My "almost slept in a snow cave" Adventure with Clint Foster
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.
Hehe, my brother had a similar experience a few years ago on cross country skis here in the Swedish mountains. He found his way back to civilization after quite a few hours skiing on a wide plateau. We just started to get worried when he came back, really tired.
We're actually here in the mountains at this moment. Got wireless broadband working the other day, so our mountain house isn't off the net any more. And we just realized we just had a fatal accident in the tiny village 8 miles from our house - a piste preparation machine went through the ice on a small lake and the driver is still missing.
Posted by Mats Henricson on December 27, 2008 at 04:55 PM MST #
As a forester who spends many days using a map and compass to navigate in the woods, this was a very humbling experience. When I prepare to head for the field or the backcountry I religiously take these tools with me as well as extra, water, food, clothes, an emergency kit etc., but when I'm resort skiing I never consider taking any of these items with me. Call it complacency or a false sense of security, but there was definitely a lesson to be learned in our experience. From now on I will definitely be carrying a compass, and at the very least a ski area map with me, which neither of us had, and reference that map before dropping off into the trees and glades when I know, or have a hunch, that I'm on the periphery of the ski area boundary.
The toughest decision to make that day was the one to turn around and climb a 1000 vertical feet from the middle Rosary Lake back up through 5-6 feet of snow when we were already tired from breaking trail going slightly downhill. There wasn't really much debate in making this decision. It was either continue on following the X-country trail blazes to hopefully a snow-park and hitch-hike back to the resort, which again we weren't sure where that would take us, or go back the way we came. In hindsight after looking at the map of the area when we got back, we could of continued to follow the x-country trail and eventually got back to Gold Lake after 4 miles of trekking, but that was an unknown and I had already made one bad decision and we didn't have room for another one. One of our saving graces was the fact that Willamette Pass has night skiing because when it got dark we lost our trail about two thirds of the way up the, but were able to simply follow the glow coming from the other side of the ridge.
So the lesson learned, like most, is don't get too complacent, too greedy for untracked powder, and always become familiar with your surroundings, even if that means only carrying a trail map with you. I'm still a little angry at Willamette for not having a clearly roped and posted ski area boundary like I have skied across in so many other resorts. Then you at least know you're going to have to traverse back the way you came. That's all I have to add, except that some of the other motivation besides the sight of the glowing ridge, was that I'd didn't want to be those guys in the media the next day who you see several times a year getting lost skiing out of bounds. Autumn still thinks I'm a jackass and probably will for at least a week, but at least I'm not that jackass on tv who got stuck and had to spend the night in a snow cave for skiing out of bounds. :-)
Here is a topographical map on teraserver of where we got off-track.
Posted by Clint on December 28, 2008 at 01:44 PM MST #
Matt & Clint,
That's crazy! I'm glad both of you are OK.
Posted by Patrick Lightbody on December 28, 2008 at 05:04 PM MST #
You said this happened Friday night (December 26th)? Where exactly did you start to ski out of bounds? I am glad to hear that you both made it out OK.
Posted by Ian on December 29, 2008 at 01:45 PM MST #
Posted by Matt Raible on December 29, 2008 at 02:59 PM MST #
Posted by Clint on December 29, 2008 at 04:29 PM MST #
Posted by Craig Pruitt on January 07, 2009 at 12:21 PM MST #