Nightmare on the Mountain: Part V

The Avalanche Spotters

The Avalanche Spotters

There are many times in a person’s life where something freaky happens. Generally it’s over and done with pretty quick, maybe a car almost swerves into you on the highway or you get bad turbulence on an airplane. Your heart rate spikes and your palms get a bit sweaty. The whole freaky experience puts you on pins and needles for a few minutes but your heart rate is soon back to normal and your mind goes back to what you want to watch next on Netflix.

From the moment that first avalanche came blazing out of the darkness on Thursday evening around 4pm, the next 4 hours were spent on pins and needles wondering if the next avalanche that hit us was going to be life ending. The thought of slowly suffocating in the dark under a pile of snow crossed my mind, several times, and it was not a pleasant thought to stay with.
I know this story is running a bit long so I’m going to wrap it up.

Here are a few things I learned from that night:

1. Make sure to tell anyone in your group that is inexperienced:
a. Do not drop into steep ravines and go for a joy ride… b. If you can’t see a place to turn around don’t go there.. c. If you are not sure where to go ask.
2. The second thing I’m going to do is always carry a small flashlight in my coat pocket. Even the smallest of lights would have been comforting as I walked up the face of the ravine alone in the dark of the snow storm.

You might be wondering, “Has this experience hindered my desire to snowmobile in the mountains?” My answer to that is “NO”. Its still my absolutely favourite sport and this experience has only enriched my knowledge of backcountry riding.

And I have one hell of a good story to tell.

If you are ever planning on riding the Sicamous area make sure to stay at Rene’s Eagle Valley lodge. It’s perfectly set up for sledders and is just minutes away from the best rid- ing areas. Even if you are driving though, pop in and get some tips from Rene on where to ride – he will make sure you ride endless powder all day.

Happy Trails. Dustin Hahn
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Nightmare on the Mountain: Part IV

Probing for the sleds...

Probing for the sleds…

Now that Rene had packed a trail up both mountains, It was time to double out – 2 people per machine. In order to carry two people effectively we all needed to remove our avalanche backpacks so the driver could preform the technical maneuvers required to get up the hills. As I removed my pack, my emergency pull chord snapped off. This is the chord I would have pulled if an avalanche had started to swiftly carry me down the mountain. Odds are if I had needed it, it would have failed. Never the less now none of us had AVY packs on.

We quickly realized the 2012 polaris RMK did not have the power needed to double a person up the hill. Once again it was the Ski-Doo XM to the rescue. Rene quickly made two trips up each hill doubling up Blair and myself.

After ascending the last hill, we were out of extreme avalanche terrain. Rene’s gas light had been on for almost 3 hours and he was running on fumes. Luckily, earlier that day Jason dropped gas several kilometres past our usual gas drop area. Just as we pulled up to the gas jug, Rene’s Ski-Doo literally ran out of fuel…within 50 feet of it. There wasn’t much extra gas in the jug and it was still a good 30 km to the bottom of the mountain. This wasn’t really a concern because I dropped my spare fuel at the regular gas drop location, 5km up the trail. With my extra gas, we would have plenty.

Up the trail at the regular gas drop area, Newtons Law kicked in again. My fuel jug was nowhere to be found…


This was the first time I had ever had a fuel can stolen. When we added fuel to Rene’s sled 5km back, it did not even turn off the “Low Fuel” light. We now had a 25km trail down and we were not sure if there was enough fuel in the sled to get us down.

Jason and I were doubling on the Polaris following Rene who was doubling Blair on his Ski-Doo. Every step of the way, we were all wondering when he would run out of gas. By then, it was about 10pm and my fingers were actually starting to freeze. Even typing this several days later, my pointer and middle fingers on my right hand still tingle a bit. They will be fine.

We finally got down to the parking lot and it had snowed so much that when we loaded the sleds and Jason tried to drive away he was stuck in the freshly fallen snow. The icing on the cake for the evening was having to pull out the tow rope and drag Jason’s truck and trailer out of the parking lot.
By this time it was past 10pm and we were thankful to be alive, cold, wet and starving. Based on the luck of the day it was no surprise that no restaurants were open. Rene
and I pulled into the Husky gas station and all they had were hotdogs. Arguably, it was the best hotdog I had ever eaten.

