I haven’t felt my toes in more than 10 hours, I haven’t had a meal in a couple days, and I’ve only had a litre or two to drink. This isn’t fun anymore. I’m shivering in my sleeping bag with the draw-chord pulled so tight only my nose is poking out. The gatorade I’m trying to thaw under my armpit is sucking all my body heat, and so are all the frozen electronics that fill my toe-box; but I’m desperate for the few sips of liquid I can get at a time, and I keep telling myself that if I can keep my camera batteries alive, it will be worth it. Laurent is lying beside me trying to thaw out a carrot using a similar armpit method.
It sounds like we should be halfway up Meru at this point, but no. We are only one-hundred metres from the trailhead, lying in a tent, mulling over the what-if scenarios that would have lead us to a much happier place. But, I digress...
10:25 am, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
"Shit, Steve! I forgot my poles!"
It's what every driver anxious to get out of the city wants to hear. Steve turns the car around to make the detour back to my place.
The trip has been planned for a while. New Years Eve at the Wendy Thompson Hut with twenty-five beauts. In fact the trip had been planned so far in advance, and so was so anticipated, that flights home for Christmas were booked accordingly. So, when Steve came to pick me up at 9:30 this morning, I had no excuse to still be packing, or to forget my ski poles.
Laurent says he definitely wasn't still packing when we picked him up this morning either. The general level of faff this morning is quite spectacular.
2:45 pm, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
In the parking lot we are dividing up the food, wine, and gear as best we can. But, everyone knows that those who bring the biggest packs carry the most weight. Steve has the biggest pack and accepts the honour of carrying 4 kg of wine, and Phil volunteers his back for the other 4L.
I’m trying to sort out Steve, Jenelle and Phil’s rental skis, but all of the skins are a little too big and the tail clip doesn’t quite have enough tension to stay on.
3:45 pm, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
“Right or left?”
This should have been the question asked after we stumbled onto the logging road that parallels the base of Rohr Ridge. But it wasn’t.
There are some skiers coming down from the right, and a well worn skin track that leads up that way. So, naturally, we turn in the direction we see people coming from.
I’m following Laurent, Phil is following me, Laurent is following Phil, and Steve and Jenelle are still trying to figure out how this whole skiing uphill thing works. None of us are confident in our choice of route, because no one has deliberately made a choice of route.
5:00 pm, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
It’s been about an hour and we are starting to realize that we aren’t on the most direct route to the hut. Backtracking would mean skiing down tight, steep trees in the fading light, and that would feel way too much like giving up. Plus, Laurent and I have an inkling that this trail meets up with the proper one… eventually. Besides, we have a tent, so what is the worst that can happen?
8:05 pm, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
I get a message from Matt on the in-reach (satellite texting device), “U ok? Reply with scenario and if help would be good.”
We are still hopeful we can make the hut for the party at midnight. We joke about “how funny it would be to bust through the door 10 seconds to midnight.” I’m starting to kick myself for not brining a map, but if you forget your ski poles, you’re pretty much hopeless from the start.
I'm trying to send a reply to Matt, but the dense trees are making it hard to acquire a satellite signal.
10:00 pm, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
To Laurent, Phil, and I it is becoming apparent that we won’t make it to the hut, and the plan is now to go as far as Steve and Jenelle can make it, pitch the tent, and cozy up for the night. I've been making the same joke all night, “Only another half-hour to the hut!”. A few chuckles from the audience, nothing to write home about, but I think it's hilarious.
Jenelle loses her edge and slips down into a tree well. I skin up beside her and after a few minutes of reefing on the handle of her backpack I manage to pull her pack onto the track. Time for a hanger snack break.
10:35 pm, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
Our progress is 15 m every 15 minutes. Laurent and I are skiing ahead to the edge of shouting distance, dropping our packs, skiing back down, grabbing Steve and Jenelle’s packs, skiing back up, dropping their packs, skiing back down, and helping them get up the steep icy sections of the trail.
