Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Epic....& a Few Lessons Learned was my day off (mon.) I was looking forward to some back country skiing as the snow has been really piling up in the b.c., even though it’s only early Nov. My plan was to do some sewing repairs on ski pants and then head out. My destination: Sunshine Village Ski area via Healy creek and the backside meadows. I’d done this trip many times, knew it well, knew the avi danger is almost non-existent (except for a small-short rock band that is very well flagged). I set out at 2 PM expecting the ski to last between 2-3 hours.

It was great skiing on snow right from the beginning. It was also snowing, not very cold and shaping up to be a classic winter day. Everything went totally well until I reached the top of the rock band. I was about 2 hours out (the quickest I’d ever done the tour was 2 hours total-so a little slower this time) and was following the flagging on the trees up to the alpine. Once in the alpine everything looked completely different than all the other times I’d ever been up there. Wind, snow and flat light conditions eliminated all mountain reference points. It was now 4 and darkness would start in 1.5 hours....I was getting a little nervous. I’ve done this tour so many times I didn’t even think to bring navigational tools (compass, map, gps). I was going to bring the latter, but I’d left it in my other vehicle and Deb had that in Banff.

I began praying to find the remaining flagging, but never did. I figured I was pretty much still on course so took a left and heading out for the remaining couple of km’s to the ski area. At this point I didn’t recognize anything. Later, after pouring over the topo map at home I realized I probably was on course, but a couple of ridges over.

I reasoned that there was maybe a 20% chance I’d gotten turned around and could be going the wrong direction. It was now 5pm and light was really fading. At this juncture I made a critical decision. I could either continue on with a chance of never finding the ski area, thus I’d be shuffling around in the windy alpine and would have to spend the night hunkered down somewhere....not a very appealing thought. The other choice was to back track my ski tracks. I was over 3 hours out, so that would make for a loooong, dark ski...not very appealing either, but I thought it was my best chance to get home to my warm bed.

As I was backtracking, at one point my trail had been blown away. This was the only true moment of panic as I realized if I didn’t find that trail I definitely would be sleeping in a tree well. After a loud shouted prayer I was able to find the ski trail in the now seriously waning light. Back in the trees the trail was easy to find. I made it safely down the rock band and down the drainage to Healy Creek. Now however, all light was gone. This would have been no problem, but dumb-dumb here didn’t bring his headlamp. I had 5 km to my truck. The trail is pretty straight forward, but in this darkness it would be possible to veer of track and never find it again, so I proceeded very cautiously.

What happened next I’m not sure if it was a blessing or the ski came out of the binding. Now I have a thing going with Dynafit bindings. In rando races I’ve lost a lot of time trying to get those stupid bindings on. In the darkness it would be very difficult. I never did get that ski back on. I must have tried 100 times. I even took the boot off my foot and kneeled down trying to feel it in. Using the light on my watch gave me a little visibility, but I still couldn’t get ‘er. So I continued down the trail, occasionally stopping to give it another go....but to no avail. I mention that it might have been a little of a blessing in that with the free foot I could defiantly feel the firmness of the track and if I was inadvertently getting off the trail. It was a slow slog but finally I could see the light of the gondola base.

It was a quarter to 9 when I finally got to my truck. Immediately a SSV staffer came up on a snowmobile and asked if I was Steve..... "uh yeah". He gave me his cell phone to call Deb and let her know I was ok. I could hear the kids cheering in the background. I wondered how many people knew about this.

Sooooo, here’s what I did right: I left a detailed description on the phone answering machine as to my itinerary. I carried a down jacket with me and extra dry gloves. A night out would be very uncomfortable, but in this weather easily survivable. In retrospect I think I would have found the ski area, but in evaluating my odds, I made what I still think was the right decision to backtrack.

What I did wrong: no headlamp......that was really dumb. Plus not having the gps. The whole thing would have been a no brainer even in the white out if I just had the gps. Sometimes gps can fail, so a map and compass are important too. A partner is always a good idea, but not always feasible.

The day after the ordeal I ordered an E-Bivy from MSR. It’s a 71$ emergency bivy bag. At ½ pound light enough to keep in your pack. I also am in the process of putting together a permanently designated back-country backpack with 1st aid and repair kit, extra sox-shirt-warm gloves and food. I’ll keep the bivy bag in there too as well as a compass. I’ll never leave home without a map/compass and warm jacket.....oh, and a head lamp! In addition, my good friend Dave, who was preparing to get up at 4 am the next day to come looking for me, has offered to let me use his sat phone any time I venture out.

I guess a lot of people learn valuable back country lessons the hard way. It could have been a lot worse for me. Fortunately, I’ve hopefully learned the lessons and now will always be prepared for the worse. Even if that pack is a little heavy, that just means the workout is better.