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A Kootenay Pass campout

Outdoor lover Jennifer Swift and her group got more than they bargained for last month on the Kootenay Pass. - photo submitted
Outdoor lover Jennifer Swift and her group got more than they bargained for last month on the Kootenay Pass.
— image credit: photo submitted

This is going to be “epic, epic, epic!” That’s the final text I sent to Cam before he came to pick me up at 11 a.m. on February 20.

Epic indeed, but not the sort of epic I had in mind.

Being from the coast I am extremely excited for some Kootenay powder. Fresh snow, beacon, probe, shovel, check! Excitement levels are high.

I had spent the day in Kootenay Pass two days prior and was blown away by the untracked goodness and lack of people. The Whistler ski lift line-ups were but a distant memory.

Ripple Hut for a late lunch and a couple mellow laps near Baldy Peak is our plan.

But things do not go accordingly.

After our hike to the top and a few powdery turns everything goes flat. Very flat. I am sinking to my knees in snow. This can’t be right, it’s far too flat, “maybe we should retrace our steps?”

“Ripple Hut should be just up on that ridge, let’s head that way,” said Cam.

I am unsure of my surroundings and a little uneasy, but it is still early and I do not feel that we are in any danger.  We head for the ridge.

It’s 3:30 p.m. and we are still climbing through trees. The hut is not in sight.

Now it’s 4 p.m. Maybe we should turn around?

Confusion sets in. I do not like being hidden in the trees so close to nightfall.  We had passed a forestry road and I had seen tracks on it.

Team decision, yes we’ll  turn around and aim for the road, I hope for the best. It has to come out somewhere, right?

By the time it’s 5 p.m. we are on the forestry road skins off, skiing down. We travel for an hour, maybe two, it was difficult to keep track of time. We eventually reach power lines and the road forks. Left or right?

The path is completely flat. Left. It is just an instinct. I think I can hear the highway, but then again I thought I could hear the highway for the past hour. We ski left and another hour goes by and we come across tracks. These look like skiers that were traveling right, We convince ourselves. We decide to turn around, go right and backtrack past the power line and ski another hour further.

Now it’s 9:30 p.m. and we are tired. We’re still on the forestry road. It must lead to the highway eventually, I continually reassure myself.

It is time to build a snow cave. Outdoor education pays off. I remember building snow caves in high school, but Cam takes the lead. He is on a roll with the construction.

It’s finished at 10:30 p.m. and we get inside. It is claustrophobic. I hate confined spaces. I get as much of my body on my backpack as humanly possible. We are out of food and water and savour every last drop of the final half a cup of tea we share.

Now it is time to get really friendly. Cuddling close is the only way to increase body heat. It is freezing. We shake and shake... doze off for 30 seconds, shake for two minutes is the rhythm my body adopts. I curse myself for not bringing an emergency blanket.

Despite being freezing, I will vouch for my ski gear. That expensive Goretex and down pays off. It keeps me dry and as warm as possible considering the situation.

I focus on sending a telepathic message to my family that I am safe. I know they are terrified, I am sure they fear I am in an avalanche.

Water drips from the drop of the snow cave. It hits my face. So cold, so very, very cold. Time passes slowly. “What time is it?” I am sure it has at least been at least a couple hours. It is only 11 p.m.

Morning arrives and it’s 5:30 a.m. We get out of the cave the hour before the sun rises. It is noticeably colder. We continue on the forestry road to the right as we had set out the night before. We ski for two hours.

My skins are having trouble sticking. I have gotten snow under the skins and it is impossible for me to heat up the glue. This makes skiing up a huge challenge. I persevere and slowly gain elevation. I now have a new vantage point and it becomes very apparent we have gone the wrong way. We must backtrack once again. Our first instinct had been correct.

We reach the infamous power lines at 9:30 a.m. and we are greeted by two men on snowmobiles. They are part of the 16-member team that has been sent to look for us.

“If you’d kept on going to the right you’d end up in  Idaho and if you’d continued on this way you’ll reach the highway but you have 47 kilometres ahead of you,” one of them says.

Search and rescue crews present us with hot tea, nuts, chocolate. I feel like I’m dreaming.

“Thank you, thank you,” I say and profuse apologies are all I can muster.

They assure me my apologizing is not necessary, but I feel extremely grateful and indebted to these individuals.

After this experience I have fallen even more madly in love with the mountains. I had a scare, but because of this my respect for the mountains has grown. I feel privileged each day I have the opportunity to travel through them, but recognize there are risks and the mountains hold far more power than I.

Next ski touring trip there will be a map, emergency blanket a surplus of hot tea and snacks will surely not be forgotten.

I would like to extend a huge thank you to the Nelson Search and Rescue team as well as all the other individuals from various search and rescue teams involved in our search.

 

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