Yesterday began innocently as one of the best ski days of my life. I woke up early, drove to Eugene (Oregon) to pick up my good friend Clint Foster, then headed up to Willamette Pass. It was an Epic Powder Day with over 2 feet of fresh pow pow and face shots on almost every run. After lunch and some liquid courage, we stepped it up a notch and skied some cornices and awesome trees.
Around 2:30, our luck began to change. In our quest for untracked powder, Clint led us off the back side of Willamette Pass. There were no out-of-bounds signs or ropes to indicate this was a bad idea. The steep tree run we found was great, but our attitude changed quickly when we reached the bottom.
With 2 feet of snow and no trail, we found ourselves trudging down a flat path that got us nowhere fast. For two hours, we slogged through the deep snow down a cross-country ski trail (there were blue signs with arrows). As we started to pass the 2nd lake (I believe they were called Rosary Lakes), we decided it was time to bite the bullet and turn around. We had no map or compass. If we kept going in our current direction, we didn't know when (or if) we'd get out. If we turned around, we knew it would take 4-5 hours, but at least we knew it would get us out. "And besides", Clint said, "the trail is already broken." The time was 4:30 and it was starting to get dark.
Yes, the trail was broken, but it wasn't broken for hiking sideways up the mountain we'd skied down. We couldn't take our skis off because we'd immediately sink up to our waste in the snow. It was slow going, sometimes only a step or two at a time. If I wasn't sweating and breathing hard, I'd start to get cold and shiver. We were soaked on the outside from the snow and soaked on the inside from sweating. It was snowing pretty good too, so we knew we might lose our trail if we dug a snow cave and spent the night.
The scariest part happened when we were about an hour from getting out. Clint started to cramp up and it seemed for moment that we were destined to spend the night in a snow cave. While it was his idea to take the trail, he was the reason I made it out last night. He broke trail for most of the hike out. I tried, but would get tired so quickly it didn't help much. So when he, the trail breaker, started to cramp up, it began to look grim. I don't know if it was the thought of sleeping in a snow cave or because we could see the top of the ridge, but Clint's cramps subsided and we were able to make it out. We ended up on a groomed run and had to hike another 45 minutes to get to the top of the mountain and ski down the front-side.
As for Search and Rescue, they were looking for us, but had only recently started searching. The resort had night-skiing and it wasn't until 9:00 that anyone thought we might be missing. Clint's wife, Autumn, was on the ball and had contracted the authorities to inspire their search. We couldn't have asked for a better concerned relative. Autumn is a special person who has a way of making things happen. If we'd spent the night in a snow cave, there's a good chance she would've had the National Guard looking for us the next day.
We made it back to the car just after 10 PM. We first started our run at 2:30 PM. From the point we turned around, it took about 5 hours to hike out. I've never been so tired after a day of skiing. We arrived back at Clint's place just after midnight after a 2-hour drive in the blowing snow and rain. Autumn greeted us with warm clothes, hot tea and the best hugs I've gotten in a long time.
If you ever get a chance to meet Clint and Autumn, I'd highly recommend it. They're the ones who got married in Costa Rica recently. As far as skiing with Clint, that's fun too, but I wouldn't recommend following him out-of-bounds.