Ice cold wake-up call
What’s the difference between an adventure and emergency? I’d say, if no one gets hurt you’ve had an adventure and if no equipment gets damaged either, then you’ve had a damned good one.
With only a very slightly dented ski arm and a sprained wrist, I’d say we’ve just had a pretty, damned good adventure. And a reminder about complacency.
|Our broken down machine. Still there|
We have a broken down snow machine at our pals’ place about 50 miles away. “We’ll head down Wednesday, throw it on the sled, and tow it home,” we told them by email. “Won’t need any help. We’ll just say hi and be on our way,” we wrote, with the stupendous confidence of total idiots.
|Already dipped our toes in the creek that week|
The trail’s good, what could go wrong, we thought? Again (see my last blog). Didn’t bother packing much of our emergency gear as we wanted an empty sled, left the dog on his chain with no extra food and set off with a flask of coffee and high hopes.
|Left by moonlight at 7am|
The trail was indeed superb, until about 10 miles from our pals’ place, at a known trouble spot. A network of sloughs and islands in the river that overflows throughout winter. Overflow happens when the weight of the ice and snow pushes down on the still flowing river below and begins to force it up around the sides and through any cracks. It’s like a flood above the ice.
|Our sled at the same spot in 2016|
A few years ago, we got hideously stuck at this spot for hours. After that horrible misadventure, whenever we saw overflow, the lead driver would get off, walk out on it and check before proceeding.
|Unloading the sled, 2016|
The rear driver would wait until the leader was through, and sent a signal, before following. We didn’t get badly stuck for ages, so with faultless logic, we soon stopped bothering with all that palaver and just drove fast onto overflow with our fingers crossed hoping to blag it.
|Idiot, showing off his wet foot|
We are quite fantastically incapable of learning from our own mistakes.
It was still dark and I was driving quite fast, about 50kph, when I noticed the trail disappeared ahead into fresh ice. Which meant it had overflowed and refrozen, which meant I should have stopped and checked before driving on. “Ah fuck it,” I thought, and almost immediately felt the back of the machine plunge down into a big wet hole.
|Open lead above the spot, two weeks ago|
I hit the gas and tried to keep going. It was more like riding a paddle streamer than a snow machine as the track ploughed through open water and slush. Somehow I got back up, onto the ice and kept on, at full tilt, for about quarter of a mile. Worried Neil might follow me in, I slowed down to see if I could signal.
As soon as I slowed down, I bust through the ice, into thigh deep water. The drive belt got wet and was spewing spray from the cowling like an ornamental fountain. I leapt off, unhitched the sled. Saw it, literally, float off behind me and tried to push the skidoo forwards.
|Preparation for the journey. Fixing ski skins.|
But, with a wet drive belt, the track was no longer turning. My boots were filled to the brim with ice cold water and my snow pants were starting to freeze. I clambered out of the water and stood on the skidoo seat. It was still dark but I could just make out a sinking black shape in the distance and hear the screaming of another wet drive belt.
Neil HAD followed me in and was up to his nose in a big hole about 400 yards behind me. I turned the skidoo engine off. The light on Neil’s machine went out as his engine died. Silence.
“Are you stuck too?” I bellowed back to him, knowing the answer but praying I’d got it wrong.
“Yes,” I heard him call back.
We both stood on our little snow machine islands and peered at each other through the gloom, feeling very, very alone.
|Sled and equipment hauled to safe ice|
Neil began to wade towards me. I grabbed our equipment, now floating off the sled in a plastic tote box, and waded about 100’ out of the water to what I hoped was a dry spot, and thank God it was, then waded came back to meet Neil.
We stood either side of the skidoo and, boots full of water, machine already freezing into the ice, we argued about whose fault it was. “You should have checked before you drove in!” “You shouldn’t have fucking followed me!- Fuck sake, I didn’t give you the signal!” “You kept driving!” “I FUCKING HAD TO!”
|At the Skidoo, Piccolo a dot in the very far distance|
In a potentially life threatening situation, it’s always good to waste time and energy shouting at each other so at least we can die knowing whose fault it was.
I said, eventually, “Ok we need to start walking before we get hypothermia.” We had a rope-puller hand winch but there was absolutely nothing to anchor it to. Thank God for our Inreach satellite device. We messaged our friends, Norm and Aedes, (the ones whose help we wouldn’t need). “I’m on my way,” Norm sent back immediately, and I have never, ever been so pleased to see a text in my life.
The idea we can walk out of trouble has always kept me relatively happy about being stuck on the river. The reality of 10 kilos of ice in balls frozen inside my ski pants, zips and laces encased so I can’t undo them, boots I can’t get off full of water, socks like dead salmon balled around the front of my toes, that had never occurred to me before.