After getting some food in our stomachs, I really did not give a dam about the sled. I was more than happy to call the insurance company and say, “Send me a check for $16,000…That sled is gone!”

The following day (Friday) Rene and I had both committed to riding with some folks that were in town to ride with us. I must say, my enthusiasm to ride the next morning was not at an all time high. Nevertheless, we grabbed Rene’s spare sleds and went riding. Because of the 50cm of fresh snow the night before, avalanche danger was very high, so we stuck to flat meadows all day.

When Saturday morning rolled around, conditions were perfect for recovering our snowmobiles. It was a bright sunny day and the temperature had dropped. The drop in the temperature had stabilized the snow pack reducing the risk of an avalanche. We assembled a team of 5 guys to get the sleds. We didn’t know if more avalanches had come down and further buried the sleds. If that was the case I would be calling my insurance company and the sled would be retrieved in June or July.

As our team of guys rode up to the summit to get the sleds, it was perhaps some of the best snow of the year. Clear skies and 4ft of fresh snow. We quickly started assessing snow conditions. No natural avalanches were occurring and cutting across steep slopes on our 500lb sleds were not triggering any.

When we got to the top of the ravine, Rene hoped on his buddy’s Turbo Yamaha Apex with 310 HP and blazed us a trail to the edge of the ravine where the sleds where. The snow was so deep it took him three tries just to get out. My Ski-Doo was completely buried and nowhere in sight. The Polaris was 90% covered but still visible.

From there we put two guys on avalanche watch at the top of the ravine while the three of us went in to get the sleds. The Polaris was the easiest. It just needed a few minutes of digging and it was ready to go. My sled was a bit of a different story. I knew the area it was in so I started probing with my shovel and found it quickly.

It was upside down in a solid slab of settled avalanche snow. Perfect.

After about 30 minutes of us digging, it was finally uncovered and back on its skis. Even after being upside down for 48 hours in a slab of snow it still fired up first pull. Pretty damn impressive.

Rene jumped on Jason’s Turbo Polaris and made a trail back down the ravine to the first shelf where, two nights earlier, the first avalanches came flying out of the darkness. I followed him and once again he proceeded to break a trail out. This time in the daytime. In one shot he poked the Polaris straight up the ravine and we had the Polaris out. Next it was my turn. My first try I did not quite make it out. I had to turn around and go back to the bottom. The second try I made it and we now had both sleds rescued. All in all it took about 4 hours.
e rode the rest of the day, it was freaking epic.

Nightmare on the Mountain: Part III

As the avalanche thundered down the ravine, it swept over both of us. We scrabbled with every ounce of effort in our soul to move through it as its started to carry us down the mountain. We both managed to avoid the bulk of it and finally, the rolling snow came to a stop.

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The avalanche had completely covered my machine, encasing it in cement like snow.

Rene turned to me and said, “We need two sleds to get out of here tonight or we are not getting out.” Once again we scrambled up the ravine to start digging Rene’s sled out.

The entire left bank of the valley had let go. We dug frantically for the next 10 minutes with fear of the right side of the valley letting go and burying us both.

At this point there were two of us in the ravine and one snow machine. We decided Rene would have to ride down to try to get Jason’s up and I would have to walk out. The only way out of the ravine was to climb the almost vertical bank that had yet to avalanche…

As Rene rode down to the bottom of the ravine, I was alone in the dark at the bottom of an avalanche terrain trap, in the middle of a blizzard. Three naturally occurring avalanches had just let go in the last 30 minutes and I would now have to climb vertically through 4 feet of snow up the wall of the ravine that could avalanche at any time.
Words cannot express the terror I was feeling as I summoned every ounce of energy I had to put one foot in front of another, and get up that slope, alive.

If an avalanche was to let go above me, I would not see it until it hit me. If it hit me, it would carry me down to the bottom of the terrain trap and bury me.
I was wearing an avalanche beacon and an avalanche backpack that deploys a big balloon on your back that is supposed to prevent you from getting buried too deep. In the day time, with people around this greatly increases your chance of survival. At night, during a blizzard, with no-one knowing you are buried, this handy equipment’s effectiveness drops to almost zero.

