed to be a day hike up Mount Albert Edward for Murray Naswell. Instead, he got stuck on a cliff at one point for the better part of two days, too scared to sleep for fear of rolling off.

After an extensive search-and-rescue effort, the Courtenay man was found Monday afternoon in a cabin at Moat Lake in Strathcona Provincial Park, five days after leaving for the summit on Wednesday, July 3.

The culprit was fog, and he admits, to some degree, a bit of arrogance on his part for when he chose to leave for the summit

“I was actually going to make an early attempt,” he told Black Press.

His big mistake, he says, was leaving too late in the day. Usually, he would start to summit by 7 a.m., certainly no later than 9 a.m. He had been up there before and knows the turnaround time. On the Wednesday though, he got a late start around 11 a.m. The weather had been so hot and dry of late that he presumed he would have ample time to get to the summit later in the afternoon and get back down the mountain to his camp. It’s also why he was wearing only light clothes such as a T-shirt and shorts during the day.

RELATED STORY: Comox Valley SAR looking for missing local hiker in Strathcona Park

He passed some people on the way up and even heard fog might be coming in, but he still figured he could get to the top and down in plenty of time. Then the weather changed almost instantly, and so began his harrowing adventure.

“The fog came in and out like crazy,” he said.

He was able to make it to a cliff west of Moat Lake that he estimates was about 1,000 feet up, but because of the heavy fog, he did not want to leave the location. He was in danger of falling into a ravine at one point during a jump.

Badly dehydrated, he was forced to find water from tree leaves in the misty environment.

“I was able to get some hydration,” he said.

While on the cliff, he fought sleep and tried to keep warm with exercises to help blood flow to his extremities. Meanwhile, besides the fog, he faced icy hail and lightning. His hope was for the weather to clear, so that air searchers would spot him, but the weather was not cooperating, something the rescue team had said delayed their ability to conduct a search.

At one point, Naswell climbed higher to a ridge, but realized he was on the wrong one. He made the choice to go down, sliding on his back side down a creek bed.

“The lake got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said, adding he knew he was not “out of the woods” yet.

When he saw the cabin at Moat Lake, he figured that was his best chance, so he jumped off a lower cliff into the water and swam toward the cabin, wading part of the way.

Badly freezing, his first priority was to get warm. If the cabin was empty, he might be in trouble, but when he got inside, he found about 20 blankets and immediately threw them on to warm up his core temperature. The place was also stocked with food, so he started with some chicken noodle soup. When the search team arrived Monday, he was making spaghetti and reading a book, knowing he’d be okay for several days with the supplies.

Naswell dismisses a suggestion he was doing this for attention. He says he agreed to talk to the newspaper because of the many misconceptions around his disappearance he has heard since returning.

There were some minor details different than first reported. For example, he lives in Courtenay, not Cumberland, though he was born in the latter community. Likewise, rather than a couple he’d met with whom he was to climb the mountain, it was actually a mother from Australia and her son, probably about 10 or 11.

More seriously, there is the question of concerns about his mental state. He now recalls sending his daughter a text, as a joke, saying where he wanted to be buried if he didn’t make it out. He now realizes how it could be misinterpreted.

Naswell says he had finished up his work and was looking forward to a week where he could get out into nature for some quiet, but he did have every intention of coming back.

“I planned to go up for a good week,” he said. “This was supposed to be a quiet trip.”

He’d left behind his passport at the cairn on Mount Albert Edward, along with a note for his family, but in light of the situation, it was to tell them he’d been there. The passport had actually expired, so he wanted a way to remember he had to renew it. Naswell hates to think of what his loved ones were thinking while he was in the wild, and this is part of what drove him to get back.

“That makes you want to get down quickly,” he said.

Another piece of misinformation surrounds some talk he’d brought along a bottle of whiskey. He admits to taking along a small flask, so he could make himself a hot toddy in the evening.

“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.

Back home, he is grateful to his family and those that had to look for him, and is sorry for what he put them through during the last week.

“I apologize to everybody for my arrogance,” he said. “It will never happen again.”

On Monday, the search was expanded to 120 search-and-rescue members from Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, along with search helicopters and four search dogs.

Finally, Naswell is grateful to the people who stocked the cabin with food and blankets because, otherwise, he might not be able to tell the story of what happened.

“The cabin was my life,” he said.

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