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A brush with death

Snowboarder shares firsthand account of his near-catastrophic backcountry trek

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[Editor's Note: Bay Area snowboarder Sampson Chen narrowly avoided disaster last month after venturing out of the ski-area boundary on Whistler Mountain. With little in the way of proper gear and having told no one of his whereabouts, Chen was ill-prepared for his trek. He decided to write about his experiences in a blog post on Medium, which Pique has reprinted with his permission. Chen waived his republishing fee, donating it to Whistler Search and Rescue. A Q and A with Chen follows the story.]

 

 

 

My arms have given out.

Staring up the snowy chute, I watch my laboured exhalations wisp into cold air. Heartbeats flood my ears and drown out everything else.

In a sudden jolt, my foothold collapses. Feet and knees scramble to regain another, but find no purchase against the deteriorating slope.

I can't climb anymore.

Dangling for a few seconds, I surrender my grip. I feel myself fall, snapping branches along the way. My body tumbles down the steep ridgeside until it reaches a bottom, some 60 feet (18 metres) below.

Too exhausted to move, I lie in the powdery bed. Past the tree canopies and above the adjacent mountain, I spot the setting sun: it's lower now.

Through sweat-drenched thermal layers, the cold sets in.

"Am I dying today?"

fig.01 It was the perfect powder. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.01 It was the perfect powder.

The Powder

It was the perfect powder. (See fig.01.)

A foot of fresh overnight snow blankets Whistler Mountain.

fig.02 I skim as far as "Persons proceeding beyond this point should ... " and drop in past the ski-boundary sign, following other skiers' tracks. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.02 I skim as far as "Persons proceeding beyond this point should ... " and drop in past the ski-boundary sign, following other skiers' tracks.

I skim as far as "Persons proceeding beyond this point should ... " and drop in past the ski-boundary sign, following other skiers' tracks. (See fig.02.)

Spying a pristine snowfield to my left, I veer away from the tracks.

"Surreal" understates the eerie beauty of it all.

After half a dozen turns in the untracked powder, an inkling sprouts from my gut.

If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

There must be reasons for this place to still be untracked at 2 p.m. I scan for routes to merge back to the earlier ski tracks, but find a ridge blocking the way.

Maybe there'll be other merges farther down. In the worst case, I'll hike for a bit. This is worth it.

I continue on, revelling as I float across the buttery smooth snow.

fig.03 I survey a series of cliff drops below: Each plummets 10 to 15 feet (three to five m). Daunting, but I've descended worse. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.03 I survey a series of cliff drops below: Each plummets 10 to 15 feet (three to five m). Daunting, but I've descended worse.

Cliff Drops

fig.04 Thus continues the next hour. Cliffs relent to snow-laden boulders and shrubs. Hillside gradually flattens, and I ride to the bottom of the mountain. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.04 Thus continues the next hour. Cliffs relent to snow-laden boulders and shrubs. Hillside gradually flattens, and I ride to the bottom of the mountain.

After four glorious minutes, the skiable terrain ended.

I survey a series of cliff drops below: Each plummets 10 to 15 feet (three to five m). Daunting, but I've descended worse. (See fig.03.)

Branches and powdery snowbeds break my falls.

Thus continues the next hour. Cliffs relent to snow-laden boulders and shrubs. Hillside gradually flattens, and I ride to the bottom of the mountain. (See fig.04.)

I stare into the gloom of the forest; it finally clicks.

This is backcountry.

The Forest

I search for tracks, but find none.

fig.05 I reach for my phone to understand where I am. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.05 I reach for my phone to understand where I am.

Clearly, I've misjudged the route. There are no well-tracked footpaths leading towards the Creekside lifts.

I unstrap from the snowboard. Snow devours my first step, burying me to the hips; another stride reveals the same. Waist-deep loose snow stretches in every direction.

I reach for my phone to understand where I am. (See fig.05.)

Oh, fuck.

I'm in the middle of nowhere, wilderness.

OK, let's assess the situation and form a plan

  • It's now 2:46 p.m.
  • Daylight Savings Time has just sprang us forward by an hour, so I expect sunset to be around 6 p.m.
  • Sunlight is the top concern: visibility and temperature.
  • No cell reception in the valley; phone battery is at 45 per cent.
  • No water or food in my backpack today. Sadness.
  • Tools: spare battery pack, storm whistle, screwdriver.
  • Unsure what wild animals inhabit the area. Do grizzlies live in Whistler?

Examining the cached offline map, I stand two to three miles (three to five kilometres) away from the closest ski boundary on Whistler Mountain.

The nearest road runs along a river leading out of Cheakamus Lake, and terminates under a mile to the west. Even with the deep snow, I figure I can get there by sunset.