It took me 5 minutes to climb my way up the wall of the ravine as fast as I could, with legs trembling with exhaustion and lungs grasping for every molecule of air they could inhale. At the top, sitting there cold was young Blair. He had not seen or heard from us in several hours and sure enough he was camped out right on the face of a steep hill that could avalanche at any time.
As I crested out of the ravine I started yelling at Blair, “Blair!! Start The sled!!!” At least with the sled running we would have some light and as I finished my walk towards him I could watch the hill and if an avalanche was coming, it would come into my sight a few hundred feet away.

I told Blair, “Get on the sled. We need to move off the face of this hill to a safer place.”
The hill was so steep that I was unable to ride with both of us on the machine. I said to Blair, ”Get off. I’m going to ride up more and I want you to follow the track as fast as you can.”
I rode up a few hundred meters to a cluster of trees. Keep in mind we were still on the face of the hill and the slope was still more than 33 degrees. I parked the Polaris pointing up the hill and kept the engine running with the headlight shining above so I could
see if any avalanches were on their way. This also light up the mountain so Rene and Jason would know where we were now parked.

Blair and I waited for almost 2 hours while Rene tried to get Jason up and out of the ravine. Young Blair was cold and scared. He wasn’t really talking and what he tried to say wasn’t really making sense. I started doing squats to keep warm and get blood flowing. I didn’t want young Blair to freeze so I told him to just breath and move around.
Our Walkie Talkies had died, so all communication with Rene was cut off. Every now and then I heard his sled followed by long periods of silence.
During the silence I couldn’t be sure if they were stuck or buried alive in an avalanche.

In my pocket there was an SOS device that could call a helicopter and search and rescue. I also had a satellite phone that wasn’t working because of the snowstorm.
Here is the kicker – A helicopter would not come until it was daylight and the weather was safe to fly. And second – the only search and rescue person with the skills to get to us was Rene and we had not heard from him in awhile.

On my SOS device there is a button that sends out an email with NON-Emergency pre- typed message I assigned to it. When I press that button, it sends a message to a dear friend and it says, “All is well on the mountain today.”

Obviously, things were not well on the mountain.

Along with sending the email, the device would also send out our exact GPS coordinates. Because avalanches were sneaking out of the dark I thought to myself, “If Rene and Jason are buried and an avalanche comes without notice and wipes out Blair and I, at least the coordinates of our cold dead bodies will be known.”

It was not long after this gloomy thought that the sound of a Turbo Polaris came ripping up the ravine and stopped. Minutes later, Rene came flying up and out of the ravine on his XM. Because I had kept the Polaris running he could see the headlight, knowing exactly where we were.
Rene pulled up and said, “We have two sleds to get out of here and we have two big hills to climb, my low fuel light has been on for over an hour. Jason is walking up and will be here shortly…”

The two hills we had to climb were challenging hills in good conditions. It was now dumped with almost two feet of fresh snow, it was dark and we were still in the middle
of a blizzard. Here, the avalanche hazard was considered “Extreme.”

The only way up the mountain was for Rene to pack us a trail. He took off into the night by himself with no avalanche back pack on. For the next two hours he proceeded to pack down a trail. It took him several attempts just to make it to the top of each mountain. Many times getting stuck by himself on the face of a mountain that could avalanche at any given time.

Every avalanche we had encountered on that evening had happened naturally. (A natural avalanche happens with no human contact, the snow piles up on the slope of 33 degrees or steeper and slides all by itself with no force from humans.)

Rene was now off alone slicing into these hills with a 500lb snowmobile and a 200 lb rider. 700lbs exponentially increases the odds of avalanche. To date, this is probably the most heroic act I have ever witnessed.

Nightmare on the Mountain: Part II

By 4:00 pm we had dragged the sled out of the ravine and up to the small shelf that the the Polaris Turbo and Rene’s sled were sitting on. From there there the only way out was to drop back into the dangerous ravine and ride straight up its steep walls. It was now al- most completely dark and we were in a full on blizzard. Over a foot of fresh snow had fallen, just in the 2.5 hrs it took to get the sled up on the shelf.

