Snowboarder who went missing in RMR sidecountry tells his story

Snowboarder Chirag Patel triggered a search effort on Feb. 22 after he went missing while snowboarding at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. He turned up at the resort boundary over 24 hours later after spending about 20 hours trying to hike out. We spoke with Patel to find out what happened, and what lessons can be learned.

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Chirag Patel in an undated photo taken in the Whistler area. Photo: Chirag Patel Facebook image

Ontario resident Chirag Patel was reported missing at 9 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 22 after he didn’t return from a day of snowboarding at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. His disappearance triggered a search that involved Revelstoke Mountain Resort Ski Patrol, Revelstoke Search and Rescue and a helicopter team.

On Feb. 23, they located his snowboard in the Montana Creek area, a creek drainage that runs down Mount Mackenzie’s southern side. It’s notorious for trapping sidecountry skiers who venture too far down the mountain. They get trapped in a series of cliffs and thick bush and can’t make their way back towards the resort boundary.

Fortunately, at around 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Patel turned up back at the resort boundary, on the Fast Fred’s run, a zig-zagging cat track that marks the resort’s southern boundary on the lower half of Mount Mackenzie.

We were curious. How did he get lost? Was he a beginner who somehow overshot the boundary? Or was he a sidecountry rider who just didn’t know where he was going? Or maybe made a navigation error? Or what?

We also wanted to find out how he spent the roughly 24 hours he spent in the bush on the mountain.

But mostly, is there a lesson to be learned here? Judge for yourself.

We contacted Patel, but our telephone call didn’t work out because of bad reception while he traveled back to Ontario. So, we sent him a list of questions and he responded by text.

(Editor’s note: We sent all the questions at once; if some of them seem redundant, it’s because he answered in an earlier question. We have left the Q&A interview as-is.)

Interview with Chirag Patel

Revelstoke Mountaineer: Set the scene: what were you doing that day?

Chirag Patel: I woke up early to get almost first lifts because the night before had some 10-plus cm, which normally meant a lot more in any place on the mountain which required a hike. Met up with a couple of friends on the way to the mountain, and headed up the Stoke. From there we took the first hike up to the right of the chair, heading up towards Powder Assault and various other drops into sub-peak. From there the crew had planned to get up to Door 4. I didn’t have any avalanche gear with me, so the people I was with recommended that I don’t drop into the North
Side. Since the avalanche conditions were considerable, and there was a lot of fog cover, I decided to heed their advice.

Chirag Patel in an undated photo taken in the Whistler area. Photo: Chirag Patel Facebook image
Chirag Patel in an undated photo taken in the Whistler area. Photo: Chirag Patel Facebook image

I had done Mount Mackenzie a couple of times before, and it’s a great ride out, so I decided to give that one a go. When I got up to the peak, it was super foggy, so I just rode along the ridge slowly and cautiously. Because I stuck to the ridge, I ended up at a flat track that eventually leads to Brown Shorts.
Since I was out all the way there I thought I’d check it out.

As the [media] articles fail to mention I’m an avid snowboarder. I’ve done seasons out in Whistler, rode some of the gnarly terrain offered at Big White for a season (also a place that’s easy to get cliffed out — Powder Chair, heck they even have a chair called the Cliff Chair!)

After a couple of one-legging sessions, and a small boot pack I reach the cornice of Brown Shorts. Here’s a great video of the hike and drop point:

Video: A YouTube clip of someone hiking to Brown Shorts and dropping in.

[The] only difference was there was a LOT more snow and visibility was almost zero. No one had dropped it the day I was up there, and so I listened to my friends [who said] don’t drop the north side. I turned around before my shorts got brown 🙂 and dropped in towards the south side.

RM: How did you get lost?

CP: I’m not sure lost is the correct adjective. I pretty much knew where I was, often times consulting the trail map to check for any topographical hints.

