When we made it back to the car Saturday evening, all I could do was laugh. Just about everything conceivable that could have gone wrong, did. So much so, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the car battery was dead, or we had a flat tire (though we had two spare, so even that wouldn’t have been a huge issue). We weren’t even supposed to be back at the car on Saturday. Camp was (and still is) set up 14 miles away from where we parked the car. That is where we were supposed to be. Posting up in our tents, trying to dry off our soaked gear.
But we never made it that far. A string of bad luck mixed with a small dose of human error made the 14 mile trek to camp completely impossible. When in the backcountry, you prepare for bad luck. That’s why I carry a few ski straps, a healthy amount of duct tape, a first aid kit, a knife, a few other basic tools, and various other things that could be useful. Normally, bad luck comes in the form of a bit of malfunctioning gear, or something breaking. It’s all part of the adventure and you learn to take it in stride. Broken pole? I can splint it together with some duct tape and a tree branch. Lose a screw in your binding? A bit of cord will suffice. There is a whole article on how to survive a day when your skins fail, or you forget them all together. Things break and you deal with it. So how did bad luck force us to abandon our plans?
Before I delve into the details, I should go back to the beginning. Friday morning, I was about to head off to work when I got a text message from David. “If you aren’t going to St Helen’s this weekend, do you want to come with us to Monte Cristo?” This was a no-brainer. David approached me a couple weeks ago about joining up for a few projects this spring. Working with Soulryders, a local film crew, we shared upcoming plans and talked about planning some trips together in the near future. So when I got the text, I knew they already had a base camp established deep in the mountain loop highway and they were planning to head out there for the weekend to do some filming. For all I knew, they just wanted me to come help haul gear and access to my pink expedition sled. It didn’t matter why – it was an opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up.
So I packed up my gear and anxiously waited to be picked up. They were running a little late as they were still picking up spare parts for their newly acquired snowmobile. For anyone familiar with Top Gear, this was essentially the equivalent of a cheap car challenge. They found a sled on craigslist for under 500 bucks and the thing was in incredible condition. With no time to find an equally cheap trailer, they had resorted to renting a uhaul to carry the sled. The result was a fairly comical yet surprisingly badass rig for rallying to the mountain.
The original plan was to make the trek to camp on Friday. With delays in acquiring parts, we opted to sleep in the car at the trailhead and wait for morning to rally in to camp.
We awoke to snow. Lots of snow. It was coming down hard as we packed up our gear, got the snowmobile off the trailer, hooked up my pink sled to the back (full of camera gear), and began shuttling people and equipment 7 miles (as far as we could get on sled) down the road. The process was slower than we’d anticipated but by around 1pm the four of us and all of our equipment was with us and ready to be hauled the rest of the way to camp on foot.
All of the gear, except for one boot. Somewhere along the last trip, Jeff’s boot had come off of his pack. The snowmobile had been running great up to this point, and we all were okay with Jeff rallying back to look for his boot. Without any gear, it should go quickly right?
Well, Jeff did return in under an hour with his boot. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of our two spare gas cans. The bungee cord broke and the gas cans were nowhere to be seen. Unbeknownst to us, the sled was running on fumes. Begrudgingly, Taylor and I decided to track down the lost gas cans and took off – fully aware that running out of gas was a very real possibility.
About a mile down the road, the inevitable happened. We were out of gas and from what we gathered, the gas cans were likely still several miles down the road. Taylor and I decided at this point that the best course of action would be to double back and reconnect with David and Jeff to figure out what to do. As we unstrapped our skis/board from the sled we were hit with the next bit of bad luck. Taylor’s binding had somehow broken. We were completely baffled as to how, as they had spent the entire day strapped to the sled. But here we were and his binding was clearly broken. The frustrating part was that it looked fixable. With enough force, we figured the pieces that had separated could snap back in place. Using the sled as a hard surface, Taylor proceeded to slam his ski against the snowmobile in a futile attempt to fix his ski.
In one particularly hard hit, the ski came out of Taylor’s hand, strategically hitting the sled in a way so as to cleanly sheer the choke switch completely off. Shit. We looked at each other and couldn’t help but just laugh at our misfortune.
After a few more hits, we gave up and Taylor rigged his binding back together with one of my ski straps. It’d work, as long as he didn’t need to do any actual skiing. We retreated back to the others.
