Whistler, Canada is a small town located at the base of some of the most dangerous and wild peaks in all of North America. Sprawling with avalanches, rocky terrain, and cliffs, it’s no wonder its home to some of the most daring adventure seekers and travelers in the world. The people of Whistler have a strange love attraction of balancing the fine line between life and death. Hundreds of people arrive every year looking to conquer its summits, but not everyone comes down the mountain alive. Death constantly hangs in the air. Occasionally, one can see the brightly colored orange body bags being escorted down the mountains. Another life cut too short. This isn’t a place to take your grandmother apple picking. This is nature kicking people in the ass. Like over-trusting a fart after taco night, I too, thought I could cheat death.
The frost was slowly creeping up the glass windowpane outside of my hotel window as I woke. Another half hour before sunrise. I hopped out of bed, put on my ski jacket and pants, both of which have holes in them from years of past battles on different summits. From the stained bloody thermals and the scratched ski poles, I’ve come to love my gear from years of abuse. Like shaking hands with an old friend, I put on the rest of my trusted gear. Looking outside my window, the peak of whistler mountain climbs higher and higher until it blended completely into black with the night sky. I notice my hands are shaking as I cup them against the glass to see outside the window.
The drive to the mountains for me is always a quiet one. Like soldiers before heading into war, one is never more quiet when preparing for death. I park my car at the base lodge and notice other fellow daredevils are getting prepared around me outside their vehicles. More cars pulling into the parking lot. Around me people putting on their brightly colored ski gear, loading food and water into their backpacks. Somewhere a radio starts. Groups of people smoking hash as they load up their beer into portable coolers. Hey, it’s only illegal if you get caught, right? I load up on protein bars, water, kiss a most recent picture of Donny Benét, and attach my skis to my backpack. My back and neck straining to keep all my gear balanced.
Poutine is a very special canadian dish. It consists of everything that my love-handles don’t need. Filled with fries, cheese curds, gravy, and a choice of meat, it’s one of those things a dietician would run away from. For the light-hearted dressing-on-the-side salad eaters, it’s not the dish for you. It’s one of those dishes where if you’re trapped in a cave for three weeks, the fat content of poutine alone could sustain you comfortably. I smell this heavenly aroma as I make my way around the base lodge.
Shopkeepers, restaurants, delis, and clothing stores all started to unlock their doors and open up the day for business. Many people walking in groups, taking pictures amongst themselves and gawking at clothing stores, clutching shopping bags and eating dessert. Others either going to get a bite for breakfast or coming back from breakfast. Some others, like me, gripping their skis and poles, praying to live another day, make their way to their respective marks at the beginning of the chairlift. After a quick meal of poutine, and savoring each sliver of sauce, I too, found myself standing at the beginning of the mountain.
The cold, wet chairlift propelled me forward up the mountain as the world beneath me sank away. The face of the mountain was completely void except of trees, rocks, ice, and snow. Over each small crest of the mountain loomed cliff after stomach-dropping cliff. The fall being hundreds of feet from where I was sitting. The rattling of the chairlift didn’t ease my nerves as it swayed and groaned against the wind. Its cables bending painfully under the weight of all the steel. The only sound permeating the air was the steel moving above me, the occasional yelp and scream from the people below me, and the cold, icy wind.
Not a cloud in sight as the sun melted the frost off my goggles. The rattling of the chairlift shook me from my trance.
“Get the fuck off the chairlift!” someone in a brightly colored red ski jacket and red-cross symbol on their shoulder yelled at me. Which indicated now was probably a good time to get the fuck off the chairlift.
Shaking from my nerves and of the wind, people around started to strap into their gear. Others taking pictures of the view and smiling for the camera, others eating their protein bars before they begin their journey. Then there is me standing in the middle of it all, praying to god that I could live another day to eat more poutine.
