This is near the start of the Cerise Creek Trail - do you take your skis off and be safe, or do you keep you skis on and be cool?
It was the American Thanksgiving long weekend in November and we were going on a short back-country skiing trip up to the Cerise Creek Hut, which is located near Joffre Mountain in the Coast Range (about an hour east of Whistler, British Columbia).
It was to be a quick trip with my good friends Dugald and Roberta Dunlop – we were skiing in on Saturday morning, spending the night at the hut, and then skiing out the following afternoon. That was the plan anyway – things didn’t turn out quite as envisioned.
Saturday dawned clear with not a cloud in sight – we left from Squamish early in the morning and arrived at the parking spot for the ski in a couple of hours later. The crux of the approach to the Cerise Creek Hut comes at the very beginning, when you have to cross over a small creek on a log. You have the choice of keeping your skis on and very carefully making your way across the log (this is the cool way to do it, but not so safe), or taking your skis off and straddling the log as you bum hop across (not very cool, but very safe). Let’s just say we all choose different options, and they all worked out differently.
After a relatively pleasant 2.5 hour ski, we arrived at a very crowded Cerise Creek Hut (The hut, also called “Keith’s Hut” was built in 1986 in memory of Keith Flavelle, who died on the East Ridge of Mount Logan). There was a large group of Americans who had come up from Washington to celebrate Thanksgiving together and do some great backcountry skiing. There were over 30 people in the Hut – it is a big hut, but not that big.
After dumping and sorting our gear, we headed off up the mountain for some turns. There is a long ridge just to the right (looking uphill) of the hut – we climbed steeply up to the top of this ridge and then followed the ridge up the mountain. There was beautiful fall line skiing right back to the hut. The snow was absolutely perfect – hero snow; about a foot of fresh light powder overtop of a compact base.
We were all telemark skiing, but Roberta was pretty new to the game, and was still learning the ins and outs of tele-skiing. Back country skiing is not really the place to learn how to telemark ski – a lesson that would be brought home in abundant clarity the next day.
Back in the hut that evening, we all tried to be respectful of everyone’s space – as it was extremely crowded. The large American group had had the hut mostly to themselves on Thursday and Friday (which are not Canadian holidays), so they were a bit bummed out about the sudden influx of skiers. The Americans had brought an amazing amount of stuff with them in order to celebrate the holiday including a full turkey and numerous bottles of wine.
That night we all packed into and around the Cerise Creek hut, trying to stake out a place to sleep. Some ended up in bivy sacks outside on the porch; others slept wherever they could find room. I slept underneath the kitchen table (like some sort of bad cliché – “passed out under the kitchen table”; except I was sober).
The next day (Sunday) was another blue-bell day – a rarity for November in the Coast Range. The large American group was packing up and leaving for their trip home – that meant there was only a relatively small group that would be skiing on the mountain that day.
Roberta, Dugald, and I were up early; we put the skins on and headed up the ridge. We up-tracked for about an hour, getting high on the ridge. We then decided to ski down the left side (skiers left) of the ridge (the hut is on the right side). Dugald and I were very cognizant of Roberta’s skiing ability and had chosen moderate terrain and had kept her skiing in between us the day before. However, this morning, Roberta was adamant about wanting to ski last – she said us watching her was making her nervous. There was a brief argument between husband and wife about why we wanted her to ski ahead of us, but the argument wasn’t worth ruining a perfect day and Roberta’s will prevailed.
Dug skied about 15 turns and then stopped. I then skied down to him. It was then Roberta’s turn. She made one very slow turn and fell over. She started screaming immediately.
Now, Roberta is one pretty tough girl – I’ve seen her with bleeding blisters on the back of her heels that would make me cry, turn around, and go home; and she didn’t even complain. So when she started screaming and then crying – I knew inside that something bad had happened. Unfortunately, she was quite far above us. We both set new speed records for skinning up – and were back where she lay probably about 10 minutes after the accident; she still hadn’t moved.
I arrived at her first and asked her how badly she thought she was hurt. She knew she was badly hurt and wouldn’t be able to walk – her leg was broken (tib/fib) at the boot top. Dugald arrived 30 seconds later and we took her skis off – we then chatted for a few minutes about our options and what we needed to do. We next formulated a plan. It was 9:30 a.m.
We knew we would have to get her back to the hut and then would need a helicopter rescue. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of the ridge from the hut, so would have to get Roberta up onto the ridge, then back down the ridge, and then finally down the very steep side of the ridge to the hut.
We had a few things going for us……
We had a down jacket to help keep her warm while being dragged. We had only a little uphill to get her onto the ridge, but after that it was all downhill. We were strong. She was light. It was still early.
We formed a make-shift sled to drag Roberta using her skies and Dugald’s Gore-Tex jacket. We zipped the jacket up, and then put each ski inside the jacket, one in each sleeve. Roberta sat in the middle on the cradle formed by the jacket. Dug and I each grabbed a ski end and pulled.