We re-group at our pile of gear. Steve takes the goon sack out of his pack, ceremoniously takes a swig, and then stabs it repeatedly with his ski pole. Phil does the same thing, and they rejoice in the fact that their packs just got 4 kg lighter.
11:01 pm, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
I make it to a clearing and finally get a message back to Matt at the hut.
“We are ok! Camping out, decided to have an epic. Not planned but prepared.”
I’m ahead of the other four trying to find a flat spot on the steep slope to pitch a tent. Laurent catches up to me and we decide on an area. I begin packing it down and levelling it off as he goes down to continue ferrying packs.
11:59 pm, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015
I eat a couple spoonfuls of tortellini and help Jenelle organize the tent. It’s a 3-man tent (but a large 3 according to Laurent), and we can only squish in 4 sleeping pads with an acceptable amount of overlap.
Laurent, Phil and Steve are outside making water and sharing a beer that somehow escaped the cleansing of unnecessary alcoholic weight.
I crawl into my sleeping bag exhausted, but also warm and dry. It’s not the news years I had in mind, but it's fun in it’s own way.
Phil and Laurent drink the pasta water so as not to waste precious snow-melting fuel and time, and then climb into the tent too. Five friends, in a 3 man tent, sharing 4 sleeping pads, on New Years Eve. It really doesn’t get much cuter or cozier than that...
9:23 am, FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016
We are all awake, but no one wants to move. We are wrapped up in our sleeping bags and packed into the tent like a bunch of colourful skittles. Laughter is only interrupted by grimaces when trying to awaken angry muscles. Although sore, and slightly dehydrated, we are all happy, and confident that we will make it to the hut tonight. We have a full day ahead after all.
Phil gets started on making breakfast and melting snow, and we begin to slowly pack up our frozen gear. Phil insisted on wearing his cotton party pants for the skin up last night, and after getting caked in snow when he fell into a tree-well, they melted, and all the water drained into his boot. Everyones boot liners are frosty this morning, but Phil's are covered in a quarter-inch thick armour of ice.
I convince him that although his boots might be very cold and wet, pouring boiling water into them to warm them up will most definitely make them more wet.
11:45 am, FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016
I round the top of the ridge and have an "oh shit" moment. It's not that we are lost per se, it's just that we aren't were we thought we were. From the top of the ridge I look down behind us. The backside is so steep I can see the car 700 m below and trace the path it took us 10 hours to hike. I glance ahead to where we are trying to get to, and squint hard to find the glittering tin roof of the hut deep in the valley ahead. I know the general location of where to look, but it's like trying to find a piece of glitter in a hay stack - or whatever that saying is.
We re-group on the ridge and talk over our options.
Option 1: ski down the bowl in front of us (we found out later it was appropriately named, Stellar Bowl). Pros are: no more up in the immediate future, and the route definitely goes as we can see a skin track at the bottom of the bowl, which leads down to the track to the hut at the base of the valley. Cons are: we would lose a lot of elevation really fast and would need to gain it all back to make it back to the hut.
Option 2: keep skinning along the ridge, and drop into the next bowl over. Pros are: faster route to the hut as we can maintain more of our elevation and potentially pop out at the lake. Cons are: we can't see what the next bowl over looks like and it might not go; and we would waste a lot of energy and time hiking all the way up there for nothing if it doesn't.
We spend lunch mulling over the two options. The decision is made to go with the more conservative, option 1.
2:30 pm, FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016
Laurent and I are making the transition for the ski down... almost 24 hours after leaving the parking lot. I think this beats my record for longest hike up for a single run. We opted out of the longer lunch and left Phil, Steve, and Jenelle behind so we could skin up the ridge to the top of the sub-peak. This was partially out of curiosity for 'what was just on the other side of the ridge', and partially to get a few extra turns in. I can see Phil, Steve, and Jenelle making the transition to 'ski mode' and that's our cue to start our decent. The snow is fantastic, although, I learned how to ski last year so my standards are pretty low. Slightly sun baked so a little heavy, but no crust, and we carve our way down Stellar Bowl where we agreed to re-group.