Now let me clarify. The end of the chairlift is not the actual peak of the mountain. Getting to the actual peak involves a long, steep climb on unsupervised backcountry territory. Strapping all my gear to my backpack, with the wind to my back and the sun over my head, I made my way to the beginning of the climb to the peak. There were warning signs surrounding the entrance, saying “STOP: PROCEED NO FURTHER”, “DANGER: YOU CAN DIE”, “SUICIDE PREVENTION HOT-LINE — — —-”. Well, good thing me no read english good, so I ignored them and proceeded to climb. I strapped my poles and skis onto my backpack, got on all fours, and started to hike/climb. The peak up ahead was completely devoid of any human life except from footsteps from other past adventurers. The dark, jagged knife-like peak cut through the morning sky with its glass-like frosty rocks and boulders.
When going through backcountry, it’s always important to have a ski line. A ski line is something the skier makes a mental note of, of where to start and where to turn in hopes of avoiding deadly cliffs and rocks. At the beginning, I was making mental notes of my own ski line. Start there, make a left here, turn there, avoid that cliff, avoid that cliff, avoid that tree… followed by another cliff, and then we’re golden !
My heavy boots sank deep into the snow with each new step. The snow from this part of the mountain was much thicker and heavier due to the fact that not many people come around here. Sweaty and panting, I trudged along. As I drew closer to the actual peak, I didn’t know if I was marching to my grave or not. I constantly had to ask myself, am I being brave or a dumbass? Probably the latter.
The journey up the peak took about an hour. Sweating and exhausted, I decided to take off some gear, chill out and enjoy the view. I understood then, gazing at the horizon, why people from all over the world come here. It’s the type of view that even a picture could never fully capture. Surrounding me were rolling hills and mountains. With their icy, snow dusted blue peaks, devoid of all life. Turning 360 degrees, I felt as though I was alone in the center of the universe. Time stood still for a moment and I stood motionless as the mountains surrounding me appeared to get bigger and bigger the more I looked at them. I shook myself from my reverie and looked down at the people below me. The skiers/snowboarders looked like colorful ants from my vantage point, with their brightly colored ski jackets making their way down the mountain. Up ahead, beyond the mountains ahead of me, lay dark storm clouds fast approaching pumping ice and snow. It was coming more closely and I estimated I had about 10 minutes before I was hit. Locked in my skis and poles in hand, I pushed forward to where I had mentally made my mark on the mountain to start. My pulse started quickening and my undershirt started to cling to my sweaty back as I drew closer to the very edge of the peak. I had forgotten where to start. Standing on the actual peak, everywhere looked the same. Every corner, every drop looked the same up here but they all lead to different places. Every starting point at the peak led to some cliff or another except my own and now I couldn’t remember where to begin. The storm was fast approaching, blocking out the sun and casting the world around me in shadow.
The sweet beginning, the edge, the curl, the moment right before a skier drops down into a trail. It hits everyone differently, but everyone remembers it the same. Like remembering a first kiss, first fight, first fuc- i mean fun time. One moment you’re standing still, the next your stomach drops, and you find yourself staring down the barrel of the mountain, calculating your move every second as you glide along the mountains back.
I try my best to guess where I had made my mental note to start, but to no avail. I had to make it before the storm closed in. I picked a spot that seemed vaguely familiar in my mind, and chose to drop into the trail. Right before I dropped into the trail, I looked at the horizon to savor the last image of peace if I were to die here on this mountain.
My stomach dropped, my legs tensed, my breathing quickened, as I dropped into the trail. I glided across the powder left to right and right to left. My skis sinking deep into the snow, carving away the fresh powder. My vision became tunnel-like, only focusing on a few feet ahead of me. Gripping my poles tight to keep my balance, I was gaining speed. The trail was so steep that there were moments where I thought it turned completely vertical. Snow would clump up around me, form into balls and roll down the mountain in lightning speed as it gained momentum. Suddenly, I notice that the snowballs that were rolling down hill would magically vanish as if rolling into an ether. I stopped suddenly as I’ve never seen something like this before. I formed a snowball into my hands and rolled it down hill only for it to disappear 10 yards ahead of me. I dragged my pole along the fresh snow surrounding me, and created a mini avalanche for it to roll down hill and yet again, all the snow completely disappeared just a few dozen feet ahead of me. Easy explanation. It’s a portal to a different dimension! I thought. I slowly took off my skis, careful not to roll downhill and join the ether on this steep trail. On all fours, with my feet ahead of me, I cautiously made my way down to see what was ahead of me. Staring at me was a cliff. Not a little hop over some rocks, but a 20 foot cliff. I sat there frozen, both from the snow around me and from sheer fear.
