16June 2020

You’re stronger than you know

“You might not remember me, because you meet a lot of people, but I bet you remember this.

Right after the morning safety briefing, in the bustle of getting ready to load up, a guest sidled up to Jeff and showed him his phone, where he kept an old photo.

Jeff glanced down distractedly, was momentarily confused, then paused to look up at his face. He said “oh. OH. You were there!”

While grinning, he said “Yes. I got the bonus experience.”

The photo depicted a dark night in the snowy mountains, a roaring campfire, and a group of skiers.

It was a singular event in Purcell’s history, almost 20 years ago.

Jeff told the story at an event at The Banff Centre in 2017, where people gathered to hear speakers on the topic of resilience in the face of uncertainty.

We realized we hadn’t shared the story here yet. I guess it was waiting for the right time.

It was a cloudless and crisp day in mid-January. Two groups were out slaying some perfect powder turns – one with Rudi as lead, and the other with Jeff.

Throughout the morning and the first few drops, the weather started showing signs of change. Wisps of fog were forming in the valley bottoms.

By lunchtime, the speed with which the fog was building was raising alarm bells in Rudi and Jeff’s heads.

You see, we can’t fly through fog. Sometimes that’s a surprise to people, since gold-star heli-skiing in the deep glades happens no problem through a lot of stormy weather; but snow is very different from fog.

With fog, you go around, or you don’t go at all.

In terms of speed and spread, the fog this day was unlike anything Jeff’s seen before or since. The sky stayed clear above, but within a half hour, the fog was filling the valley bottom like water filling a pool, sealing off everything, and the line was coming up, fast.

Rudi loaded his group and took off for home.

By the time the heli returned for Jeff’s group, the rising fog level had engulfed them, and the chopper was only visible through a couple of small holes above their heads: not enough to get down through and land.

Those holes closed off in minutes too, and now Jeff’s group was under a solid ceiling, stretching as far as they could see in every direction

The next effort was to get under it, which meant the heli going back towards home, through a low notch and working slowly up-valley beneath the fog to reach them.

Jeff remembers it so clearly. After waiting through 25 minutes of tense and hopeful silence, suddenly hearing the sound of the chopper in the distance, creeping up the valley toward them.


Then, over the radio, “I’ve hit a wall. Gotta turn back.”

More fog. Sealed in on all sides.

Nightfall comes fast in mid-January. By four o’clock, the heli had tried every which way to get to them, waiting it out on nearby peaks, but it never opened back up.

And here’s the next important thing to know about VFR helicopters: they don’t fly at night.

Rudi called over the radio “Okay, well, we’ll be back for you at first light. Stay warm.”

Though it was an uncomfortable realization for Jeff and his tail guide Derek, they knew what to do. Their training would kick into a different gear, and they’d use their skills to keep everyone safe.

They already had the knowledge that winter camping without shelter is doable, and always has to be in your mind as one of many contingency plans in the backcountry.

The group, though, had to make a bigger emotional leap.

“Wait, what? No…. wait. There has to be….”

The denial-anger-fear-bargaining-acceptance stages of grief came for them all.

And even if you’re never spent an unexpected night in the Canadian wilderness in winter, I know you’ve walked that walk at some point in your life.

We all have. Lately, especially.

Something arises to remind us how our sense of control over the future is an illusion.

We kick and fight and pray it isn’t so. And while we do that, we suffer.

But waiting for us is the recognition of the power we still have. The power to find our centre in the midst of it all and choose our next move.

It might be small. It might not solve much.

But it’s the turning point where we shift something internally – from helplessness and paralysis into resourcefulness and resilience.

Acceptance came to that wonderful group of people as night fell around them. After all, there was work to do.

Everyone helped build a fire. And make the snow wall all around that would block any wind. And gather the pine boughs that would make for soft beds up and off the snow. And share the remaining snacks from the lunch box and pass around the tea.

Many of them slept. When they didn’t, they told stories and kept warm by helping Jeff saw off more branches for the fire.

And when first light came, the heli returned to take them home.

They walked back into our lodge dishevelled, tired and smelling of wood smoke, but they were also lit from within, and bonded in a way that the skiing itself wouldn’t have done alone.

They had caught a glimpse of how strong they really were.

And after a rest day, they were keen as ever to go out again, though it was just a regular heli-ski day, we were all pleased to say.

We always hope that the memory of every perfect powder turn stays with people, for years or maybe a lifetime. But what’s even better than that? What about being reminded of who you really are?

For whatever it means for you right now, just keep that fire going. Daybreak is coming.


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