Two skiers had just skinned to the top of Grey Mountain for their first ski tour of the year when, last Saturday at 2 p.m., the clouds socked in and visibility dropped to near zero.
The pair [Editor's note: the skiers asked us not to identify them and we are respecting their privacy here] skied what they thought was a line back to Red Mountain Resort, but they were turned around in the whiteout conditions and eventually found themselves in an unfamiliar creek drainage. They thought they had ended up on the north side of Grey where a small creek feeds into Topping Creek and eventually meets the highway to the east, so they started to follow it.
In fact, they were following Esling Creek to the west, far from any roads or human habitation. One of the skiers shared his story with the Rossland Telegraph.
"A big cloud came over from Granite and all visibility disappeared," he said. "We headed down the ridge [of Grey] a bit to get into trees, but we went a speck too far—over the shoulder [to the west]. We slowly curved around [on the other side of the ridge from The Headwall] and then cut hard right for quite a while, but we'd already started into a ravine and ended up in the creek bed around 3 p.m."
"We got screwed up on direction and thought we were headed towards the highway, so we thought we'd get out on the creek. We crossed the river three of four times, but we hit a dead end just as darkness fell."
The pair didn't have much with them besides their light touring packs with avalanche gear—probe, shovel, beacon—plus three Clif bars, a thermos of tea, and a litre of water between them. They'd neglected to put their headlamps back into their bags after going all summer without them. They had a lighter, but couldn't get a fire going.
"We tried and tried," the skier said, "but it was too damp."
They knew they were in for a long night, so they dug a small snow cave into the mountain and stuffed the floor with branches for insulation.
"It was just enough for two of us to squeeze in tight, but even with the branches on ground, we couldn't spend more than 15 minutes in there. The cold was coming right through ground."
That evening temperatures dropped to minus 15 Celsius, a deep cold compounded by wind chill, humidity from the creek, and the skiers' sweaty clothes.
"We spent the whole night outside," he said, "standing, jumping up and down, taking off our boots and rubbing each others' feet, warming them up under jackets. We stomped out a walkway about ten feet long over to a big tree we called our gym—we pulled on branches, hung on them, swung around. We spent four hours in the tree working out."
"You get creative when you have no choice," he laughed.
They had no way to communicate: although they had an iPhone, they couldn't get a signal anywhere, "so instead we had a few tunes to dance to for about half an hour," the skier laughed again.
They kept their spirits up and worked hard to remain positive, "but it got really cold around five when the stars and moon came out," the skier said. "We couldn't warm each other up, and we were getting very concerned." Hypothermia claims the lives of outdoor adventurers every year.
As they struggled to stay warm, their main hope was that Search and Rescue would be on their trail, but they worried their tracks would be covered by snow. As the sky cleared, the skiers thought to themselves, "Thank God it's going to be a clear day and they're going to see our tracks."
"My son was coming for supper at 7 p.m. on Saturday night, so we knew that he would find no dad and no supper," the skier said. "He looked around, checked for the car, called my ex-wife, went to Red and found the car, went to my locker and saw snow boots but no ski equipment—he knew we were up there."
The RCMP got the call at 8:30 p.m., investigated immediately, and called the Rossland & District Search and Rescue (SAR) at around 9:30 p.m.
"Red Resort had done a complete sweep of their territory, and anything beyond that is where we pick up the thread," said Graham Jones, the longtime director of the Rossland SAR. "We made a call out to our members and were in the field until 2 a.m. on Sunday morning trying to locate them."
"First we have to establish where they may have gone," he said, explaining the basic search method, "so we do a perimeter search and look for tracks heading off. We put a team on every set of tracks that might be a potential. They ski that trail until they find people or find the end of the trail. We have to eliminate areas of probability and narrow it down."
It had already been a busy weekend for the Rossland SAR who had just run the annual "Avalanche Awareness Day" at Red Mountain Resort. Jones called the Saturday event a "roaring success," attended by about 40 people who learned about probing, transceivers, terrain, snow pits and tests, and how to get better educated on staying safe in the backcountry.
Unfortunately, SAR had been led to believe that the pair were skiing on Mount Roberts, so the evening's search was conducted far away from where the skiers actually were.
"We get information and have to react to it," Jones said, noting that he could not divulge his sources of information.
Jones pulled his "troops" at 2 a.m., but called the Castlegar and South Columbia SAR teams and put them on standby for when the search would resume at first light. Indeed, when 7:30 a.m. on Sunday rolled around, all three teams were mobilized and small groups were helicoptered to key locations to look for tracks and follow any that hinted at a pair of skiers heading in the wrong direction.