One worry interrupts: the road appears unlabelled and remote. It may well be a small service road that's unmaintained during winter closures. The exit route runs six to seven miles (10 to 11 km) before intersecting a highway. If it's unplowed, this trek can stretch overnight.

I briefly consider climbing up Whistler Mountain, but it's all steep uphill. With the soft snow and cliffs in the way, I deem it infeasible before sunset, if at all.

I make for the nameless road and hope for the best.

The Hike

It's not a hike.

Sinking down to my hips with each step, I quickly recognize that this is a crawl at best.

Gingerly balancing on knees and shins to avoid sinking deeper, I grasp the heel cups of my snowboard bindings with both hands, and stake the board before me. Packing down the snow until it can securely bear weight, I then pull my torso forward and shuffle my knees and shins to follow.

That counts as one step. Each step requires full body exertion. Each exertion advances me one foot.

Within minutes, these exertions drain me of breaths, so I pause to rest.

I listen to the dead silence of the forest. I gaze up at the leafless canopy. I feel my racing heartbeats against the stillness of it all.

fig.06 Scouting ahead, the valley floor isn't so flat after all. I discover slanted hills, fallen tree trunks, and car-sized boulders. Snow shrouds everything. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.06 Scouting ahead, the valley floor isn't so flat after all. I discover slanted hills, fallen tree trunks, and car-sized boulders. Snow shrouds everything.

Scouting ahead, the valley floor isn't so flat after all. I discover slanted hills, fallen tree trunks, and car-sized boulders. Snow shrouds everything. (See fig.06.)

A few minutes of brainstorming fails to devise a more efficient technique through the fluffy snow. Snowshoes would be ideal, but I did not prepare for backcountry.

An hour passes. Crawl. Rest. Crawl. Rest. Crawl. Rest. Sweat soaks through all my layers.

I reference the map for progress, and my heart sinks. In that exhausting hour, I've progressed only 20 per cent towards the road. My estimates were way off; I can't get there by sunset.

If the road is closed during winter, will I have energy to crawl the entire length?

I briefly reconsider climbing up Whistler Mountain. Perhaps I can ascend high enough to pick up reception, or alert ski patrol using my whistle.

I dismiss the idea a second time. Climbing requires significantly more strenuous effort than wading through snow in the valley. It's a gamble to seek reception on the same face of the mountain if there isn't any here. The phone now reads 3:45 p.m.; patrols for last-calls must already be starting.

Studying the map again, I contemplate the river running parallel to the south: snow can't accumulate on water, so treading along the edge of shore should be easier. I can follow the river until I get close enough to the road ...

With new plan in mind, I stake my snowboard toward the river.

fig.07 I straddle past a tree trunk, duck through a window at the base of thick shrubs, and slide down a riverbank toward the flowing streams. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.07 I straddle past a tree trunk, duck through a window at the base of thick shrubs, and slide down a riverbank toward the flowing streams.

The River

I hear the babbling brooks now.

Almost there.

I straddle past a tree trunk, duck through a window at the base of thick shrubs, and slide down a riverbank toward the flowing streams. (See fig.07.)

No good.

There isn't a clean shoreline as I've hoped. Rocks and boulders litter the water edge, with unwelcome branches fencing above them.

I probe a snow-tipped stepping-stone with precarious footing. My boot slips on the mossy membrane, but I catch myself against a boulder before falling into the cold currents. Subsequent attempts yield little improvement; I question whether this is any faster than crawling through snow.

Arriving at a pile of car-sized boulders stacked two storeys tall, I fail to devise a detour around them except through the middle of the river, or back inland. I brush the snow off a chest-high stone shelf, and hop atop for another rest.

OK. An hour and half until sunset. Three quarter miles (one km) until the road. Won't know what I'll find until I get there. Maybe a ranger station. Maybe nothing. Maybe just more snow.

Feeling weary, I confront a nagging thought.

I'm in Whistler alone, today on Day 4 of nine.

No one knows I'm stuck here.

I start to grasp the situation's gravity. No one checks in with me on a regular basis. The hotel will not discover the deserted belongings in my room for another five days, after my scheduled checkout.

No one knows to look for me.

I shudder, and dig out my phone; alas, still no reception. I try the whistle instead.

Hwee-hwee-hwee.

Three short bursts: the call for help.

Hwee-hwee-hwee.

My ears ring.

Hwee-hwee-hwee.

Recalling that the storm whistle is rated up to 130 decibels, I cover my ears.

Hwee-hwee-hwee.

I pause for a response, but hear nothing, not even an echo—only more silence, and the river's hushed murmurs.

Pocketing the whistle, I force myself off the boulder and start backtracking inland.

Return Inland

Back to crawling.

I take one-minute rest every five minutes. On every stop, I check for reception, and sound the whistle in hopes of reaching another soul. I dial 911 a few times just in case, but none of the calls go through.

