Words by: Flo Goeller Photography by : Elliot Bernhagen
After waiting on our weather window for several days, Elliot Bernhagen and I woke to a perfect April morning with a fresh coat of 20-30 centimeters. The plan was to be unloading the sleds at the trailhead around 5.30am and summiting the east facing slope at sunrise, which we watched transform from a sheer rock wall to a beautiful spine face throughout the course of the winter. After about 1.5 hours of trail breaking and technical route finding we found ourselves clicked into our bindings, ready to drop just in time for the face to be fully lit up with morning sun. The following ride ended up being one of the best lines of the season for me and worth every bit of effort. Back at the sled we hooted and hollered at each other, full of excitement, sharing high 5's and smiles for a brief moment before we hurried to get the gear strapped back to the snowmobile to go for round two.
After 3-4 runs about 90% of the face was now covered in shade, so we made the call to refuel the sleds and move on to objective number two: a northeasterly spine wall which we had only heard rumors of. When we finally arrived at the spot after technical route finding we couldn't believe our eyes – a several kilometer long ridge line filled with ramps and spines had magically appeared in front of us. While enjoying an ice cold beer we discussed the potential of some lines which were protected by a cornice and seemed difficult to access. Luckily I had packed my climbing gear that morning and was roping up shortly after, on belay with my snowmobile as an anchor, digging a channel through the cornice as an entrance to the spine.
Blower powder and perfect conditions allowed the next runs to transform into great memories, proving that the 30 minutes of digging was all worth it. Back at the bottom, when I was asked how it went over the radio, I told Elliot to get ready for one hell of a ride and “Let er' rip”. Shortly after I watched him toss big sprays left and right down the spine, which was equally fun to watch as it was to ski. As the sun started to set we decided to wrap up and take a shortcut back to the main cat road, instead of taking the way we came. We jumped on the sleds and cut back and forth into the drainage then into a wide creek bed which we thought was the best way out.
It didn't take long until the first open creek turned into a narrow minefield of holes, some of them as deep as three meters leading down to the gushing creek. We quickly knew that there is no turning back because we had already dropped too far down the drainage. After an hour of technical snowmobiling it was pitch dark and our headlamps were ablaze. We started scouting the route on foot, shoveling bridges over the bigger holes in order to get the sleds out of the creek and into the forest. We made the call to start a fire and warm up, as we discussed our escape plan. I decided to continue shoveling and scouting the trail in order to stay warm while Elliot worked to warm himself with the fire. After several hours of shoveling, I climbed back up slope to the fire pit, where I found my friend still trying warm himself close to the last glimmering coals. Exhausted, we got ready to leave and continued working our way towards the valley. After a few more hours of connecting small hallways and openings in the deadfall, we made it into the flats of the valley. We zig-zagged through the meadows and were back on the cat road after one final creek crossing. Another 90 minutes later we arrived at the trucks and spent the last bit of energy to load the sleds and head to town for much needed food. As we turned onto the highway, we immediately were pulled over by a police car. They had been looking for us the whole morning, and were about to dispatch Search & Rescue. After finding out, that our friends had called the police and alarmed search & rescue because we didn’t come home the previous evening, we told the officer to please call off the search.
Although I am very grateful we made it out ok, this adventure was an important learning situation for us. Although I had some of the best skiing of the season, the situation became very serious due to our decision to take a shortcut at the end of the day because we were tired. Its always a good habit to second guess you/your group's decision in the backcountry at all times. Remember to save some challenges for another day and to always bring a GPS radio/Inreach to be able to get in contact with worried friends, family, or get help in a worst case scenario. Be prepared for every situation at all times!