by Dave Ward | Charge the Summit
Another adventure comes to a close. Heli skiing in British Columbia was an amazing experience…both life changing and fun. And, terrifying. Especially a particular 15 minutes.
Heli skiing is dangerous. You sign stacks of waivers…in my case, multiple times. You spend the first few hours learning your way around the helicopter and the avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels. You’re also implored to listen to the guides’ instructions and ask for clarification if something is not crystal clear.
Ironically, this danger is a positive force that creates a tangible bond with the people in your group. At a pace that’s hard to fathom. You watch out for them. You are stoked when they do well and worried when they eat it. You help each other find lost skis, poles, whatever gets lost in the seemingly bottomless powder [including your new friends]. You tell jokes [the dirtier the better] at the pick up spots. You eat and drink together in the evenings. You spend so much time together that you can’t help but learn about each other. By the third day, you know each other’s inside jokes and are flipping each other shit left and right. Both of my groups – from last year and this year – were awesome.
So, back to that particular 15 minutes. We’re are on this run called White Horse. It’s a big alpine setting, at least 1,000 feet above the tree line. We tore down the first run in epic snow. After lunch, we head back up to the alpine. Just a massive powder field waiting to be consumed. We’re all super excited, talking about the lines we’re going to take and giving each other shit. Our guide, who I’ve come to really like during our time together in the lodge and on the mountains, tells us to stay to the right of his track because there is a large cliff off to the left. All I hear is, “Stay to the right of the track.” I missed the key detail about WHY. Not such a good idea, as I would soon realize.
We go hurtling off and start to stack up to the left of his track. I’ve lost him, so I’m now way left with another skier named Julie. We go over a big wind lip with a good 3 or 4 foot drop. I go a little more left on the landing. Then, a second. After the third one, everyone hits the breaks kicking up powder. I can’t see, so I make a hard heel side turn on my snowboard. That, unfortunately, kicks me even further left. Julie does the same.
So there I am. About 15 feet down from the edge of this cliff. I look down and see a crazy steep slope that’s drops about 1,000 feet. Avalanche conditions are high and the cornice is still rolling down the slope. Punching through a cornice is a unique experience. I don’t recommend it.
I grab my radio and trigger what they call “Rescue Plan Alpha.” Things just got serious. They pull Julie out pretty quick, but I’m in the poo pretty deep and this cornice is kinda dicey, so it’s crucial that they go slow and take care. I start thinking about a Plan Bravo if I somehow lose my position or trigger a slide. I quickly realize this will be the steepest thing I’ve ever been down and Bravo isn’t really a viable option.
I sit there in a relatively stable position for about 15 minutes. As long as I don’t trigger a slide, I’ll be okay. People are telling me not to move. That’s an instruction I planned on following to the letter! I immediately prayed to God to save my life and was immediately calmed. Faith that God has a plan for your life is hugely comforting. I knew that if I didn’t do anything more stupid than I already had, I’d eventually be okay.
My mind then shifted to my wife, Monica. We’ve been together over half of my life. Then, my two kids. What have I done? What if it had been worse? There was literally only one way I could have gone off that thing and survived. I began to cry at the thought of leaving them this way.
The lead guide comes back over the radio. He’s admirably calm. He shouts into the radio to the rest of the team, “He’s fine,” “We got him,” “Just need a little hip belay and we can pull him out.” His calm is contagious. They get a rope around my shoulders and I take my first really solid deep breath in 15 minutes. Once I’m secure, they pull up my snowboard with a rope. Then, I manage to spin my way around and climb out with rope assistance. There’s applause.
Another guide is telling me to take my time and calm down. But, I’m already calm. I’ve been weirdly calm for several minutes. Once I had that rope, I knew I was okay. They ask me if I want a lift back to the lodge. “Nope, I’m good.” I thank them all and explain what happened, promising that I will diligently listen to instructions from here on out. My guide takes responsibility, but it took two for this tango to play out. I strap in and head RIGHT…way right…to rejoin the group.
Later that night, our pilot, Rocky, dubs me “Spiderman” on account of my supernatural wall clinging ability. He tells me that if I had tried to go down they would have found me at the bottom inside a big snowball. We laugh about the whole thing and joke about how I now have quite a story to tell my grandchildren.
This was – without a doubt – the most terrifying experience of my last 20 years. The rest of the trip, however, was a blast. We ripped it up in British Columbia, just as we planned. Powder hounds are not easily dissuaded. I will be back next year.
If I’m going to tell a story about one of my crazy personal experiences, I’ve just got to touch on my reflections and lessons learned. There are several here:
- Trust in God’s plan for your life.
- Listen to all of the instructions coming your way. They can save your life.
- Don’t get cocky. If you get too big for your britches, you’ll get smacked down in a hurry [especially by nature].
- You learn what it is to be truly alive when you face death.
I thought I had a good grasp on that last one until Tuesday, January 6, 2015. I’ve got it now.