New book tells story of being lost in The Blue Mountains
May 26, 2017
Fifty years ago, five Jamaican teenagers came close to death after being lost for 10 days in heavily forested terrain while trying to scale The Blue Mountains, the island’s longest mountain range.
Geoffrey Haddad, who survived the ordeal with three of his Jamaica College (JC) schoolmates and another friend who had recently graduated from the prominent boys high school, recalled the harrowing experience and daring rescue mission in a book, ‘If I’m Not Back By Wednesday: Trapped in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains’.
The other group members were George Hussey who resides in the Greater Toronto Area, Gordon Cooper who is married to noted Jamaican sculptor Laura Facey, Roger Bates who is retired after many years working with National Cash Register and lives in Calgary and Cecil Ward who owns and operates a family-run coffee farm in The Blue Mountains.
Graduating from JC a year earlier, Ward was employed at the time.
A last minute replacement, Haddad learnt about the hike a day before the group set off on December 16, 1967.
“Once I became aware of the plan and having developed a passion for the outdoors from around the age of four, I asked if I could join the group and was told ‘no’,” he said. “It was only when one of the original members dropped out was I asked to join and I gladly accepted the invitation.”
Haddad, who by age 16 had hiked The Blue Mountains southern flank hills while on cub and scout missions or hunting with his dad, didn’t tell his father, who died at age 90 six years ago, about the assignment because he knew he would object.
Conquering the 7,402 ft. peak was his goal and this was the opportunity.
Robin Crawford, a close friend in the neighbourhood, was the only person that Haddad confided in about the secret climb. He also told him to tell his dad to, ‘call out the army if I am not back by Wednesday’.
With a topographic map, radio, two barbecue chickens, canned food, water and other supplies to last for at least three days, the young men set out on the trip that soon turned into a desperate fight for survival.
“I suffered an asthma attack the first night and we slept back-to-back in freezing temperatures hovering around five degrees Celsius and torrential rainfall pelting down,” said Haddad whose grandfather, Shukrella Haddad, fled Lebanon – ruled by the Turk Ottman Empire -- in 1901 and launched the first Lebanese grocery store in downtown Jamaica.
By the third day, the hikers knew they were in trouble.
“We found ourselves in the Portland jungle with trees reaching as high as 90 feet,” said Haddad who lost 15 pounds during the ordeal.
On December 22, they had a stroke of luck that saved most likely heir lives.
“We ended up in the only fern patch in the jungle,” Haddad said. “At that point, we knew that someone above was taking care of us because the probability of that fern patch existing in a jungle like that is about one in 1.1 million.”
After hearing helicopters and planes flying overhead for two days above the fog and swirling winds, the hikers finally caught the attention of co-pilot David du Mont who was flying with aerial photographer and veteran pilot Jack Tyndale-Biscoe. They alerted the Jamaica Defence Force that co-ordinated the rescue on Christmas Eve Day.
“We made the decision that we were not going to leave that open spot and we were going to set the mountain on fire if that was what it was going to take to be spotted,” said Haddad.
Four of the five hikers – Hussey didn’t attend -- and their parents showed up at Tyndale-Biscoe’s home on Christmas Day to thank him for saving their lives.
Haddad came to Canada in 1970 to pursue civil engineering studies at McMaster University. After graduating with first-class honours in 1974, he completed his Master’s a year later in earthquake engineering & structural dynamics.
A project engineer during the Toronto Eaton Centre’s first phase completed in 1977, Haddad moved to British Columbia three years later. In 1983, he returned to Jamaica as the project manager for the expansion, modernization and coal conversion of the Caribbean Cement Company.
Haddad, who represented Jamaica in badminton at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, moved back to West Vancouver in 1989 and became an engineering consultant.
Last month, a copy of the book was taken to The Blue Mountains summit after an overnight stop at Whitfield Hall hostel.
“I didn’t go to the peak, but Robin (Crawford) and his family did so, but not before attesting their signatures to the book which is now there for visitors to see,” Haddad, who has four grandchildren, said.
Since the nightmarish experience five decades ago, he has been to The Blue Mountains peak eight times.
“Me and my cousin (St. George’s College and University of British Columbia graduate Ronald Haddad represented Jamaica in the 880-yard event at the 1966 Commonwealth Games) on, more than one occasion, drove to the bottom at Mavis Bank at 4.30 in the morning, ran up the 14 and a half miles to the peak, had a sandwich and a drink and then ran back down,” he said. “It only took about 10 hours to go from the base to the top and back.”
Haddad is currently writing an educational series depicting his interaction with his first grandchild born eight years ago.
‘If I’m Not Back By Wednesday: Trapped in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains’ is available in hardcover for $23.95 plus tax and softcover for $20.75 plus tax through www.geoffreyhaddadbooks.com.
This wasn’t the first group of JC students who attempted to reach The Blue Mountains Peak.
In 1939, Trevor Hastings, John Ennever, Eric Gray, Douglas Hall and Don Soutar were lost for 14 days in the forest.
Soutar, the last surviving member, died at his Florida home in January 2015 at age 94.