3:30 pm, FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016
We are re-grouped at the edge of the bowl, at treeline. The skin track down is looking like a non-option. Steve is having a hard go linking turns in the heavy snow, and in steep trees you want to be fairly confident in your ability to link turns. To be fair he's learning how to ski this weekend, and heavy powder on a 35 degree tree slope is a few notches above your average bunny hill - bless his soul.
The the options are now:
Option 1: traverse skiers-right and try and connect with the skin track to the hut. Pros are: definitely the shortest distance to the hut from our current location. Cons are: there are no tracks going that way and we would be bush-wack orienteering our way through the forest with only an hour left of daylight.
Option 2: traverse skiers-left and try and connect with the logging road we should have taken on day one. Pros are: there are a few other ski tracks that traverse that way that we are assuming go to where we want to go. Cons are: assumptions make an ass out of you and me, and when we get to the bottom of where we assume these tracks go, we will be back at the trailhead (displacement zero).
4:30 pm, FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016
I'm texting Matt to tell him we probably won't be making the hut again tonight. After deciding on option 2, the traversing is painfully slow. The skiing is rough. More side-slipping than anything. The rental shop must have had the DIN on Steve's skis set to 3 because every turn he takes ejects him. Team morale is fading faster than the light. None of us thought when we woke up this morning that we would be skiing with headlamps... again. I try to joke, "Only another half-hour to the hut guys!"
It hasn't been acknowledged out loud as a possibility yet, but everyone is coming to the conclusion that we might not make the hut tonight either.
No one laughs at my joke, except Laurent - but he's twisted.
5:45 pm, FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016
We are 26 hours into a 3 hour hike. I'm keeping an eye out for flat spots on the slope to pitch the tent, and at the same time crossing every finger and toe that it won't come to that. We are all dehydrated and no one has any water left. Stopping to make water at this point means we probably stop for the night. Sit too long and no one will have the strength to keep going.
Steve's ski just popped off again and he's screaming profanities at the mountain that it probably doesn't deserve. It's not the mountains fault, Steve, Laurent forgot the bloody map. It's past the point of keeping team spirit high with jokes and generic "good job guys, keep up the good work team" comments - we are at the point of ultimatums.
Option 1: pitch the tent, crawl our soggy asses into said tent, and spend another night out on the mountain. Pros are: I can give up right now. Cons are: I gave up, and the mountain beat me.
Option 2: keep going, make the car, get in the car, drive the car to Pemberton, rent a hotel with a hot tub, and give the middle finger to the mountain. Pros are: obvious. Cons are: I can't give up right now.
Motivations are re-sparked, and we pull our packs on and keep going.
7:45 pm, FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016
We made it! ...to the car. Funny how goals shift. I'm angry with myself for not reviewing the route yesterday. This was definitely not the beginner friendly intro ski touring class Steve and Jenelle signed up for, and its totally on us who know better than to make such a multitude of rookie mistakes.
Laurent and I aren't as eager to pack our bags into the car and take our ski boots off. We are lingering, and Jenelle notices. "You guys still want to go up to the hut don't you?"
On the one hand I really do, going back to town now would feel like a failure, or rather, more like a failure. But on the other hand, burgers and a warm bed.
"Yes, we want to stay, but we also don't want to ditch you guys... We were thinking camp at the trailhead tonight, ditch the tent in the morning and push for the hut at sunrise. Is that alright? I feel bad for splitting."
"If we had the energy we would stay, but we're over it." Steve throws his boots down like it was a touchdown celebration.
Phil is contemplating taking his bag out of the trunk and and camping with us. "Nah, I'm not going to do it. The only reason I want to stay is so that people don't think I'm a pussy, and that's not a good enough reason."
I grab a couple frozen Gatorades out of the car and have a couple handfuls of chips from our car-food-cache, and say goodbye. "Drive safe, Steve."
"I will, thanks, it was fun."
It might have only been a reflex, but he did say it.