The storm was finally here. Snow, ice and hail slowly started to pelt at me as I sat there motionless, thinking of what my next move should be. Out in the wilderness, completely alone, I understood then what death must feel like. A broken ankle, ACL injury, broken leg would be the death of me out in this elevation. I pictured myself lying sideways on the bottom of the cliff as the blood slowly started to darken the snow around me, waiting for the inevitable cold to take me away into the ether. Would I be another orange body bag being escorted down the mountain when/if someone should find me? Or would the wolves, mountain lions and vultures tear at me before any human could discern whether my mangled corpse was even worth the task of trying to identify. The cliff seemed to get larger, and steeper the more I looked down. I couldn’t turn back and hike my way out of this steep trail in sunny, warm conditions, let alone being pelted by snow and hail. I couldn’t hike around the cliff as the mountain completely gave way to this cliff as far as I could see. My vision started to blur as the wind blew powder all around me. Either I sit here motionless and die from the cold, or jump and have my legs broken and die from the cold. Only one way to find out.
On all fours, I started to get to my skis. Strapping my skis and standing upright, I was immediately thrown down due to the sheer force of the wind and hail. My back and hands ached as it was constantly being pelted by hail and snow. My helmet ringing in my ears as it constantly deflected ice after chunks of ice. I slowly slid my way down to the edge of the cliff. Looking down, I felt my pulse quicken. My chest started to rise and fall more quickly as my vision blurred into a narrow frame. My muscles tensed as I inched my way closer and closer to the edge. I got myself into a squatting position, looked at the horizon one last time, then jumped into the air.
I was in the air for what felt like eternity. My stomach in my throat, my arms flailing all around me as I tried desperately to claw the air in hopes of grabbing onto something. I held my breath as I braced for the inevitable impact. The earth came more quickly than I expected as my skis sank deep into the snow. My body came crashing down and I started to roll down the steep hill. My ski poles coming loose from my hands as I desperately tried to claw at the snow to slow my downfall. Finally, I stopped rolling and my hands were locked in place on the snow around me. Looking up briefly, I saw then the jump I had taken. The cliff seemed so far away from where I was positioned. However, it looked bigger underneath it. Like a ghost, it slowly started to vanish from my vision as the hail and snow started to worsen.
I felt my legs and arms to see if anything hurt or if I had broken anything. Just some slight soreness in my thighs. I found only one of my ski poles as I looked around. I didn’t have time looking for the other. I started to ski down cautiously and stopped every 30 seconds or so to get an assessment of my location on the mountain. After about 15 minutes, the trail started to level off and the slope angle started to become less severe as I finally made it to the very bottom of the trail.
At the bottom of the trail, there was a faint yellow light flashing in the distance. I followed it until it came upon an empty, frozen chairlift. Looking up, I saw the silhouette of the long steel cable and followed it, skiing all the way down to the very bottom of the mountain. As I approached the very bottom, the storm was less severe and I could finally see the outlines of the base lodge coming closer. The lights were on and the chimney had smoke billowing out of it. Skis were perched against the racks outside and I could smell something cooking as I made my way to the entrance of the lodge. Putting down my gear outside, I made my way through the entrance doors. Looking disheveled and broken, I caught the stares of a few skiers around me as the fire from the hearth started to slowly melt the snow on my jacket.
“Hey buddy, you alright? You’re bleeding from your nose.” a middle aged man in a bright yellow jacket stood worried next to me.
“Yea man, I am, uhh… fine.” I barely muttered as the chattering from my teeth slowly started to stop.
Looking down, I had bled a little bit from my nose and it had gotten on my undershirt. I quickly went to the bathroom and cleaned myself off, wiping off the blood and debris from my face.
Stepping out into the storm once more, I got my skis, and my one pole. I slung them over my back, and I hobbled my way slowly to my car, thankful to be alive.
Below are a few pictures from my trip to Whistler, Canada
Here I was lost in the woods:
Me before diving into one of the trails:
A conveniently placed sign for everyone’s discretion:
At the actual peak of the mountain:
One of the many cliffs here on Whistler mountain: