An unexpected overnight in the backcountry 

Long-time local shares story in effort to warn others of risk off south side of Whistler Mountain

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Help on the way Cold, tired but relieved, the group readies for the long-line rescue after a long night in the backcountry.
  • Photo submitted
  • Help on the way Cold, tired but relieved, the group readies for the long-line rescue after a long night in the backcountry.

Tim Regan knows exactly when he made the wrong decision after finding himself out of bounds on the south side of Whistler Mountain.

"We made a critical decision to go down and not go back up," said Regan, of that tempting path of least resistance.

Hours later, Regan, along with his 16-year-old son and two virtual strangers, found themselves huddled together overnight, the shivering minutes slowing ticking away in the black winter's night until help arrived in the morning.

"Total rookie mistake," said a chagrined Regan, a little over a week after the ordeal. "And after 25 years and hundreds of times skiing... it's unbelievable. And really quite sobering. The clouds lifted and I knew exactly where we were but we were too low."

The day began full of promise — Sunday, Dec. 13 — with lots of fresh powder blanketing the mountain.

Regan and his son Jonah were waiting in line at the Harmony Chair for about 45 minutes, waiting for the alpine to open, and got to talking to another father and son — Robert and 22-year-old Nigel, visiting from Ontario.

"They were very nice so I offered to take them around the mountain and show them where to go," said Regan.

"I think it's nice as locals to be positive and be nice to people. And, they were good skiers."

They skied the trees in Harvey's, a few more runs, and then went back up to the Saddle. They were walking along Piccolo Ridge, with a goal of heading into Sun Bowl.

While up on the ridge a fog bank rolled in and Regan got turned around. Instead of dropping in left, he turned right — straight out of bounds. He didn't duck any ropes, or follow any tracks; he just made the wrong turn.

It wasn't long before he realized his mistake.

By then, however, the group was faced with two bad options — hiking back up, a slog destined to take hours, or the tempting path down, heading straight for Cheakamus Lake. He didn't think then to call ski patrol and ask for help; he didn't want to cause a scene. Patrol likely would have advised them to retrace their steps and there was every chance that they would have helped them out as they got closer inbounds.

Hindsight, however, is 20/20.

1 p.m.

On the backside of Whistler Mountain, it was 1 p.m. with lots of daylight left.

"So we made a run for Cheakamus Lake," said Regan.

They were completely unprepared for what lay ahead.

No food. No extra clothing. No matches. No backcountry gear to deal with avalanches.

Their journey began optimistically enough, losing vertical very quickly on the way down.

That all changed soon enough as the trees narrowed and the terrain grew more and more heinous — steep and virtually impassable.

They were taking off their skis and hoisting each other over blown down logs. The alder trees got tighter. The snow more difficult. Hunger and thirst threatened on the edges.

For five hours they broke difficult trail, their sweat soaking through to their down layers, rendering the puffy warmth virtually useless.

Regan, who is reading Dante's Inferno with his son, said this: "It was like going through the rings of hell, going through the bottom part of the mountain."

As darkness fell, with no moon in sight, it became dangerous to carry on. And so they stopped, not far from the Cheakamus trail.

"I had no idea how impassable the lower mountain was," said Regan. "It was like a military obstacle course."

Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) did a thorough critical risk assessment and decided the group should prepare to bed down for the long, cold night ahead.

WSAR manager Brad Sills explained there were hazards out there.

"There had been an avalanche earlier that day," he said.

The group, he added, was in very steep terrain. Gauging the temperatures, among other things, WSAR decided it wasn't worth it to put volunteer members in harm's way. They wouldn't bethe first to spend a chilly night outdoors, and they won't be the last.

7 p.m.

Help was still 14 hours away at this point.

"We didn't want to put anybody at risk for our mistake; it wasn't life threatening," said Regan, who remained determined to keep the team rallied.

"We just made the best of it. We hunkered down. We cut down cedar boughs and just weathered out the night."

The sons laid down the middle, their fathers on either side. Sleep remained elusive as the cold seeped through their bones. Regan alternated between taking his hands out of his soaking gloves and opening his jacket slightly to warm them by his body, only to have his body grow colder, forcing him to return them to their soggy homes.

And he was weighed down by the responsibility of it all; that it was his decision that led them to this point.

He called it "a shivering night of self-reproachment."

"Their only mistake was trusting a long-time local," he said candidly.

It was a long, cold, sleepless night, peppered with the random hoot of owls and the occasional throaty call of grouse.

9 a.m.

Is there a better sound than the steady beat of a helicopter coming for you after an unplanned night in the backcountry?

By 9 a.m., two SAR members dropped in to the group with warm jackets and hot chocolate. They long-lined the father/son teams out, out over the Cheakamus Trail to the trailhead parking lot. From there they got into the helicopter and were whisked to safety.

For Sills it's a familiar story. He estimates his team will do about 30 rescues this winter; one-third will come out of the south side of Whistler Mountain.

And that's not including all the ones that walk out under their own steam.

"Skiers and riders shouldn't even be near the boundary line unless they are prepared to spend the night," said Sills.

"The terrain will pull you down," he added.

As for the decision to go down instead of back up, Sills said: "That's a universal decision pretty much."

Whistler Blackcomb's safety manager Kira Cailes reiterated the message: despite the fact that these areas are so easily accessible from Whistler Blackcomb, they are not patrolled or controlled. One wrong turn can lead to cliffs, and waterfalls and tight impassable trees.

"That area is really no different than any other out-of-bounds area that people are skiing," said Cailes. "They are truly in the backcountry at that point."

Regan's experience has changed the way he skis now. He will now carry provisions — food and matches — and will think twice about wearing down.

Despite the ordeal, which he is sharing in the hopes of preventing others from making the same mistake, there was a silver lining.

"It was life affirming. The outreach from the community and the concern... it's easy to get complacent with your understanding of how much you mean to people and relationships. That was lovely."

Regan later donated $4,500 to Whistler SAR, the approximate cost of the rescue. The Ontario skiers returned home with presumably one hell of a Whistler story to share.

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