Yesterday I went for a quick ski in the backcountry with a friend. At least, that was our intent. About three in the afternoon we found ourselves skiing through old growth forest as the snow increased in intensity. When we left the car a few minutes earlier I briefly picked up my pack and then decided to leave it, thinking that we’d be gone for 90 minutes or so. In the pack were headlamp, extra food and water, extra warm layers, and a first aid kit complete with heat packs. Instead, I tied a nylon shell around my waist and stepped into my ski bindings. Two hours later I wished I had taken it.
At a trail junction we made a map reading mistake, and found ourselves 6 miles out when dark fell. My friend and I realized the seriousness of our situation immediately, and stopped to think through our situation and strategize. Our resources included a quart of Gatorade, two energy bars, and the clothes on our backs. We decided to backtrack-but to keep our pace moderate and steady so as not to burn up our remaining energy. With the darkness came colder temps. We were already wet from skiing three hours in the snow storm, and began to feel chilled. On top of this, we had been stalked by a mountain lion earlier. While it was still light I heard a rustling in the trees above us as we skied, and then saw the shape of the cat jumping onto the trail ahead of us. Later we saw blood trails where it had attacked a deer. Knowing that mountain lions are more active after dark, we looked over our shoulders constantly as we skied.
I noticed my thoughts going in several directions as I shuffled through the snow. In my head I reviewed the stages of hypothermia. I calculated where we hoped to be in 30 minutes, prayed, assessed and reassed our situation, and argued against my rising fear. I listened to the messages from various parts of my body and weighed them against the demands of cold, exhaustion and darkness. I thanked God over and over for my commitment to telemark skiing this season, and the strength I still felt in my legs.
When we got back into the trail complex we stopped to eat the last of our food and drink the last swallows of Gatorade. Up until this point I believe we had faced our situation with our combined skill and experience, and I think we had been smart in our response. However, the reality we faced was that, though we bought ourselves time and had stayed in control, we were out of resources. My extremities were very cold and it was now very dark. We were soon to be faced with decisions at numerous trail junctions while our mental status began to deteriorate as hypothermia gained ground. As I skied I began to feel an overwhelming urge to sit down and rest. Though my mind told me this was a classic danger signal, the warning seemed to come from a great distance. I was starting to stumble on my skis and was crossing the line to resignation when we saw the lights of a snowmobile coming up the trail.
We were taken 3 miles down hill to a warming hut where we were fed cups of hot chocolate while sitting by a wood stove. It was 7:30 in the evening. After I got home, it took heating pads and warm fluids until 10 pm to rewarm my core. In hindsight, when the snowmobile found us, I think I had only 30-60 minutes before I would have given in to hypothermia. Afterward, when my friend and I debriefed, we were both satisfied that we adapted and responded as well as we possible. Even so, looking through the lens of decades of mountain travel and over 10 years of guiding experience, it was obvious that our best effort would not have been enough-we needed a break.
Last night I slept 12 hours. I woke up many times thinking, “God was merciful to me…” When it comes down to it, an experience like this underscores my fragileness and smallness. It’s so easy to become self-sufficient in our own attitudes, and this masks our 100% need for God. Tonight my family and I are so deeply grateful:
Psalms 121:3, 4 “He will not let your foot slip-he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep”