I had wanted to cross country ski into the Egypt Lake cabin since last year and finally the weekend came to do so. I set out with Rob (my brother) and headed to the trail head. I had done some research and found that the Healy Pass trail could be followed for 12km to reach Egypt Lake shelter. Soon into the trip we noticed that the trail had a lot more elevation gain then we had anticipated. I had concluded that the trail would be possible with cross country skis. We had little difficulty with the first 8km. It was mostly uphill and difficult on cross country skis but we managed. It was at about 8km that the trail we had been following vanished. It was at this time that Rob first mentioned that his toes were getting pretty cold. Quite a bit more elevation lay ahead as Healy Pass opened before us. We contemplated turning back but we were almost over the pass and we could then go downhill towards the shelter.
It was a grueling task to make it up to the top of the pass with cross country skis. We found later that the trail was more suited to alpine touring equipment. It was dark by the time we made it to the top of the pass but the moon was full and the temperature hadn't dropped too low yet. Rob continued to complain about his toes but he eventually forgot about them. The trail was now long gone and we were following the GPS to our destination. Downhill proved to be a lot easier until we hit a forest. By this time our bodies were totally taxed and we were mentally and physically exhausted. We still had just over 1km to go and it was very difficult to navigate through the forest. We constantly tripped over branches in our skis but there was no way we could continue on foot either – the snow was 4 feet deep! Rob broke a ski pole trying to brace himself from a fall. That was an unfortunate setback. Using sheer willpower, we made it to within half a kilometer of the shelter (or at least where the GPS said it would be). By this time we were nearly in tears from physical and emotional draining. We couldn't climb the last hill to the cabin so we set off crawling through the snow. We had contemplated whether or not we were going to freeze to death on the mountain side several times until finally Rob let out a scream – he had seen the cabin!
But this was only the start of the craziness. We got into the cabin and made a fire as quickly as possible. Then a chilling event that I will not soon forget occurred. Rob took his feet out of his ski boots and they were rock hard frozen. His toes were stuck together with ice. I didn't know at the time what warming method was the best for a time like this. I ended up putting his toes against my thighs to slowly warm them up. In hindsight, the best thing to do with frozen body parts is to put them in room temperature water and warm them up as quick as possible. Within and hour Rob's feet were warm but the feeling had not returned. It was after midnight so we went to bed. I had trouble sleeping. I was constantly wondering what state Rob's feet would be in the morning – would they be black? would they have feeling? Rob didn't sleep much because agonizing pain started to come from his feet within a couple hours of warming.
The next morning Rob's toes and heels were purple. He still didn't have much feeling and one thing was for sure – we weren't going to be able to ski out. We only had 3 poles between the two of us and there was no way Rob was going to fit his bloated purple feet into ski boots. It was painful even to stand. Worse that all this, we were uncertain of the severity concerning the frostbite which was now very evident.
I noticed that there was a topographic map on the wall. Not too far from the shelter there was a Warden's cabin. I set off after making some breakfast on the wood stove. As I predicted, the cabin was boarded up and vacant. But I was desperate for help so I looked for a way to break in. I got a rock and started to bang on the front door lock which secured a bar across the door. To my surprise, the bolt that held the lock in place wasn't installed very good and I eventually loosened the bolt that held the lock mechanism in place. The bar across the door swung free and I could open the door and enter the Warden's cabin.
It was dark inside but I did notice some old radio equipment in the corner of the cabin. It wasn't functional because there was no power to the cabin. I had noticed earlier that there were solar panels outside the cabin so there had to be some battery power somewhere. I found a panel near the door and flipped a switch. Success! The radio had power! The equipment looked old and dusty though. Nevertheless, I fiddled with the knobs and tried to send distress messages over all the channels that I could. I didn't know then but they barely even use the single side band VHF equipment that I was meddling with. A lady in some far off office heard a little blurp coming from a system that she usually didn't pay much attention to. Miraculously, she turned it up and heard my cries for help. I was soon talking back and forth with some park wardens. I explained the situation to them and to my surprised, they were quick to dispatch a rescue helicopter. At first I was scared that I had gone too far. I hoped that the situation was severe enough to justify braking and entering as well as helicopter dispatch. Soon I knew the choice was right. The rescuers said Rob had second degree frostbite which meant we were flying straight to the Banff hospital.
That's pretty much the end of the story. We were swept away off the mountain. Eventually we got Rob back to Regina for one of his university final exams. But I am writing this 2 days after the rescue so only time will tell which tissue is alive and which will not recover. The doctor was positive and suggested he will recover without the loss of any toes.