I knew that traversing that far out after Mackenzie peak would get me to the Ripper quite easily, but only if I was dropping the north side. Which meant I’d have to traverse back quite high in elevation to make it all the way back towards the bottom of Stoke as I was dropping on the south. Well due to the fog, I missed the last turn off that leads you down a goat trail keeping a rider high enough in elevation to make it across the mountain.

RM: What happened next? Where did you spend the night?

CP: Most times even if you do pass the last turn off, there’s a few tracks that go just a bit further, so I thought I was still okay as long as I cut. There’s another cat track at the bottom there (I think it’s used for cat-skiing). Seeing a cat track I thought perfect I’m in a good spot still. Well unfortunately shortly there after, the track disappeared. All that was left was me, the mountain and so much powder!

Once the tracks disappeared, I realized that I would need to hike back out to the goat track. At this point I start traversing hard right staying as high as I could.

I mentioned, I’ve ridden Whistler many a time, and I’ve done a few spring/summer seasons there, so I’m no stranger to creek riding. Usually the creek will empty into a river, and most times passing a road. Driving into Revy for the past few days and looking down from the top, you could barely help but notice the beautiful blue of the river.

Chirag Patel in an undated photo taken in the Whistler area. Photo: Chirag Patel Facebook image
Chirag Patel in an undated photo taken in the Whistler area. Photo: Chirag Patel Facebook image

Eventually I made it over a ridge and then into what they call the Catcher’s Mitt. It’s called that because once you get past the “point of no return” every time you try to traverse out of a ridge, you’re faced with a gnarly cliff  face, or a set of very thick trees, forcing you to cross the creek over to the side you don’t want to be on, funneling you down lower and lower. At that point the holes in the snow for the creek were getting larger and larger, and the drop from the snow to the creek was also growing! As I started up the ridge on a steep incline, I lost my footing and as a result trying to regain my balance, I dropped my board, and watched it as it become one with the creek beneath me.

The police say they found you at the resort. Did you climb back up?

Yes, I knew the general direction of the Stoke Chair, and I knew that if I hiked up high enough and left looking up the mountain, I’d get to a boot pack or the goat trail. Eventually I made my way back to the Fast Fred’s run, where I was walking down the trail when someone stopped to ask if I was alright. I asked for them to call ski patrol to see if I could get a ride down the mountain.  Lucky for me they showed up with a rescue board, so at least I was able to get one (small) run in smile emoticon

Did you have a cell phone? Were you prepared at all for the night out? Are you used to riding in the sidecountry?

I’m glad you called it sidecountry! Yes I’m very used to sidecountry and backcountry riding. I did have a cell phone however the battery had died just before 4 p.m., when I told my real estate agent I’d be late for our meeting.

What went through your head when you realized you were going to spend the night?

Honestly, at the point the creek grew, I knew that I’d have to walk quite a bit. I didn’t think it would take a full night and day to get back. When the sun started setting, I started looking for a good spot to hide out for a bit. Though not wanting to stop too early, I kept grinding forward until the moon came out. I’d say at about two a.m. or so, I strategically took a nap. (I know you asked this earlier, but I found a nice little set of small bushes with a couple of trees fallen over it creating a little roof. I snuck in there, and the bottom of the snow was carved out, perfect for a resting spot.)

I wasn’t prepared to spend the night, but when I realized I would have to, I thought back to the time in Whistler when I’d camp out on the mountain to do a full moon ride out. Lucky for me, the full moon was just the other night, so it illuminated my night and kept me company through the night. Since I’m familiar with the outdoors and a creek was close by I wasn’t too concerned. In fact, I did drink like a lion (yoga pose reference here) out of the glacier creek water, and it tasted absolutely amazing! All in all I’m a very calm and logical person, so the thoughts that went through my head weren’t about fear or panic. They were more about okay how many hours could this potentially take? How much food do I have and how will I ration it (I had half a bagel and two chocolate bars)?

Are the police media releases getting it right?

