"Dammit, you should have known better,"
I whisper to myself, then draw a deep breath to quiet the butterflies in my stomach. It's 7 p.m. on a recent March eve, the sun has set, and I'm lost high on a Vermont ridgeline. Worse, I've dragged a friend into this deepening morass, and nobody knows where we are.
"Rookie errors," I scoff, mentally flagellating myself again for good measure. "You should have known better."
As a frequent backcountry traveler, I do know one thing: simple mistakes get compounded in the wild. Whether it's on Everest or in the "back 40," ignoring an appropriate "turn-around time" can get you into trouble. Lost above Bolton Valley, we're not in the "Death Zone," but we are an accident waiting to happen. The intoxicant that got us here wasn't thin air, or even summit fever, but the simple lure of "one more run."
Everything began innocently enough. A visit from my friend Will, an ardent alpine skier living in Nashville, coincided with the worst snow conditions of the year. As a free-heeling Pied Piper for Vermont powder skiing, I took it as a personal challenge to sniff out the goods -- even if that meant earning our turns "off-piste" in the woods.
"Here's the plan," I explained between bites of a late lunch. "We'll go over to the back of Bolton Valley to some mellow glades I know near the Wilderness Chair." We'd both been monitoring the snow squalls the last two days, and our excitement grew as I stuffed climbing skins into my small daypack. It was past two o'clock when I summarily rejected Will's extra liter of water. "Not gonna need it, and I don't want to carry it," I said with authority before heading for the door.
"The odds favoring mishaps always seem to increase in direct proportion to poor preparation," Waterbury-based author David Goodman writes in his authoritative Vermont guidebook, Back-country Skiing Adventures. Perhaps the signs of our poor planning weren't obvious along the way, but now they're plenty visible, like those clouds gathering in the east.
"That's Venus in the western sky," Will asserts while I survey the scene from a nearby knob, hoping to make out a landmark that will lead us back to civilization. I disagree. "Those lights have to be the Champlain Valley," I say, mistakenly, looking towards Stowe and Waterbury.
"There's Orion and we're making a big circle," Will insists, perhaps a little too pointedly. I shoot him a glare, but it's pitch black and he can't see "shite," as the Irish say. "This is the first time I've really had to navigate using the stars," he adds, more gently.
It's now 7:30, we're late for dinner and I know my wife Tricia is starting to wonder back home. Occasionally she'll suggest I should carry a cell phone while skiing in the woods. "Technology does not translate to safety," I'll answer. "Equipment breaks down." Then I'll launch into my favorite rap about the "lines of defense," borrowed from a local mountaineering guide. "Judgment is your first and strongest line," I'll recite. "Skills come next, equipment is third, and counting on other people to save you is the final -- and weakest -- line."
Cell phones, global positioning systems and other tools are just that --"tools," not an insurance policy. I've always championed good judgment, and, in this case, it's been a pretty weak link. True to Goodman's maxim, our plan went awry the moment we hit Bolton and found the Wilderness Chair closed for the day. Forced to improvise, I led my partner to a more remote basin where I thought I could deliver a package of easily accessible skiing and climbing. Wrong, Santa Claus!
On our way down this eastern slope, the pucker-brush whipped us in the face and slapped us in the rear. "Get thee away from here," the snow gods seemed to say. "Good riddance," I spat back in reply. Down at the bottom I improvised yet again, surveying a northeast-facing slope at the far side of the bowl. "Look how open it is there. Want to go?" I suggested. A good sport, Will innocently replied, "Sure."
Off we marched, and for a time the efforts produced results. Wide open trees, boot-high powder, gentle pitch, perfect skinning and skiing. Even Will, with alpine skis strapped to his feet, was able to negotiate the uphill climb. One run of hooting and hollering through the woods led to the moment of truth. "Should we squeeze out another?" I proposed. "We're here, let's do it," was Will's enthusiastic response. I paused just a moment to consider the time --5 p.m. --and to do the math: up and down in 30 minutes, back up by 6, dark at 6:15. "It'll be close," I say, "but a little dark shuffling home won't kill us."
The second run was better than the first, and we were both grinning as we applied skins and prepared to climb to the ridge and point our tips toward home. But Fate had other plans. By the time we regained the ridgeline, 15 minutes late, it was already dark, the waning moon obscured by clouds and my sense of direction no clearer. We blundered from out-cropping to out-cropping for three-quarters of an hour, before Will's planetary observations finally brought me back to Earth.
"We've made some mistakes," I admit, "but we're together, not injured, it's warm, and, with a little luck, I have a compass and small flashlight in my first aid kit." I feel a little better knowing that I've packed that much. With the butterflies back at it again, I reach to the bottom of my kit and find a compass and my mini-Maglite. The batteries are a bit iffy, but good enough to shed some light. We know we went south in the bottom of the bowl. So now we need to head north across the ridge, then west down toward Bolton and Burlington.
