It's a dark road where car tracks in the white snow on black pavement make it look like outstretched piano keys. White, black, white, black, white. My eyes are focused on the hypnotic curves of the piano-key road of Highway 99, keeping my tires on the flat keys. The slow goings of the road are interspersed with oncoming headlights but for the most part, the road is quiet tonight.
Just outside of Whistler, I absentmindedly find myself climbing a low-inclined straight hill. I'm going 30 kilometers under the highway's regular speed limit. Unexpectedly, I find my hatchback's back end suddenly moving counterclockwise, out from under me. It's a rear wheel drive vehicle and I didn't have the four wheel drive (4WD) on. I'm going 70 kilometers an hour and now I'm sliding 45 degrees off of parallel and out of control. With my foot off the gas and brake, I'm trying to steer the vehicle back into a straight line. Physics has control now, not me. Within split seconds of themselves, I find myself sliding into the oncoming lane. Shadows in the snow and black landscapes are flitting by. I'm 90 degrees to the road and as I see myself leaving the road, a half second of panic sets in. I slam the breaks hoping for any small fraction of control over this current nightmare.
As the car leaves the road I relinquish all control. I plainly let go of the steering wheel, take my foot off the brake pedal, close my eyes and with a relax of the muscles, exhale. Kind of like my mom does when trying to block out the fear of a roller coaster ride. I'd like to imagine it's a bad dream and that somewhere someone in the background is playing a sonata on the piano.
I feel my arms fly at my sides, my seatbelt tightened against my chest, my neck rocks sharply one way and then the other. And then after a spiral that had metal crunching on rock, it's all over. I open my eyes and it's silent. My engine has stalled and the only sound is not piano, but the drumming of my heartbeat.
The nightmare collapses quickly and like a rude awakening, back to reality. I'm fine; in the ditch with my car pressed into a rock wall. I punch my four-way flashers and pull out my phone. 12:04 am Dec 11 2016.
Happy Birthday to me.
I was unscathed fortunately. The vehicle however, less so.
I was able to drive the vehicle out of the shattered-glass strewn ditch using four wheel low. I then moved it slowly to a safe spot nearby off the highway, driving on the flat. As you can imagine, tow trucks that late were few and quite busy, so the vehicle would stay there overnight. My dad generously came out from Pemberton and picked me up. By the time we were home it was three in the morning. A few hours of sleep later and it was time to get out there and deal with it. I had to be back in Prince George that day to write two exams the following day. We drove back out to the vehicle bright and early. In the car, sitting in the passenger seat, I had my first moments to start to break down what happened and reflect. Learn from the experience.
I was just returning from a week spent with Bella Coola Helisports going over safety training for the upcoming season's heli-skiing. Between bone splinting, crevasse rescue, buried skiers, large scale scenarios, risk management protocols, there are a lot of ways we work to make heli-skiing safe. And now I've managed to terrify myself by winding up in the ditch in the cold and dark.
While my dad and I wait for the tow-truck driver to show up, we wander through Brandywine Falls. Between conversation, I consider the meaning of consequences. Taking part in a lot of inherently dangerous activities, there are a lot of risks in my life. They are often calculated, minimized, but present nonetheless. However, consequences don't always feel real until you experience them.
When I drive, I have to consider the risk. But sometimes knowing the risk and knowing what the experience of the consequence will be like, are two different things. When I flew back from Bella Coola, I stopped in Vancouver to visit old friends and stayed till 9pm. I figured I'd be home just after midnight. Of course, there are more risks to driving in the dark when it's late. However, I felt that I could manage the risk by taking it easy on the road. I'm not so sure if I fully considered what it would mean to wreck my car, or the consequences of that risk should things go wrong. What would it mean to be alone on the roads if an accident happened? What would an injury have meant to my winter season of work? I drove in two wheel drive to minimize the wear and reduce gas consumption. I'd turn on the 4WD for certain sections and then turn it off again. Maybe if I'd fully considered the consequences of slipping, I would have just kept the 4WD on. If only, if only. No sense thinking in retrospect.
I believe where the discrepancy between risk and consequence lies in my mind is in the equation of vulnerability. In avalanche hazard, risk takes vulnerability into account. Risk is an example of avalanche hazard X vulnerability. A guy in an excavator is going to be a lot less worried about getting smoked by an avalanche, compared to the average joe on skis.
In driving my vehicle around on icy highways in the middle of winter nights, I don't know that I fully considered my vulnerability in the risk equation. How as a penny-less university student, ruining my vehicle puts me between a rock and a hard place, or how an injury could have caused me to lose all my upcoming winter work. In all cases, I don't have insurance or deep reserves to fall back on. And if a car had been coming headlong as I spun into them; what if it killed me? What if I killed someone? What about the vulnerability of the people in that car? Or the vulnerability of my family in response to my death. In all cases, thinking more seriously about consequences has highlighted how I manage risks in life.
As a professional who manages risk in the mountains, this is an incredibly important realization. With momentum having taken control of my vehicle, I could not steer my trajectory at that point. If an avalanche is triggered while I'm guiding clients, I might have no control over the situation. However, fully understanding the risk, and all the components that make up the risk is how you manage appropriate responses to such risks. It allows you to make make the most appropriate decisions and offers an element of control on whether or not you end up in a situation. At this point, I just have to accept that my car is wrecked. At least no one was hurt.
When the tow truck driver arrived, he was able to pop my tire back on the rim by inflating it. My dad followed me slowly while we drove the vehicle back home, where it now sits. Following a quick bite to eat at home and a slice of birthday cake, it was on the road in my dad's truck so that I might take my exams in Prince George. Running on very little sleep, I listened to podcasts and thought muddled thoughts. The six-and-a-half hour drive took me an extra two hours that night. I had to shake away images and imaginations of sliding off the road.
While big trucks and other vehicles passed me on the Highway 97N, I felt no need to go any faster. I was quite happy with my speed and now more than ever, I feel I have a better grasp on consequence and some of the risks in my life.
Of course, in this story, the unsung heroes are my parents. You'd think by reading this that I've had a horrible birthday, but that's far from the truth. Despite the car accident, no sleep, tow truck, 8 hour drive to go write University exams, etc, one thing this episode highlighted is how awesome my parents are and how much they love me. To know that I can rely on someone to pick me up in the middle of the night, to wait for the tow-truck with me, to feed me a birthday lunch and a fresh baked cake, before lending me their vehicle for the entire week, is incredibly heartwarming. I had a fantastic birthday; I was happy to spend it with some of the people I love most and I was reminded of how much I am loved.