"We work in conjunction with [Castlegar and South Columbia], offering mutual aid on a frequent basis. It's very useful to have extra troops, extra people on the ground," Jones said, adding that the three groups work very well together—this circumstance being an excellent example—and he was very grateful for their help. He noted that the Nelson SAR is also available, but not so frequently called because they are further away.
As Sunday morning broke, the skiers were blessed with bright sunshine and bluebird skies. They looked around and found themselves with only one option: "There was nothing to do but head straight up," the skier said. "It was too steep for skins," so they used their skis to grab the snow above them for support as they climbed up in ski boots for more than four hours. The other skier stomped a large "HELP" in a snow field they crossed as they continued on their way up.
"We hit one really gnarly cliff," the skier said. "That was very scary, but we knew we had no choice, we had to get up it."
By about 10 a.m., they'd at least started to warm up. "It was sunny and warm," he said, "so we were warm. But we still have numb toes now—not frozen, not going black, but a bit of nerve damage. They should be good, but they feel a bit buzzy."
As Sunday wore on, the skiers remained far below the ridge despite their efforts. "We were very concerned," he said. "We didn't want to talk about 'what if,' but a little concern was creeping in about another night. We were eating a bit of snow to get some wet in our mouths."
At noon they saw the helicopter that SAR was using to drop off teams of volunteers.
"We saw the helicopter down low in the ravine and we were sure they must have seen our tracks. They came back and we knew they were on our tracks."
Indeed, the rescuers in the helicopter had seen the tracks and "HELP" in the snow, and managed to drop two SAR volunteers into the ravine about 20 minutes from the skiers location. The rescuers met the skiers with tea, sandwiches, and cookies.
"It was gnarly just getting to [the helicopter]," the skier remembered, "and hairy to get on. It couldn't land, so it was hovering and touching on only one rail. The four of us crouched down as the helicopter came in sideways and touched down the one rail only a meter from us. We were told to get in extremely quietly and slowly, so as not to rock the chopper. It was the trip of our life coming back."
The helicopter landed in the Red Mountain parking lot where a large section had been cordoned off for the rescue team. "It was entirely professional," the skier recalled, "really well run. Everyone was positive and there was a full debriefing. They said we did the right things when we found ourselves in trouble. They were excited they'd found us and we were excited to be found. Great thanks to all the search and rescue guys, they were fantastic, and Red Mountain did everything they could. Just bang on."
Looking back on their ordeal, the skier discussed lessons learned: "First of all," he said, "if you ever go up touring and things start to whiten up, don't even think about finding another line, just take your tracks back down."
The old Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared," has a stronger meaning now too. "What you carry is important," the skier said. "We had no kind of kindling. Bring a bit of birchbark, drier lint in a bag, something dry, a couple of tea candles. A flare would have been really good [to attract rescuers]. Mylar blankets weigh nothing. I'm putting together a good size tupperware right now of stuff that will go in the bottom of the pack and never come out again unless it's needed."
He also thought about things the pair had done right. "We used our heads, we didn't panic. There's nothing to be gained there, you just lose energy and focus. We faced the problem: how are we going to get through the night as it gets cold?"
When Graham Jones recalled the situation, he said, "I'm pretty certain that if they'd had to spend one more night, they'd be in dire, dire straits."
He strongly recommended that backcountry travellers invest in a GPS, calling it "cheap insurance." He suggested skiers put in a couple key waypoints—such as the Red Mountain lodge, for skiers going up Roberts, Record, Whitewolf, Grey, or Kirkup—to keep oriented.
"Some will use a compass," Jones said, "but you need to know how to use it, you need more experience. When there are no landmarks to establish location, you're at a bit of a disadvantage. A GPS, even an inexpensive one, at least heads you in the right direction."
He suggested other items for the pack, even if the trip was only for the afternoon: "A nice lightweight down jacket doesn't take up any space, a spare pair of socks, some granola bars. Going for an afternoon run, dressed lightly, things can go wrong if you aren't prepared when the weather turns bad. Next thing you know you've got yourself in a bit of a disaster."
The skier agreed, and shared the whole story with us hoping that others might learn from the misadventure.
"It was our first tour of the year, just one run on Grey," he said. "We weren't even going anywhere. Don't think just because you are going for a little walk you don't need stuff in your pack. No matter where you are going, you might be outside overnight in minus 15."
This article has been modified from its original form to include a clarifying editor's note.