Lessons learned in the backcountry

The following account of one woman’s experiences while lost overnight in the Sun Peaks backcountry was submitted to SPIN for publication.  The author hopes her story will help others learn from her ordeal.

Lost

3:30pm: I was heading to (Sun Peaks’ backcountry), Gil’s, for the 4th time of the day with my friend, Alex*. To get there you have to duck a rope. Despite the rope (and the sign) people ski back there all the time without proper backcountry gear. I’ve taken many backcountry ski classes as well as an Avalanche (Level) 1 course, and I still underestimated Sun Peaks’ backcountry as I ducked the rope.

pull outIt was snowing and the wind was starting to pick up. We could barely see our tracks from the previous run and visibility was getting bad so I chose a new line through the trees while Alex skied his own line just to the left of me. We had agreed to meet on the outrun at the bottom, heading back to the ski resort. I was enjoying sweet, deep, untracked powder through the trees and I’m not sure how far I continued on past the outrun before I realized that I must have missed it. I was in pretty thick trees so I continued down until things opened up a little in order to see where I was. When I stopped to look around, there was nothing but trees in every direction. The only way out was to trace my tracks back the way I came.

4:00: I tried phoning Alex to let him know what happened but he didn’t pick up. It was already starting to get dark and I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t be able to trace my tracks back through the trees so I called ski patrol. Dispatch told me that ski patrol was already out looking for two lost girls and she would have them call me to try to figure out where I was. The reception was sketchy so communication was difficult.  Alex finally called and I let him know what had happened and told him to get in touch with ski patrol and my kids. My kids were waiting for me down at the village so I called my oldest son to let him know that I was lost. I told him to go back to the townhouse and to wait for me there. I also told them to call Alex for updates because I needed to conserve my phone battery. I hated that I was putting my kids through this.

I decided to try and follow my tracks back through the trees in hopes of finding the outrun. It was getting cold and dark and I needed to move so I could stay warm. It was still snowing and the wind was blowing so my tracks were hard to see. There were skidoo tracks as well but at some point they all just all looked the same. I needed to get out of the trees so I kept going up until finally, things opened up. Unfortunately nothing looked familiar. Alex called to let me know he’d caught up with ski patrol and showed them where he last saw me. I let him know that I tried to follow my steps back but was unsuccessful. I was at the bottom of an open hillside so I continued up to the top in hopes of a better view. In my training I was told that if you are lost, stay where you are but I felt I needed to keep moving to avoid hypothermia.

8:00pm: Visibility was improving from the top of the hillside, and I could see snowmobiles off in the distance. I sent Alex a text letting him know that I saw them,but unfortunately the snowmobiles I saw weren’t search and rescue. They hadn’t left Sun Peaks yet.  I paced back and forth at the top of the hill to stay warm. I forced myself to stay in the moment and focus on how I would survive the night. The wind started picking up again and despite my pacing, I was getting cold so I started digging a hole, trying to carve out some sort of protection from the wind. I alternated between digging and pacing until I saw a skidoo with red lights flashing and a siren sounding. I pulled out my cell phone one more time to text Alex, “I see you guys!”  And then . . .  my battery died. Down the hillside and up through a large patch of glades at the top of another hillside, I saw the skidoo and saw two flares shoot up into the air so I headed off in that direction. It was dark and I couldn’t afford to get hurt or stuck in a tree well so I slid down the hill on my bum and post holed my way to the trees. Then I wedged my snowboard into the snow above me and kicked steps, inching my way up the hill. The snow was waist deep so the process was slow but I was staying warm and moving in the right direction.

I was yelling every few minutes hoping that SAR would hear me.  It had been a while since I saw the flares and I wasn’t sure that anybody was still out there, but I had to keep moving. My boots were filling up with snow, and I realized this was a problem but there was no way to avoid it — I had to get up and out of the trees so I could be seen. I continued to yell and I might have heard voices yelling back but it was so windy that I couldn’t discern if they were really voices or just the trees creaking in the wind. The trees seemed to go on forever. Although I was exhausted, I just kept going. I wouldn’t let my mind think about anything else except what I needed to do next. I was very aware that I could die out there but I refused to let myself believe it would really happen. I thought about some of the physically hardest days of my life and told myself that if I survived those, I would survive this as well.  My kids were waiting for me . . . I had to get out.

