The thin haze of clouds parted as we entered a valley deep in the Monashee Mountains of southeast British Columbia. I was guiding five of my favorite heli-skiing clients in some of the world’s best backcountry tree skiing. Three-thousand-foot vertical runs of widely spaced fir, hemlock, and cedar trees awaited us. This is where dreams became reality; bucket lists are checked off and rebookings are made as soon as the days end. We were warmed up and ready to make our mark.
It was the start of the 2010–2011 winter season. I had been a heli-ski guide for 13 years, logging 18 to 20 weeks of guiding per season for a heli-ski outfit. It was my second year as the company’s operations manager, and I was riding high, or trying to. The previous winter had gained a reputation among guides in the province as one of the worst avalanche cycles in 40 years—it was a tough start to my management career, feeling like we were constantly dodging bullets. Flying into this valley, things were starting to look a little sweeter. Our next run lay in front of us like a brightly wrapped gift.
After a quick scan of the helicopter pickup area, Jim, our pilot, began to climb. Heli pilots often like to ascend mountains like a ski tourer going uphill, weaving their way back and forth across the terrain. Jim is one of the best pilots I know—calm and extremely skilled, with thousands of hours of mountain flying under his belt. The wind could be blowing 30 knots (about 35 mph), and if you asked him how things were going, Jim would give a little shrug and say, “Aw, ya know, a little windy, but it’s workable.” If he didn’t like the conditions, he would let you know in that same composed voice: “Well, now, maybe it’s time we head down.” Either way, you listened to Jim.
The relationship between guide and pilot is crucial to a safe and successful day in the mountains. Jim and I worked together as a team, making decisions based on detailed weather forecasts, avalanche hazard, and human factors, like the experience of the group. Over the years, we’d built a close partnership—we made choices that strived to reduce the other person’s stress while guests laughed and peered excitedly out the windows in the back of the helicopter.
During the slow climb up the mountain, Jim and I chatted about our summers and the winter ahead. I confessed my guilt about missing a family event at the ski lodge that day. My three-year-old son, Sam, would be meeting Santa for the first time. Not being there for moments like these wracked me as I tried to balance advancing my career and being a good mom.
Stunted trees dotted the rocky slope below as we crested the steep runout of an avalanche path and climbed in lazy circles about 300 feet above a narrow bench in the terrain. Undulations in the snow hinted at a boulder field lurking beneath the surface. Luckily, the massive old-growth trees we were about to ski were more protected from the wind, holding deep, light, dry snow that would blow over our heads as we jumped off fallen logs and rock drops. I felt my excitement rise.
I looked across to our landing: a slot perched just above the trees. It seemed as though we were a bit higher than we needed to be, and I turned to say as much to Jim. I never got the chance. As I reached for the radio toggle, Jim said, in his ever-calm voice, “Erin, I think we just lost the engine.”
Time seemed to stop. I was suddenly in a dream state, suspended, watching myself stare open-mouthed at Jim. He allowed his training to take over and skillfully put the machine into an autorotation to prevent a catastrophic nosedive into the mountain. I didn’t speak. I felt like I was floating on a cloud and watching a film strip of green, white, and gray unravel before my eyes. I thought, “This isn’t so bad.”
Then, in an instant, I felt the hardest impact I’ve ever experienced. A jolt of pain and energy spiked through my back, traveling up my spine. My hands flew up like I was on an amusement park ride, momentarily suspended in the air while they fought gravity. The clipboard I’d been holding in my lap bounced up. I tried to catch it with my hands. The metal edge of it grazed my pinky finger, drawing blood. I slammed down in my seat.
Everything was white. Then dark. And silent. Except for the voice inside my head wondering if this was the moment I was going to die.