Laurent and I clip back into our skis and make our way back up the trail to the logging road as the other three drive by with a honk and wave.
And then there were two.
8:15 pm, FRIDAY, JANUARY 1, 2016
It went from being a really good idea, to the worst decision ever, at about the same speed as it takes to realize your stove is broken and you are completely effed. We can't make water, or cook any supper, so with our options run dry we crawl into the tent and cocoon ourselves in our sleeping bags. I toss all my camera batteries, avy beacon, and gps at my feet to keep the batteries from dying, and start cuddling a frozen Gatorade in the hopes it will melt so I can have a drink.
To keep our minds off the shivering and discomfort induced by hugging a blocks of ice, we imagine all the gossip that's happening at the hut from the messages I've been sending Matt about our situation and location. We drift in and out of uncomfortable consciousness with images of our lovely friends shit-talking us.
5:00 am, SATURDAY, JANUARY 2, 2016
The alarm is going off. I sit up in my sleeping bag and delicately unscrew the cap of the gatorade, which has finally-mostly melted. I pass it to Laurent and we go sip for sip until it's finished. He breaks off half of the carrot he has been thawing in his sleeping bag and we cheers to increasing metabolism and the possibility of warming up. Our breath has encrusted the outside of our sleeping bags with ice, and I haven't felt my feet all night.
Laurent has a headache from the dehydration, and we are both way too cold to consider getting out of our sleeping bags in the dark. I fish around for more food and find the last couple frozen granola bars. We agree to wait until sunrise to start moving and resume our drift through un-consciousness.
9:15 am, SATURDAY, JANUARY 2, 2016
Back on the trail! It's amazing how a little sunshine can boost spirits. We ditched the tent, broken stove, pots, and other unnecessary weight under a tree at the trailhead, and in 20 min have already made it closer to the hut than we have been in the last 3 days. We find a small stream of open water beside the trail and drink until we feel full. We haven't eaten anything since our 5 am smorgasbord of armpit carrot and frozen granolies, but it doesn't really matter. At least we aren't thirsty anymore.
The sun is out, we have water, and we are on the right trail. The sufferfest last night is starting to feel worth it.
11:45 am, SATURDAY, JANUARY 2, 2016
We bust through the door of the hut to make our much anticipated grand-entry. No one is there. They must all be out skiing for the day. I look around the hut to find the most haggard looking stove, which must be Emily and Dave's, and we cook lunch, stoke the fire, and then go upstairs to have a nap in the warmth of the hut with bellies full.
The Wendy Thompson Hut - our Meru - has been conquered.
If you don't know what I'm talking about watch this and every time they say "Meru", hear "Wendy Thompson Hut", every time they say "climbing" hear "leisurely weekend ski tour with some buddies", and every time they say "Conrad" hear "Laurent". And that pretty much sums it up.
EPILOGUE & LESSONS LEARNED
Saturday afternoon we skied two short laps around the hut, and on Sunday morning woke up early to ski down from the ridge. The snow left me wanting more, and sad that Phil, Steve, and Jenelle didn't make it. We left the hut around noon for the ski down, made it back to the car, stopped for burgers in Pemby (duh), and were back in Vancouver by 7. It was all rather drama-free.
At least there were a few good lessons re-learned, and a couple new years resolutions that came out of the whole thing. All pretty standard really, but here it goes:
- Always bring a map;
- Never assume the people in your group know where they are going, even if they are 'experienced';
- "Its a party not a backcountry trip" is a dangerous mind-state to find yourself in;
- Underestimating the amount of time it will take to get somewhere in the backcountry is not a fun game everyone likes to play;
- If you get frustrated, tired, demoralized, have a snack, chocolate fixes all the things;
- Constantly re-evaluate your plan and be adaptive;
- Suffering mild-frost bite on your toes to save your camera batteries is worth it; and,
- Have a communication plan. We are lucky we had the in-reach devices so we could talk between groups - otherwise the people at the hut would have had a very restless couple days and there could have been search helicopters involved.