Setting a northern course, we trudge past our own meandering tracks, keeping an eye out for an opportunity to head off the summit ridge. Thinking safety first, we decide to keep our climbing skins on even when we're going downhill, to check our speed. Make a mistake in judgment -- ours now include staying out too late, choosing an unfamiliar route home and failing to bring sufficient supplies, including extra water and two headlamps --and you have a problem. Add equipment failure, bad weather or injury and you have a recipe for disaster. We resolve not to see our day end up in the crapper.
Guided by the compass, our luck quickly changes as we intersect an old set of tracks heading northwest. A time check shows 8 p.m. "This is good," I announce. "He or she must have come from a known place. We should follow them." Will concurs. Soon we arrive at a stretch of open hardwoods that affords a view of the Champlain Valley flickering below. Our mood brightens.
"Who's the saint of wayward travelers -- Christopher?" Will asks. "Yep," I reply, knowing exactly where this is leading. "I'm liking Chris' route," Will says with a grin. We stop to savor the moment, which is tainted only by the late hour and the fact that we've just finished the last of our water.
"Nine o'clock," I announce before we set out again. "Tricia will definitely be getting worried."
"What you have here is an irrefutable argument for a cell phone," Will replies, paraphrasing the warden in Cool Hand Luke. "Not good," I concede, as the long hand of the law begins to enter my consciousness.
A decade ago, Vermont passed a bill that authorizes ski area operators and the state police to charge the growing number of wayward skiers for the costs of their search and rescue. As I work my way along Chris' trail, I begin to calculate the potential ramifications of our actions.
"First thing that happens," I tell Will "is that Tricia will call the usual suspects' --a.k.a. my ski partners -- asking for help tracking me down in the woods. They'll tell her not to worry until 10 p.m., but will probably pack their gear in anticipation of a rescue. Next, she'll call the state police, who will establish a command center at the resort and ask management to turn on the night-skiing lights to serve as a beacon for us. Maybe they'll bring in a ski patroller to snowmobile around the cross-country center. But search-and-rescue protocols bar nighttime searches unless it's a life-threatening situation. And we're not at that point yet."
Minutes click by as we follow Christopher's tracks. Suddenly, his course veers south, away from the direction we thought we needed to go. Emotionally, we've become attached to our patron saint; and following his lead has helped us avoid the heavy underbrush and stream beds that bedevil so many off-trail adventures. Not ready to strike out on our own, we carry on, hoping that around the next turn or over the next ridge, Chris will lead us to a well-worn trail.
Over time, though, our situation begins to deteriorate. Will, with his fixed heel and heavy alpine setup, begins to bonk. He's dehydrated and hungry. Worried, I go to the well one more time, reaching into the depths of my emergency aid kit. Like a sommelier displaying a treasured bottle, I produce some well-aged packets of Swiss Miss instant hot cocoa. We tip 'em back, dry.
Caffeine and sugar make a powerful combination. It gives us a lift, and we set out again daydreaming about the adult beverages awaiting us at the end of our journey. But we're not out yet, and Chris isn't helping any. He's heading over hill and dale like the character in that juvenile "Family Circus" comic who leaves footprints all over the neighborhood on his way to get the mail. "I can't go uphill anymore," Will finally says. "Okay," I agree, though we've mostly been skirting a ridge. "We've heard cars below. That must be the Bolton Access Road." In a hopeful tone, I add, "We can't go too far wrong at this point."
In fact, there's still plenty of room for things to go awry. It's late, it's dark and we're whooped. Finally, Lady Luck starts dealing us aces. Within minutes of leaving Chris' route, we find a stream and follow it a short way downhill. It brings us to an obvious logging road -- a sign of civilization, even if rather rough, bound to lead to a road. Taking a chance, we pull off our climbing skins and begin to glide downhill. The radiant light coming off the snow helps us see everything but the water bars that obstruct our path.
Ten minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes later, we stop where a bridge crosses a sizable gully. I can sense the road just above. Minutes later, we pop out at Bolton's Timberline Lodge, a good two miles from where I thought we'd emerge. It's like that moment in Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey when they take off your blindfold and you discover you're facing the opposite wall. Neither relief nor hindsight can alter the fact that we've been thoroughly lost.
Will and I give each other a pat on the back and flag down a pickup truck heading down the road. I jump in the back while Will calls Tricia on the driver's cell phone. It's 11 p.m. and she's just called the Vermont State Police. She's relieved, and so are we. No one is hurt, no search-and-rescue crews have been inconvenienced. There will be no embarrassing sidebar in the local daily.
All's well that ends well, I'd like to say. Instead, I'm left with some nagging questions: Do I need to add a cell phone to my pack? How prepared am I for self-rescue in the case of injury? Can I travel safely alone in the backcountry, as I like to do from time to time? My wife has her own opinion, of course. "You're grounded for two weeks," she announces, only half kidding. Perhaps that'll give me enough time to figure it all out.