It was now that we accepted that we should turn back. We were all soaked…snowmobiling in the snow gets you surprisingly wet. We had a broken sled, lost gas cans, were a few miles in either direction from camp/a way out, and it was now getting late. We admitted defeat and began the retreat to the car.
No more than 5 minutes down the trail my pole snapped clean in half. I looked down at it and laughed. I spent 5 minutes trying to duct tape a splint for it, but everything was snowy and I was impatient. When my splint failed I pulled out the broken section of pole and resorted to using one pole and one make-shift cane. About 10 minutes later, David’s pole snapped on him in a similar manner.
I can’t even make this shit up.
Soon, we passed the snowmobile and said our farewells. Figuring the gas cans were still miles away and with the broken choke, we all figured it we would have to wait until another day to retrieve the sled. Not long after, I broke off ahead of the pack. Following people like Stuart, I have gotten in a habit of skinning quickly. I put on my headphones and was getting into a groove. Then I saw it. The first gas can.
I am not sure what inspired me. Maybe it was the clearing sky or a good song. I dropped my pack and doubled back, armed with a functional ski pole in one hand and a gas can in the other. I met back up with the rest of the group, who were all a little surprised to see me. After a few words of encouragement, a quick lesson on how to start the sled (did I mention I hadn’t driven the thing yet?), and giving me a leatherman, I continued on my quest back to the snowmobile, not entirely confident that I could get it started.
It was another 40 minutes before I made it back to the sled. I figure a solid 2 miles of backtracking. The snow started up again and I was beginning to question my decision. I pour the gas in and prayed it would start without the choke. It didn’t. I looked at the sled for a few minutes grasping the leatherman. Screw it. How complicated could the thing be?
I pulled off the cover and peered inside. Shit. I began pulling out screws. To get to the choke, I had to pull off three panels. Here I was, in the snow – over 5 miles for the car – tearing apart a machine I am completely unfamiliar with.
Eventually, I found the choke and figured out how it worked. I bungee corded the throttle open, pulled the choke with one hand the rip cord with the other to start it. Nothing. I peered inside and my woes were not over. The gas line had disconnected from the engine. With nothing to secure it, I re-attached the gas line and prayed that it would hold. Side note: add zip ties to my repair kit. I pulled the rip cord again and the sled sprang to life.
For a few moments, I stood there, simply basking in the feat that I had just accomplished. Eventually, I reattached the panels, bungeed my board to the back and took off. I don’t think anyone expected me to get the dang sled running again, so when I caught up, everyone was pretty excited.
I still had a loose fuel line and anytime the sled cut out, I had to take off all three panels to pull the choke again, but the snowmobile ran. We hooked up the camera gear, and not wanting to strain the sled too much, I took off alone. I made it all the way back to the car and even found the second spare gas can on the way.
Once I’d secured the camera gear in the car, I made the decision to go back and pick up the others. The sled was running well, all things considered. So, I took off back up the road. This may have been a bad idea. The fuel line was getting worse and came off all together once. Not long after I ran out of gas and had to use the last of our gas cans. I made it out to the rest of the group only to find that without a good seal, the engine wasn’t getting enough fuel and was severely underpowered. It wouldn’t run with more than one person. After apologizing that I couldn’t do more, I took off once more on the sled.
About 50 meters later, I was out of gas.
The high of getting the sled running quickly turned into disappointment as it hit me that the snowmobile was now definitely going to be left there. There was nothing else we could do for it. The four of us skinned the rest of the way back to the van together.
We headed back to Seattle a day early. Monte Cristo had bested us.
I have never had so many things go wrong in a single day. It was a complete shitshow. But that is part of adventure, even the best plans can unravel. I still had a great day. I had some quality snowmobiling time, a fair bit of exercise, and met some pretty rad people.
As it stands, Saturday marked the first avalanche fatalities of the season for the Cascades. It is really a sad undertone, and I hate to even bring it up. The avalanche danger skyrocketed with the new snowfall and, from the reports I’ve heard, most slopes were incredibly unstable. Maybe it is for the best that we never did make it to our intended destination.
I have to give a special shout out to our hero cross-country skier dude. He found Jeff’s boot buried in the snow, and pulled both of our gas cans out of the snow and left them in prominent places. He seemed to be around whenever something went wrong and was probably laughing at us the whole time, I know I was.