What are my chances for surviving overnight? Temperatures can drop to around -15 Celsius. My pace will slow with lack of food and water.

I lift the board from the snow, and plunge it forward anew.

What large animals live in Whistler? The snowboard is too cumbersome to swing as a weapon. I doubt I can stave off a bear, in any event.

I pull my torso ahead and shuffle my knees up, carefully avoiding sinking deeper or sideways into the snow.

I ventured into backcountry with zero equipment nor training. This is on me.

Sensing their limited usefulness, I banish the thoughts and focus on the tangle of fallen tree trunks ahead.

The Climb

Another half-hour passes.

A steep ridge now bars the way. My choices are to scale the ridge for one of its flatter shelves some 80 feet (23 m) above, or backtrack to find a detour closer to the river.

I wince, but attempt the climb.

Pickaxing the snowboard into the slope overhead, I kick each boot into the snow to carve out packed ledges that can support weight. Left foot. Right foot. Ratchet snowboard upward. Repeat.

Snow on this ridge crumbles easily, so footholds are shallow when I can find them. I slip often, but catch my falls with the snowboard bearing my weight against the slope.

My sluggish limbs obey with reluctance: forearms burn from lactic acid, and quadriceps cramp again, harder to ignore this time. I pause often just to breathe.

Over what feels like an eternity, I ascend roughly 60 feet (18 m), dodging vegetation on the hillside. The remaining 20 feet (six m) has narrowed to a chute.

I struggle to carve new footholds here, flailing but failing to make upward progress. The snowboard hasn't moved up for the past five minutes.

I'm stuck.

My fingers tingle with numbness. I feel my arms giving out.

So close ... so close but I can't get up there.

I glance down at the long, jagged track up the otherwise untouched snow.

I'm so tired.

A flash of anger grips me, and I shut my eyes to scream out my frustrations. With getting stuck so close to the top. With my own carelessness leading here. With the thought of my parents' faces if I don't make it home.

I adjust one of my footholds, but it crumbles under me instead. I flop against the slope, dangling off the heel cups of the snow-lodged snowboard.

I give up.

With what little energy left, I brace against the slope and yank out the board, then just let myself fall. My body tumbles, slowing to branches and shrubs, and eventually settles into a slide.

I lie in a coffin of powder at the foot of the hill. The cold starts to set in, but I'm too weary to care. I catch the setting sun from the corner of my eyes: almost over the mountains now.

A disquieting thought no longer murmurs in the peripherals: 

"Am I dying today?"

I feel sorry for my parents.

Return to Riverside

After a long rest, I set out for the riverside detour.

I reflect on the book I've brought to Whistler, Tuesdays with Morrie, about a dying professor's final lectures on meaning of life. Morrie Schwartz held a "living funeral" to say goodbyes to loved ones. He lamented that most folks on their deathbed never get the same opportunity to tell loved ones how they feel; so even as ALS stripped away his health, Morrie felt grateful.

Who are my loved ones?

Reaching the river at a different spot, I leap from stone to stone with the snowboard as a makeshift pole, and relish at the break from crawling through snow.

The waters are only knee deep here. I briefly ponder fording through the water directly. Recalling hypothermia, I scrap the half-baked idea.

Fatigue takes its toll, and I feel unsteady in my steps. I consider abandoning the snowboard, but immediately reject the thought. It's been essential for climbing. I may even need to ride out the road later if I get there.

When I get there.

Resting atop another boulder, I check my phone again for bearings.

One third way left until the road, so if I keep heading in ... Wait.

SIGNAL!

Contact

Zero signal bars, but the tiny "X" no longer mars the cell strength glyph. I pray.

"911, what's your emergency?"

I've never been so relieved to hear another person's voice.

As soon as I utter "Whistler backcountry," dispatch redirects the call to Whistler Ski Patrol. I recount the situation and pass on my location.

"50.040402, -122.986170. No, I'm not injured. Yes, I can still hike. Thirty-five-per-cent battery. No water or food. Yes, I'm alone. No, no one else skied down with me. No, I didn't carry backcountry equipment. Yes ma'am, I realize now how incredibly stupid this is. Yes, I'm staying warm for now."

After staying on hold for five minutes, I learn that RCMP and Whistler Search and Rescue are formulating a plan, and will call me back. Ski patrol instructs me to keep heading for the road in the meantime.

I hang up.

Thank goodness. Someone knows I'm here.

fig.08 An hour later, I arrive just below the road. It's another climb: about 70 feet (21 m), and as steep as the one I've failed earlier. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.08 An hour later, I arrive just below the road. It's another climb: about 70 feet (21 m), and as steep as the one I've failed earlier.

Second Wind

We really do underestimate the effect our emotional state has on our physical state. Strength returns, and I hasten the pace.

Manoeuvring across the final few snow-covered boulders near the shore, I clear the ridge and start heading inland again.