The media releases are getting it right, however I’ve read some of the comments on www.castanet.net, and I think people have a misconception that I’m a beginner. I totally understand the taxpayer’s frustration to support a service that they’re not using, at the same time I pay taxes for schools but I don’t have any children. In any case I’ve profoundly given appreciation for the efforts of the team, and I’m in the process of getting in touch with the right person at Revelstoke [City] Council so that I can make a donation to the town reimbursing anyone tax dollars on my account.

Is there anything that could have been done to avoid this? Like were the boundary signs unclear or something like that?

There were definitely things that could have been done to avoid this. The obvious one is don’t ride out of bounds, but let’s face it, any avid snowboarder or skiier knows that out of bounds is where one finds nirvana.

The out of bounds signs were definitely clear and are clearly posted around the mountain. However, that doesn’t mean people don’t venture out of bounds, something that is very common at any resort. I’ve seen signs on the mountain that state you will die if you go beyond a certain point, I think if a similar sign was posted before the goat track turn off to the Ripper it would have helped the situation. There are many areas out of bounds at Revelstoke, as well as many other large ski resorts I’ve ridden at, where there are still markings out of bounds (most probably done by locals to save other locals).

Though technically the area was out of bounds, I believe there would be some merit to having some kind of signage posting “last turn off before ripper” or something similar. I’ll definitely be returning to Revelstoke, and plan on doing the same run again, this time bringing a couple of friends and some bright ribbon to mark the area. I feel it’s something I can give back to the community/culture so that the Mitt stays more empty. Hopefully as a result there is a reduction or elimination of deaths through those creeks.

Any lessons learned?

Hiking for over 20 hours gives a man time to think. I replayed my actions, what I could have done differently over and over again and all roads point to ensuring you have additional battery backup for your cell phone, ensuring to have the latest avalanche training, [and are] carrying a beacon, receiver and probe.

At any time you’re caught in the “country” and realize that you may have to hike the most important thing to do is not panic. This is very common advice, but remaining calm allows for logical and rational thinking. This is what I attribute the reason to being able find my way back onto the mountain trails. If I was panicking I would not have been able to survey the land, judge the slope of the terrain and analyze my surroundings to find the most effective and efficient path back. Throughout the night I practiced meditation. In my case it helped me stave off my hunger, focus on the route I needed to take, provided me perseverance and literally gave me energy to push forward when I was slowing down. It was through this experience I learned the true meaning of mind over body and the amount of strength we each have within us.

I not only learned the obvious lessons in safety, but about personal strength, determination, commitment as well as patience.

It’s not an easy task finding a tiny dot on a large canvas of trees.  I truly appreciate the hard work and dedication of the [search & rescue] teams, and would like to take the opportunity to sincerely thank the search and rescue team as well as the Revelstoke ski patrol for their all of their efforts.

February Revelstoke Search & Rescue incidents

People get lost in the Revelstoke backcountry at a pretty steady rate. For example, here are Revelstoke Search & Rescue (SAR) incidents since the start of February, including calls to rescue injured people and to search for lost people:

Feb. 1: Revelstoke SAR responded to a suspected avalanche burial near the boundary at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. The RMR ski patrol was on scene, where the victim was located and found to have self-rescued.

Feb. 6: Revelstoke SAR rescued an injured snowmobiler from Frisby Ridge.

Feb. 6: Revelstoke SAR responded to Boulder Mountain to to search for a missing snowmobiler. The team was stood down when the sledder was found at his home, shoveling his driveway.

Feb. 8: Searchers responded to Revelation Lake on the west side of Mt. Begbie to aid an injured snowmobiler. The patient was airlifted out and transferred to the B.C. Ambulance Service.

Feb. 10: SAR responded to a request from the Revelstoke RCMP to look for a lost snowmobiler near Frisby Ridge. They located the individual and escorted them out of the area.

Feb. 13: SAR responded to rescue an injured skier in the mountain about the Mount Macpherson Nordic area. The injured skier was transported back to Revelstoke by helicopter.

Feb. 14: SAR responded to Boulder Mountain to look for three missing snowmobilers. They were located the next day and escorted out.

(Incident reports past Feb. 21 are not yet available.)

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