Our little trail was now almost covered in fresh snow. The best thing we could have done was to use the 270 hp of the Polaris Turbo to make a trail back out. This would have been ideal, but because of all the mods done to the sled the headlight had been removed and replaced with an attachable headlight that Jason carried in his back pack. Sure enough Newtons Law kicked in and Jason started laughing as he realized he forgot to pack the headlight kit. Shaking his head in disbelief, Rene handed him a small flashlight that we attached with the Handy Mans Secret Weapon… Duct Tape!

As the wind blew through the trees, you could almost hear the snow gods snickering at the little light Jason had Duct Taped to his helmet. Although it was better than no light at all, it was not sufficient for technical riding through a mountain blizzard.

The best machine and rider to break the trail out was Rene and his Ski-Doo 163. Shortly after Rene took off into the storm, Jason called his wife from his satellite phone to leave her a voice mail to let her know that everything was ok.
We drove our sleds ahead 20 feet to the base of the goat trail up. We were now sitting in the dark of the snow storm, waiting for Rene to come back around.
All of a sudden with a “swoosh,” a blast of air rushed up our cold, wet spines. Like a demon in the night, an avalanche had come loose above us and come crashing down. The fallen snow filled in an 8 foot deep pile of exactly where we had sat 3 minutes before.

Jason and I look at each other and said, “Holly Sh*t”…”Lets get the fu** out of here”. Rene returned about 30 minutes later and we set back onto our route.

I followed Rene’s red taillight up the goat trail into the ravine. My goggles had fogged up and frozen and I was riding without them into the blowing snow, almost blind.
With snow pelting my eyes and very little visibility, Rene and I put the throttle to the bar as we approached the steepest part of the ravine.

As Rene powered up the chute, another avalanche let go directly above us. A 6ft wall of snow came blasting down the ravine out of the darkness and hit Rene head on. The wave of snow hit him in the chest flipping his sled over backwards and threw him off into the snow. By using the sled to break the wave of the avalanche Rene was safe, but his machine was almost completely buried with just the headlight poking out.

As the avalanche hit Rene, my Ski- Doo got stuck as I was trying to turn around. I scrambled up the hill to see if he was alright.

We cleared the pull chord and started the sled to provide a flicker of light as we dug it out. At this point, the snow was very solid and it was tough digging. As we dug, we kept an eye on the ravine above.

Sure enough, out of the darkness another avalanche was suddenly roaring towards us. We started yelling at each other, “Avy! Avy! Move! Move!”

Nightmare on the Mountain: Part I


Getting caught in an avalanche, pitch black, in the middle of a Blizzard, was not the ideal way to spend a Thursday evening.

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 started off as a pretty normal day sledding at Eagle Pass. There were 4 of us in total: Rene, Jason, his 16 yr. old son Blair, and myself. It had just snowed a solid 4ft of fresh powder and that was enough to put a smile our our faces and keep us busy. Visibility across the mountain was pretty low, so we headed off into the trees near Killer Hill. Still, with the low cloud cover we could not see much there.

It had been a simple ride, but it wasn’t long before Jason’s son, Blair, ended up getting his 2012 Polaris stuck in a funky situation above some trees. In order to get out the situation a pretty technical sidehill over a cluster of trees was required. I parked my sled just behind Blair, walked over and offered to ride it out for him.
I fired up the Polaris, side-hilled over the trees and went on to find everyone. Blair was blasting around on my sled having a great time. (Even though he’s 16, he is a great rider and could very easily school guys twice his age.)

5 minutes later we noticed Blair was missing.

Just off to the right of us was a steep narrow ravine. One of those types that not even a seasoned rider would not dare go down. In snowmobiling, we often refer to these areas as “No Man’s Land” because if you go down, generally speaking, you’re not coming back up. Sure enough, there was one track headed straight down the ravine. We all shook our heads and said, “Oh Sh*t”…”He didn’t?”…”Yup, he did.”
The terrain was so steep and there was so much fresh snow, taking a stock sled down there was pretty much guaranteeing yourself a $2000 helicopter rescue – if not worse. Luckily Jason was riding a 270hp turbo Polaris with a 174″ track. Although it handles like a lumber wagon, it was the perfect machine to go in and find Blair on.

