Some winter days in Vancouver are beautiful. The sun is shining (but not warming) and the visibility is almost endless. It usually comes with very low temperatures (for Vancouver), but at least we can say that it is not always raining here, even in winter. Saturday, December 5th, 2009 was one of those days. Unfortunately, the impact of such low temperatures is that snow turns into ice, which is quite a common problem on the North Shore Mountains.
Since skiing on ice is not one of our favourite activities, Gili and I decided to go hiking that day. Since we were planning to go to the “Banff Mountain Film Festival” that evening we couldn’t go too far. So we decided to go to Goat Mt. which is above the Grouse Mountain skiing area. Since we knew we were probably going to face icy conditions we brought crampons and ice axes with us. Crampons are sharp metal points that you connect to your boots and give you good grip on ice
We hiked up the popular Grouse Grind trail which had quite a bit of snow and some slippery icy sections. Then we reached the Grouse skiing area, which we know well, and continued towards Goat Mountain. There were a fair number of snowshoers on the trail. At some stage the trail became steep but we felt quite comfortable with the crampons. When we came closer to the summit we came across three snowshoers who were on their way down. They were traversing a steep slope and their progress was slow. It seemed that they were having some trouble with their snowshoes, understandably, because snowshoes are not the best equipment for such steep and icy terrain. They are made to float on soft fluffy snow, and do not provide much traction on hard snow. We didn’t like the route those snowshoers chose so we decided to go straight up and we were on the summit within minutes.
The views from the summit were of course magnificent. We always like to watch UBC from the North Shore Mountains and try to locate our building, but we never manage… We had our lunch break on the summit and drank a much appreciated hot chocolate. There weren’t any other people on the summit as it seemed most of the people hadn’t gone this far, or were already on their way down when we were climbing up.
As we started our hike back down we heard people calling for help frantically. They wanted to know if we had a cell phone and if we could call 911. It turned out that one of their friends had slipped down the slope and they could no longer see or hear him. They had seen him hurtle down a steep icy slope, hitting trees on his way down and then disappearing out of view. It sounded really bad. We don’t usually carry a cell phone, however we do have an emergency cell phone we take on trips. We didn’t have reception from where we were so we had to climb back to the top. One of the two remaining friends also climbed back to the top from a different location. His cell phone battery was dead. We called 911, but the reception was spotty and the call kept on cutting off. We decided to leave him our cell phone and go to the Grouse chalet to make sure that help was indeed on its way. After we descended the steep section, Gili ran back to the chalet. The hike back was straightforward and not too long, so splitting up seemed like a reasonable solution. Half way down I already noticed a helicopter circulating in the air. Search and Rescue were there very quickly, within about 15 minutes of the call. I met up with Gili back at the Grouse ski area. We watched the sunset together and hoped the search wouldn’t go into the night.
We made our way to the Hollywood theater and had an enjoyable night at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, but we kept on thinking about the guy who had fallen. When we got home we immediately checked the news. Sadly it was reported that a snowshoer’s body was found at the valley bottom near Kennedy Lake, below Goat Mt., after he had slid about 400 meters in vertical distance. The snowshoer who died was Peter Holmes, a 24 year old from England. We didn’t know him, but being so close to where he died certainly shocked me. For a few days later in my mind I kept on hearing his friends calling him desperately “Peter”, hoping he’d answer them, but hearing only silence.
I am not sure exactly what is the lesson to be learned from this story. Each one of us can decide for himself or herself. One thing I can say is that accidents can and will happen even close to home, even during an activity that we feel is relatively safe. We need to think about conditions, consequences and what we feel comfortable with. Accidents will continue to happen, but we must make a conscious effort to manage our risk level as much as possible in order to decrease their number and their severity.