From then on it was simply an endurance test. Actually having to evacuate an injured person that cannot walk is a sobering affair – as you really get to see first hand just how difficult this is. Once we got her up onto the ridge, it was slightly better going down the long ridge top toward the hut; however, we knew eventually we were going to have to get off the ridge top down the steep side of the ridge, in order to get her to the hut. This turned out to be the hardest part of all – trying to control our speed, while dragging Roberta, all on very steep slopes. We finally did manage to get her down to the bottom of the ridge and from there we only had about 400-500 metres of flat ground until the hut.
It was at this time that we ran into another group of two skiers – one of whom we knew (Jim) from climbing. It was decided that Jim and Dugald would carry Roberta the rest of the way to the hut, and Jim’s friend and I would head back to the hut and organize a rescue. It was 12:30 p.m. when I arrived back at the hut with Jim’s friend. It was empty – everyone had left.
The long ridge on which our skiing accident occured. The red "X" marks the approximate place where Roberta broke her leg. The hut was on the other side of this ridge near its bottom.
Jim’s friend volunteered to ski out right away to organize a helicopter rescue – he left at about 12:50 p.m. I went back and helped Jim and Dugald carry Roberta the last couple of hundred metres – once we got her in the hut, we got her in a couple of sleeping bags, warmed her up, and started the waiting game.
We knew it was going to be very close regarding whether or not we would get a helicopter into the hut by the end of the day. It would take at least an hour to ski out and then another half hour to the nearest phone at Mount Currie. Adding on at least ¾ of an hour to get a helicopter manned up and in the air would put us at around 3:30 p.m. – and it would be dark by 4:30. This left very little room for the helicopter to lift off, get Roberta, and return before dark. We figured the best case scenario was a helicopter landing around 4 p.m. – if that didn’t happen; we’d be there overnight. Luckily, the weather was perfect, but you don’t know how long that was going to last in the Coast Range in November.
So we had at least 3 hours to kill before any hope of a helicopter rescue. First thing we did was make sure Roberta was comfortable and warm. We also took her boots off, and splinted her leg. We gave her some Advil for pain (that’s all we had). We then scoped out a landing area for the helicopter.
This is Roberta lying on the table in the Hut with her leg broken awaiting the helicopter rescue. The smiling guy in the background is her husband.
After that, we sat down and took stock of the hut – it was an absolute mess. And I’m not exaggerating. There was a turkey carcass on the counter, 6 or 7 wine bottles, and an unbelievable amount of other assorted garbage strewn through the hut. With nothing else to do, we cleaned up. There were hospital type garbage bags at the hut (these are those huge heavy duty clear garbage bags) and we filled one to the brim with the garbage left behind by the American party (this is not to disrespect Americans – it just happens in this case it was an American party – it could have been Canadians, Australians, etc.; we all have the capacity to be equally disrespectful). We then took Roberta’s pack, and placed the entire garbage bag in the pack – hopefully to be flown out by the helicopter. The three of us (Jim had kindly agreed to stay) split up the contents from Roberta’s gear into our own packs for the ski out.
Some light humourous moments ensued, when Roberta announced that no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get away from the fact that she had to pee. Bad. So Dugald and I had to carry her out to the one person, very small, outhouse, and manoeuvre her in there – all the while keeping her broken leg happy. Poor girl – you try peeing in an outhouse in the middle of winter, with a broken leg, with two guys standing outside.
Soon enough, four o’clock came and went, and we had pretty much resigned ourselves to another night out, when at 4:10 p.m. we heard the distinctive “thump, thump” of helicopter blades. Dugald and I carried Roberta down to the helicopter and Jim carried her pack (full of garbage) and her skis. The Search & Rescue guy was in a big hurry as they were going to barely have enough light to get back to Pemberton (the closest hospital). He wasn’t going to let us put her skis on board, but after some quick pleading by Dug he changed his mind. Thank goodness, as it wouldn’t have been fun skiing out in the dark with an extra pair of skis strapped onto your pack. The chopper might have been on the ground for 3 or 4 minutes, and then it was gone, and then it was just me, Dug, and Jim.
We put our headlamps on and skied out in the dark, arriving back at the parking lot in just under an hour. We then headed down to the Pemberton hospital to check on Roberta’s condition. You know it’s a small hospital when it’s locked and there is a note on the door to you. Turns out her leg was broken fairly badly and they needed to transport her by ambulance to the Lion’s Gate hospital in Vancouver.
Jim, Dug and I stopped at Dug’s house in Squamish for a well deserved beer before Dug headed off to Vancouver to check on his wife.
I’ve always gone fairly well prepared into the back country, whether it be ski touring or climbing, and this accident just re-enforced my belief that it’s better to carry a slightly heavier pack if that means you’re better prepared for an accident. A satellite phone is perhaps the best insurance of all (we didn’t have one), but we were certainly glad we had a down jacket. We weren’t that far from the hut (an hour’s ski uphill), but it still took us almost three hours to get Roberta back to the hut – the whole time she was lying on the snow.
Oh yea, the search & rescue guys emptied the garbage out of the pack, and the incident was written up in an Alpine Club newsletter – we were thanked for cleaning up the hut. Roberta’s leg healed just fine – no surgery was needed.