Just how hard that 10 mile walk would be, if Norm wasn’t coming, began to sink in. I would be wading through concrete every step of the way.
Whilst we were walking, our machines would freeze solid into blocks of ice in the river. We might have to cut them out with chainsaws, if we could get back to them. The overflow was spreading by the minute.
|Setting ice screw anchor|
Before our friend arrived we got the damn thing out and on dry ice. Weren’t we pleased!
But our pal, Norm, came with bad news. “The overflow’s spreading, it’s cutting you off down river. I gotta get out whilst I can.”
|Piccolo. Norm a tiny dot in the distance behind, loading our Skidoo|
Single handed, he got our skidoo onto his sled and raced out with it to safety whilst we went to rescue Piccolo, our little Polaris 340, before it froze in for good. We waded back, at least 400 yards, through the water with our equipment, Piccolo in the distance looking like something between a frozen dessert and a ship wreck.
Here, there really was nothing to hitch the winch on to. There was no fast ice, no deep snow to make a snow anchor, we were in thigh deep water stumbling on the rocks at the bottom of the river, where the snow had rotted away. We had a quick tea break. It’s easy to forget to eat and drink at these times and it doesn’t help.
|Tried to winch from this rock but the snow was too wet around it. This is the EXACT spot we got stuck in 2016|
“Look!” I pointed at the bank. “That’s where we got stuck a few years ago.”
What a pair of fucking wankers we are.
|Neil making a rock anchor, some 300 feet away|
We found a rock, at last, but it was 300 feet away and a very, very long way to pull. With 3 ropes tied together, Neil started to winch. Piccolo was so frozen in I had to cut it out of the ice, all the way round with my axe, like a cookie cutter.
The skis and track lodged into or froze to every damn piece of ice and rock on the way. Our gloves were froze solid, as if coated in toughened glass, so we couldn’t use them and had to do everything bare handed. Whilst Neil winched, I stumbled, fell, splashed and smashed my way around the machine trying to keep it free and moving.
|Neil winching in the distance|
Once free, it would float forward on each pull of the winch.
It was hellish. But it wasn’t cold. It was -23C when we set off and had warmed since then and wearing these mighty creatures, US military issue bunny boats, we did not get frost bite. Our feet were soaked all day, from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm when we eventually got to our pal’s place and they were not once cold. God bless the bunny.
Norm was now cut off from us down river, but thanks to his and Aedes’s hard work over the past couple of years, there now is a land trail through the brush that cuts off this bad section of river. He appeared again on his snow machine, upriver from us some time later.
We’d managed to winch piccolo about half way out by then. It was now about 4pm. Over 6 hours later. Neil took breaks from winching by laying in the snow and staring at the sky, I just stood still in the water and waited.
If we’d been alone, we’d have had another few hours of winching, we’d have to get all the ice off the machines by hand and then make a camp in the woods, cut wood, make a fire and wait. Just walking the few hundred yards to the bank was beginning to feel beyond the limits of my strength.
Knowing Norm was back on his big 900cc machine, ready to tow Piccolo out for us, and Aedes was on hand at home to take messages and making curry, made it all a rather challenging adventure. Without their help, it would not have been so.
|On Norm's sled, note ice around track. Inside of cowling looked the same|
By the time we got poor Piccolo out, it was frozen solid inside with ice up to the carburettors, but thankfully not over them and I wish to God I’d taken a photo.
We rode home, me sitting behind Norm on his snowmachine and Neil riding Piccolo on the sled, like a big, wet kid on some weird, vintage fairground ride.
|All of our vehicles plus sled, in a line, broken down at Norm and Aedes's!|
The machines, after a night in a warm workshop, dried out and, bless their little mechanical hearts, started without even a gurgle the next morning. We had a fabulously sophisticated evening, drinking Campari cocktails and eating moose curry and home-made fig rolls with our pals whilst our clothing drip dried into a bath tub on the floor.
Poor Homer got the worse deal. He was home alone on his chain with no dinner but no hungry wolves came by and he came to no harm either.
|Wolf tracks on the river this morning. Yikes!|
It was indeed, a damn good adventure all round. But also a big, wet wake up call. We might not have been only 10 miles from our pals. They might have been away. It might have been 40 below. We might have gone in far deeper than our thighs and not got out.
And all the equipment in the world, snow machines, bunny boots, ice screws, ropes, winches, axes would not have saved us from our own mindless complacency.
In next week’s blog, well, hopefully not much. Some nice pictures of Homer in the yard, a trip to the hospital for Neil perhaps for his sprained wrist, and that will be just plenty.
|Homer, home alone|
A massive thank you to Norm and Aedes for their kindness, competence and good humour, for allowing us to turn their workshop into a temporary swimming pool, and for saving our sodden skins!