It was the winter that began with a whimper, slumped into a coma, and ended with a misadventure. On what would turn out to be the final day, we set out with high hopes for Mount Baker’s Skyline Divide. After a brief moment of over-ambition on the access road when we almost sank the car in snow that was deeper than we expected, we found a safe parking spot and headed a short way up to the trailhead and a beautiful hike through a fairytale forest. A light breeze span snowflakes from the trees, and they glittered and sparkled in the sunlight like a reminder of better winters that had come before.
The snow cover on the lower half of the trail wasn’t great, and as we hauled our skis up half-exposed steps we all acknowledged that it might be a challenging exit. But then we came to open meadows where the snow was dense but thicker, and finally to the open ridge of the Divide where Shuksan hovered on the horizon and a series of progressively steeper drop-ins led to a huge, dreamy open bowl. The snow seemed very stable and we agreed that no pit was necessary, but we should ski one at a time for the first run.
It only took two turns for disaster to strike. I was fiddling with gear and had let the other three go slightly ahead, with M taking the first run. By the time I concluded my binding adjustment and joined them, M was down and clutching a knee a couple of hundred yards below us and D was on his way down to join him. J told me that M had fallen and was hurt, and that D was going to check things out.
After a few minutes of watching M rock back and forwards over his knee, I realised that we weren’t dealing with a trivial situation. This is a guy who’s tough as nails. Conscious that we hadn’t done any testing of the slope, I asked J to stay on the ridge and skied down to join D and M. A pale and shaky M explained that he’d hooked the back of his ski as he turned, and it had twisted his knee and he’d heard a pop as he went down. At that point I knew that our day as we’d planned it was over, and that whatever it had turned into was going to be long and hard.
All three of us agreed that our initial priority had to be getting off the untested slope as soon as M felt he was able to move. D and I thought we were going to have to carry him, but he insisted that he could make it on his own if we were able to take his skis and backpack. One agonizing step at a time, he slowly and painfully crawl-hobbled back to the ridge. Once we were there he collapsed in the snow, and we began a proper assessment of our situation. M kept insisting he wanted us to ski at least one run before we began figuring out how to extract, but D and I were firm that the only remaining objective for the day was to get him down safely.
We did a quick skills and equipment inventory. D was the best equipped to look at making a rescue sled from M’s skis; I had more first aid experience, particularly when it came to knee injuries. We had three decent first aid kits between us. J, unfortunately, didn’t have a first aid kid with him – a lapse that M would later note that he needed to address in trip requirements.
We pooled resources and I used adhesive bandage to strap M’s knee securely, and then used his ski skins, a powder leash and two triangular sling bandages to construct a splint that would hold the joint in place. With the splint secured he gingerly tried taking some weight on the leg and announced that he thought he could begin the walk down on his own. The snow was starting to soften in the midday warmth, and the seven kilometres between us and the car seemed like a very long way indeed.
It was a painful journey down. M was determined to make it under his own steam; the ski skin splint held together and gave his leg the stability it needed, but every now and then his foot would sink in the snow or he’d trip on a root or step and yell out in agony. J kept skiing far ahead until D finally told him he had to stay closer to the group in case we needed him. The snow was heavy and wet higher up and patchy and thin lower down, and even on skis it wasn’t an easy journey. M’s determination and courage was astounding, even as his pace grew slower and slower.
Eventually, amazingly, we reached the trailhead. At this point I went ahead to the car, which was only a few minutes down the road, and made sure it was open and ready for M to collapse in a seat as soon as he arrived. I shoveled ice into a plastic grocery bag so that he had a makeshift ice pack waiting. After that, it was just a case of speeding him back to the land of socialized medicine as fast as we could.
In retrospect, we did a lot of things right. We made sure we weren’t all on an untested slope at the same time. We prioritized getting off that slope. We overrode M when he wanted us to take a run before starting the extraction. We had the right mix of skills, experience and equipment to be able to deal with the injury and prepare for the eventuality that M might not be able to walk down on his own. And if the worst had happened, I was carrying a Delorme InReach that we could have used to activate a rescue.
We were also lucky. If M hadn’t been able to walk by himself and endure the pain that went along with that, the extraction would have been much longer and harder. And there were some lessons to be learned. J was really uncertain as to how to deal with the situation; we could have harnessed him better with some direct instruction early on. It was also not ideal that we had someone on the trip who wasn’t carrying even the most basic first aid supplies.
Overall, it felt like the right day to call time on a winter that fell so short of our hopes.