An hour later, I arrive just below the road. It's another climb: about 70 feet (21 m), and as steep as the one I've failed earlier. (See fig.08.)

One more time.

I draw a deep breath, and thrust my snowboard into the snowy slopes overhead.

fig.09 It's not a road. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.09 It's not a road.

The Road

It's not a road. (See fig.09.)

At least, it doesn't appear as one. Snow obscures all features, except its levelness.

I pass a sign: "Bear Country."

Luckily, none today.

Other side of the sign marks the location as a trailhead: "Cheakamus Lake and Helm Creek."

I call Whistler Ski Patrol. The signal is too weak to carry conversation, so we switch to SMS.

Then, an update from Whistler Search and Rescue: "The road is closed during the winter, and only plowed up to a logging camp three kilometres away. Hike out. RCMP will meet you there."

I identify a shallow line in the fresh snow: aged cross-country ski tracks hiding beneath last night's snowstorm.

Huzzah.

My steps only sink down half a foot or so when staying on the line. This is infinitely more traversable than the valley floor.

I sling the snowboard over my shoulders, and march toward rescue.

Rescue

I trek along the road over the next two hours. Its mostly upward incline precludes the option to snowboard out. My legs protest in fatigue, but manage a brisk cadence nonetheless. I no longer stop for rests.

Licking my cracked lips, I suddenly remember thirst, and with it, hunger. My stomach growls. I wonder how closely I've skirted exhaustion in the forest.

In the distance, I glimpse a giant snowbank plowed to the middle of the road. Over yonder: strobing lights from a police truck.

Made it.

I jog toward the flashing red and blue.

"A-ha. You must be Mr. Chen."

"I am, officer. Thank you for coming all the way out here for me."

"Glad you are safe. Not everyone is so lucky."

fig.10 Christmas lights illuminate the cobblestoned village streets as revellers stroll and play. I ought to be overjoyed after escaping the day's ordeal; instead, I feel numb to the surrounding mirth. - PHOTO BY SAMPSON CHEN
  • Photo by Sampson Chen
  • fig.10 Christmas lights illuminate the cobblestoned village streets as revellers stroll and play. I ought to be overjoyed after escaping the day's ordeal; instead, I feel numb to the surrounding mirth.

Back To Whistler

The RCMP officer drops me off at Whistler Village. He bids me farewell with a well-deserved lecture.

"We've had to recover four bodies from that side of the mountain this season. Don't become a number."

I reflect on his words as the police truck fades to distance.

Don't become a number.

Christmas lights illuminate the cobblestoned village streets as revellers stroll and play. I ought to be overjoyed after escaping the day's ordeal; instead, I feel numb to the surrounding mirth. (See fig.10.)

Maybe I just have no energy left to celebrate.

I wander into a nearby grocery store for a bottle of kombucha. I chug it in one gulp.

Nothing would taste so good again.

Q & A

What kind of backcountry experience did you have prior to this?

None. This was a risky and humbling crash course into the dangers of backcountry.

What compelled you to go beyond the ski-area boundary after encountering the off-limits sign on Whistler Mountain?

I stupidly assumed it would be fine to venture beyond the ski-boundary signs when I saw many other ski tracks past the drop-in. I won't make that mistake again.

As for compelling: the irresistible field of untracked powder in the distance, and hubris.

You mentioned your lack of preparedness for this trek. Were you aware of the types of preparation and equipment required to venture into the backcountry? If so, why did you choose to press on anyway?

I knew going into the backcountry required training, preparation, equipment, and at least one other person for safety. I had none of those that day.

I intended to merge back to the ski tracks I followed just past the drop-in, but found that I wasn't able to do so after a few turns in the powder. One of the many serious errors that day was continuing down unfamiliar terrain and just "hoping for the best" instead of immediately turning around and climbing back up to look for those earlier ski tracks again.

What will you do differently next time to avoid becoming "a number?"

I also wrote a post-mortem about this experience to better learn from it (https://medium.com/@sampson.chen/backcountry-the-post-mortem-6e0c4b4f09a1?source=friends_link&sk=4100d71b36050052ecf64b6dcc105a41). The fixes include: riding with a friend, asking someone to check-in with me when the mountain closes, reading and respecting all ski-boundary signs, attending backcountry training courses and carrying equipment, and, of course, consulting maps to understand exactly where I'm heading.

You have opened yourself up to criticism for sharing such an honest account of your experience. What inspired you to share your story publicly?

The criticism and lectures are well deserved. I ventured into a situation I was unprepared for, made numerous judgement errors, and escaped serious injury or death on mostly luck.

I believe in confronting and learning from our mistakes. If my story can serve as a cautionary tale to others in the future, this is all worth it.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

A huge thank you to Whistler Ski Patrol, the Whistler Search & Rescue Society, and the RCMP!