With over 30 years of riding these mountains, our other companion Rene, is one of the most experienced mountain riders you will ever meet. He knows every nook and cranny of the hills, and he’s also the #1 search and rescue guy to call when riders get lost or stranded. Rene took the Polaris and started following Blair’s lonely track down the mountain.
He eventually stopped. It was then he realized, “If I go any further i’m not getting back up…”

Rene parked the sled on a small shelf, then set off on foot following Blair’s sled track. He walked for another 30 minutes. I always find it scary when someone in my group is missing, especially by themselves, because you can never know if they have been caught in an
avalanche or if the snowmobile has flipped over and they are pinned underneath it suffocating.

30 minutes of walking though waist deep powder, Rene reached Blair. The little bugger had rode 1km down this ravine right into the cold heart of “No Mans Land…” And to top it off, the only way out was straight back up.

Rene called us on via Walkie Talkie and we began to formulate a plan.

“Dustin, you and Jason hop on my sled and double down to the Polaris, from there follow the track on foot and try to make the trail as wide as possible so we can pack a path out.”

Jason and I doubled down on Rene’s Ski-Doo XM 163. We parked the sled and continued on foot – when we finally reached the other two, the strain rang out: “What the heck were you thinking?”

Blair was pretty scared and didn’t have much to say. He just got carried away having a good time on an unfamiliar sled and made a big mistake. A mistake that was about to put all of our lives in grave danger.

When it comes to back country snowmobiling, skiing or snowboarding the most important thing to remember is to pay attention to the avalanche conditions and the terrain around. It could be deadly if an avalanche lets go or is caused. The worst place you can possibly be is called a “Terrain Trap.” This is a situation where the avalanche has no- where to go and can pile up rock hard snow anywhere between 2-20ft. The fact is that most people don’t live if they are buried under more than 10 feet of snow. Even if you are burred under just a few feet, you have about 8-10 minutes before you die of suffocation.

We were right in the middle of one.

Sure enough, the the ravine that Blair had ridden down, had all the makings for a perfect storm. The walls of the ravine were long and steep. Several hundred meters almost vertical on both sides. The angle of the ravine pointing down was 45 to 55 degrees. All it takes for an avalanche to slide is an angle of 33 degrees or more.

At 1:30 pm we started pulling my Ski-Doo XM 154 up the mountain. Just as we started though, the biggest blizzard of the year started to set in. 50cm were forecasted. The four of us were pulling the sled up foot by foot. It was very slow and agonizing. We were sweating like crazy, getting stuck over and over again, often having to cut down small trees that were in our way…

Visit To Malta

Just got back from visiting Malta. Had heard many great things about it and pretty high expectations. Here is the good and bad from my personal perspective. Lets start with the bad. Malta is one of the most densely populated islands in the world. The major cities like St Julians are way to crowded for me. The other thing to get used to if you are coming from North America is driving on the other side of the road. I would say once per day I caught my self driving on the wrong side. Or if I did not realize I was on the wrong side, friendly locals would let me know instantly with their horn to avoid a head on collision.

Now onto the good. The good defiantly overshadows the bad. If you branch out into the quieter smaller cities by the water its an amazing experience. The locals are very friendly and the food is great. The water surrounding the island is some of the clearest water I have ever seen. In many places its a beautiful emerald green. Just a 20 minute fair ride off the coast is “The Blue Lagoon” This island literally has the clearest water I have seen in my life. You can swim across the lagoon to the other side of the island and then swim through a cave to the other side of the island.

On a random street this Orange car caught my eye and it literally ended up being the General Lee from the Dukes Of Hazard Movie. Growing up I loved that show so it was pretty cool to see the actual car used in the movie.

By far the best place to stay is at the Raddision Blue at Golden Bay. Its a quite amazing location. The water is calm and you have a private beach. The private beach is nice because some of the other beaches can be crowded.

All in all I loved the trip and look forward to my next visit. Dustin Hahn

Dustin Hahn

Dustin Hahn