The Night I Almost Froze To Death

The first time I ever went cross-country skiing was a overnight 33 km trip in Banff National Park to Egypt Lake. What was I thinking? An overnight, 33 km trip in the dead of winter, on high mountain passes, doing something that I had never done before? I really did not think that through!


My trip started at 4 AM with a 10 hour car ride from Vancouver to the Banff area. I met the guys at Sunshine Village, strapped on all my gear (for the first time) and we started our trek to the Egypt Lake Shelter. One important detail, that I did not take into account, was the elevation gain. Vancouver is at sea level. Sunshine’s elevation is 7,082 feet…. and we went up from there!

If you have ever hiked in the Rockies, you know that there is a significant change in oxygen level from sea level to over 7000 feet. Boy, was I a rookie! Within in an hour of starting the trip, I was having trouble catching my breathe. It got so bad that I started taking just ten steps and then I would stop for ten large gulps of air. My body was not used to that altitude. I had never felt so out of shape in all my life. Cross-country skiing is a highly aerobic activity. I had no training and no experience and here I was doing it on high mountain passes! What a rookie!

The other problem was that we ended up leaving later than we planned! Then, to top it off, we got lost and missed the trail from Sunshine to Egypt Lake. When we finally got to the top of the pass there was a -20 C wind that froze my hands as I took off my gloves to adjust my skis. I remember thinking, “I am a musician who makes his living with his hands, this can’t be good!”

After many hours, we started descending down the side of the mountain to Egypt Lake. My only skiing experience up to this point was downhill skiing. Skiing on cross-country skis is totally different. As we descended through the mountain forest, I seemed to crash about every fifty feet or so. The snow was so deep that the only way I could get back up was to somehow gather myself over my skis and try to stand straight up. If I stepped on the snow without my skis, I would sink down to my hip.

By this time it was getting dark.. did I mention that we had left late and then got lost? Most of the guys had done this before so they had headlamps. I was a rookie, so it had never occurred to me to bring a light! For the next few hours, I tried following the guy in front of me in the dark. I frequently crashed. I was exhausted and cold. And we were lost!

For the first time in my life, I realized what people must feel like before they freeze to death. They thought of just stopping and lying down in the snow began to seem like a good idea! At one point, I thought that we were going to have to spend the night sleeping in a tree well. But, I have to say, the guys that I travelled with very supportive. Someone was always there to help you after you crashed and to make sure you were OK.

Finally, at around 10 PM, we found the shelter. It was a barebones cabin, but some of the guys had gone ahead and started a fire. When I arrived, exhausted and frozen, the place was already beginning to feel warm. I quickly ate a little food, pulled out my sleeping bag and slept.. and slept.. and slept!

Here are some of the lessons that I learned from that trip:

  • First, never give up. Quitting is and was not an option.
  • Secondly, when taking on a new challenge, surround yourself with experienced supportive people!
  • Thirdly, be prepared! I have since learned to always take a headlamp when skiing with these guys. It is no fun to stumble around in the dark!

After that experience, it is amazing that I still love to cross-country ski! I have realized that I love challenges. If I fail at something, I work hard at being better the next time. Failure does not discourage me. It just motivates me to learn from my mistakes and improve!

A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying. ~ B. F. Skinner

Comment from Rob Taylor (who helped me on this trip):

I have been patiently waiting for the Egypt Lake trip to hit your page. I was the only one who had ever been in to Egypt Lake in our group and that had been in the summer. Winter is a whole different game.

Dave Peterson had planned the trip and wanted to be in at the Egypt Lake cabin for 7 P.M. That is when the sun went down. It was a real slog as the trail that went up through the meadow to the top of Healy Pass had fresh and wind blown snow on it, so we were virtually breaking new trail.

We got split into two groups heading up through the meadow to the top of the pass. The first group reached the top about fifteen minutes ahead of the rest.. It was hard work and everyone was perspiring, so the minute you stopped moving, you started to freeze up. Standing around waiting wasn’t an option.

The first group was getting antsy, it was getting dark and we still needed to go 3 km down the side of the mountain to get to the cabin. I remember telling them as they left…”you see that peak (Pharaoh’s Peak) across the valley? The cabin is directly below it, good luck!” The one big difference in the summer is that the trail of switchbacks winding down the side of the mountain is clearly and obviously demarcated. In the winter, it is anybody’s guess.

I waited for the second group to help guide them down, as by now it was dusk. Dave Peterson and I were the only ones with headlamps in the second group so he lead and I brought up the caboose. Between tree-wells, cliffs and dead-ends, what should have taken 30-40 minutes to descend, took us 3 hours. When you arrived at the bottom of the valley there is a creek to cross and then you simply go up a 40 foot embankment and then go 100 yards to the cabin.

I remember encouraging you along, “It’s just a little bit further, we are almost there!” It was the first time I have ever been with anybody who had ‘hit the wall’. We were half way up that final embankment, 120 feet from the cabin, and you were so exhausted and cold that you didn’t think you could take one more step. it was a real moment of perspective.

You couldn’t see the cabin because you had never been there, but I knew exactly where we were and we were just moments from rest and warmth. It is kind of like life’s journey and trusting God on seeing around the next corner. You are so right Mark, quitting is not an option.

Check out my new book: “Leading Worship ~ Notes from a Grand Adventure’. It is now available in Kindle or Soft Cover Editions.  This is a great gift for the musician or worshipper in your life.

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