Oh Shit – And Blackcomb’s Last Mountain Rescue of 2017
With the afternoon sun beating down on a 4000foot avalanche path, we’re trying to ride from safe spot to safe spot.
Of course “safe” is a relative term and I find myself perched on a high point in the middle of the slide path, hiding behind a stand of timber that looks less battered by avalanches than the rest.
Wrong place, wrong time: this is a spot of extreme violence.
Right place, right time: it’s 4000feet of pow shredding right down to the valley floor.
It’s the last day of 2017 and two friends of ours put tracks down here the day before. With 24 more hours to have settled out the snowpack, we feel comfortable stepping into such a large piece of terrain…
We just have to keep moving.
Delaney and Brad are both above me. Brad’s taking photos, but the scale of the terrain is making it hard to communicate. We decide to reconvene at a high point and figure things out from there. But when Delaney starts skiing again, he’s knocked off his feet by a buried rock.
After struggling to get back up, he thinks ‘Oh man, I need to take my boot off and adjust my sock’. But then quickly realizes that something far more serious is afoot.
“I think I need some help,” I hear him say. So I yell up to Brad, who can’t really see what’s happening with Delaney.
Brad finds him on the slope and yells down that Delaney thinks he’s broken his leg.
I once took a chainsaw course, and our instructor described accidents as “OH SHITS”. Like by the time you say “OH SHIT”, you’ve already cut your face in half.
But this is a different kind of OH SHIT, one that descends on our crew like a blanket of impending dread.
We still have 3000feet of skiing below us, followed by a 1.5hr climb, followed by an 11km monkey trail that winds through the woods back to civilization.
“Do we get cell service out here?” asks Delaney who, under the circumstances, is surprisingly coherent and alert. His leg’s definitely broken, but at least it’s not bleeding.
We do get service, which is an insane spot of luck because none of us have an emergency locator.
We’re on the Blackcomb side of Fitzsimmons creek, a few ridges east of the ski area boundary. So we’re close to civilization. But holy fuck are we ever far away.
We call Blackcomb Ski Patrol and they advise us to call 9-1-1 and go through the proper protocol of dispatching the local Search and Rescue.
Delaney gets them on the line and drops a pin from his phone so they know exactly where we are. And even though the dispatcher isn’t entirely mountain savy, he’s able to activate the people who are.
They’re sending a heli, which is all fair and good, but there’s no way they’re landing here.
We’re still in the middle of a massive, fuck-off slide path that, in spite of our stability call, feels hollow, sugary and weakened by the afternoon sun.
If anything does rip loose from above, all three of us will be swept towards the valley floor.
We take stock of our contingency items:
-two puffy coats
-two cell phones, both with over 50% battery
-avalanche rescue gear
In other words, we’re fairly unprepared. But if we have to, we can spend the night.
I scootch off the slidepath to stand guard while Brad and Delaney work up the wherewithal to get themselves out of harm’s way as well. It’s not easy, but Brad’s able to help Delaney down to our little island of safety. It takes about 40mins to move him 100metres.
Eventually we hear the heli coming up the valley. It takes them a couple passes to see us flapping our arms like idiots on the mountainside. They assess the scene from the air and then speed off into the setting sun.
The text comes into Delaney’s phone: the bird’s being sent to Blackcomb so it can be outfitted for longlining.
We figure we’ve got about 10mins before the sun goes down, so Brad and I start discussing how the fuck he and I are getting out of there.
The heli’s definitely not yanking all three of us off the slide path.
The last sunset of 2017 starts to announce itself on the other side of the valley. Pinks, oranges, purples and blues.
A beautiful reminder that we’re running out of time.
“Dominic is on his way,” says the incoming text from SAR.
A few minutes later, we hear the thumping pulse of the rotor blades coming back up the valley. The heli’s just a silhouette in the setting sun. And there’s Domininc, dangling from the bottom of it, swooping in to haul our injured buddy back to safety.
How fucking lucky are we that this is even a possibility? Our absolute last resort is enacting itself before our eyes.
I’m stoked to see that it’s Dom Balik from Blackcomb Ski Patrol, someone who’s actually skied this very line and understands what three burnouts like us are doing out there in the late afternoon.
He’s all business, which he apologizes for after the fact, but he has Delaney rigged up in under two minutes.
He even takes Delaney’s skis.
Then he reconnects to the heli and they rip through the last remaining light of 2017.
Delaney’s out…Brad and I aren’t even close.
We opt to thrash back up the slide path in the dying light. The climb out of there is a nice, sustained kick in the balls but we’re able to make it happen without crossing any major slopes.
And then the moon, just one day shy of being full, crests the ridge and turns the lights on.
Delaney’s injury wasn’t super violent; it was just bad luck. Cell service was the real miracle within the whole ordeal though, not to mention the fact that SAR was able to mobilize a longline before the sun went down.
We’re so lucky that we didn’t have to spend the night. And we’re even luckier to live in a place where people are ready to lay it on the line and help you out of trouble.
We definitely should have had some form of satellite communication with us (an InReach, a SPOT etc). But more than anything, we should have been more prepared to spend the night: Puffy coats, handwarmers, space blankets, a saw etc…
If you’re in the middle of nowhere and your buddy breaks himself, the chances are high that you’ll have to spend a cold night outdoors.
Every step we take, it becomes increasingly realistic that Brad and I are gonna make it out as well. The mood lightens in the moonlit terrain. And then finally, we shred a few hundred feet of perfect pow back towards the lights of the resort.
Delaney’s safe at the hospital, but he’s snapped his Tibia clean in half. His spirits are high though. And it sounds like the longline outta there was a trip unto itself.
Once Brad and I are back at the truck, our frozen gear serves as a reminder of the night could have been.
We hug and wish each other happy new years, eventually going our separate ways. He’s going to pick his daughter up from a friend’s house and I’m four hours late for my bartending shift.
Life goes on in the year 2018, but not without its predecessor bitch-slapping us with a hard dose of mountain reality on her way out.
At least she gave us a few more New Years resolutions before she left.
MASSIVE thanks to Search and Rescue, The Blackcomb Ski Patrol and the heli pilot for being the super-skilled ninjas that they all are.
Things would’ve turned out a lot differently if they didn’t risk life and limb to help us out.
Thanks to Brad Slack as well for documenting the day while still doing everything necessary to keep Delaney safe. And thanks to Delaney for taking the whole ordeal like an absolute champ. (Happy healing buds!)
And if you haven’t already re-evaluated what you take with you for a day in the backcountry, it’s worth taking a few items that will make it easier to spend the night out there. (Smokes not included).