I have no idea what time it was when I finally made it to the to the top of the hill where I thought the flares had come from but no one was there. My boots were full of water, and the wind was getting stronger. My last meal was a bagel and a small bottle of water at lunchtime. My throat was so dry that I started eating snow despite having heard eating snow actually dehydrates you. I felt relief from the water running down my throat. I needed to pee hours ago but now I couldn’t put it off any longer.  I climbed under the branches of a nearby tree to get out of the wind.  Once under the shelter of the tree, the wind was mostly blocked, and I thought this was a perfect place to wait out the weather. At first I pulled my snowboard inside my little tree shelter to use for insulation against the cold ground. It was better than sitting directly on the snow, but still really cold so I climbed up into the tree branches and tried to get comfortable, but not too comfortable. I knew that I still needed to keep moving, especially my toes which were getting colder. I positioned my feet so that the puddles of water in my boots were at my heels and kicked my feet, jumped up and down, and windmilled my arms around.. I was so afraid of freezing to death. I could still hear the snowmobilers from earlier but they were so far away I’d never find them in the dark. I stayed in my tree until morning. I dozed off many times but either my cold feet or my position in the tree kept me from sleeping too long. When it was finally light outside I climbed down so I could look around and decide what to do next.

I found a tracked out open area a little below my tree; a perfect place to move around (without post holing) and hopefully, be seen. I ran back and forth as fast as I could. My plan was to hang out until mid-day. If I wasn’t rescued by then, I was going to try to find the snowmobilers that I could hear again in the distance. I couldn’t let myself think about what would happen if I wasn’t rescued. That wasn’t an option.

I must have been pacing for a couple of hours before I heard the helicopter. It was pretty far away but I knew it was SAR looking for me. The sounds got quieter, then louder, then quieter. I listened for a couple of hours until I could hear it just above me. I started running in the direction of the helicopter and finally there it was!

After spotting me on the ground, the helicopter turned around and went back to where it came from. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I wasn’t worried. They saw me. I continued running back and forth until the helicopter came back and landed in the open area that I had been pacing on for the last few hours. The SAR pilot ran over to me and gave me a hug. I was so relieved. All I could think about were my kids and what I must have put them through. I was flown to Sun Peaks Ski Patrol. There were news cameras waiting for me when I got out of the helicopter. One of the SAR volunteers warned me that they’d be there and suggested I pull down my goggles, which I did as well as pull my buff  over my face.

Ski patrol had a warm bed ready for me and I began shedding my wet clothes. But, when I tried to take off my boots, they wouldn’t budge. Patrollers tried to help me but it was no use, my boots were frozen to my feet. I sat in front of a heater for about 30 minutes before we could finally get them off. I took off my wet socks and climbed into the warm bed. Ski patrol wrapped my feet in hot blankets and examined my toes for frostbite. Although my toes were really cold, I knew they were okay and fortunately, the examination confirmed it.

Alex came in to check on me and I had to force back the tears that had been welling up since I first realized I was lost. He’d called my kids to let them know that I was okay. Their dad, stepmom, and stepbrother drove up from Seattle while I was lost in the mountains. Although my night was long, cold, and exhausting, I was 90 per cent certain that I would be okay. My kids, their friend, my ex-husband, his wife and stepson had no way of knowing if I would make it out alive.

Ski Patrol kept me long enough to get all of my information, take my vitals, and reprimand me for ducking ropes and being foolishly unprepared. After feeding me soup and hot chocolate they dried all my wet clothes. One of the girls even let me wear her boots on the way to my car so I didn’t have to put on my wet snowboard boots.

It’s been weeks since that long cold night but I continue to play it over and over in my head. I was skiing in a familiar resort with a friend who’s been skiing there for much longer than I have, and who knew the backcountry much better than I do. We were doing the same loop we’d already done three times that day with just a little variation. It didn’t even occur to me (or Alex) to stay too close together because our lines merged onto the same outrun. Because visibility had deteriorated, I didn’t see the outrun, instead I just rode right over it. The trees sucked me in so fast that by the time I realized I had gone too far, it was too late.

The mountains are powerful and should never be underestimated. I had no business ducking that rope without proper gear i.e. beacon, shovel, probe, extra clothes, food, water, maps, compass, etc… Fortunately temperatures were warmer than usual or I don’t think I would have survived. Both Kamloops SAR and Sun Peaks Ski Patrol did everything they could to rescue me and I will be forever grateful for their efforts.

 *names have been changed at the request of parties involved.

  • Dano

    In order to get lost while skiing or boarding the Gils Hill area you have to cross a Cat Track instead of taking it to return to the resort. Years ago there was no Cat Track, just a trail and people would get lost on an almost weekly basis, so one summer SPRC put in a Cat Road and since that time very few people have gotten lost.

    In this case the snowboarder must have not been paying attention to where she was or what she was doing as it is very obvious when you hit the Cat Track. People need to pay attention and be aware out there.