"-3˚ Snow Mode engaged!" Yelled our Argentinian driver as he pushed a button on the dashboard of the Jeep. A mild panic set in as he pushed his foot down on the gas pedal; jolting us forward in a burst of excitement along the narrow logging road that takes you up to the Elfin Lake trailhead. I sat in the back seat as one of four passengers on what would become an epic journey to hike 10km up Round Mountain and construct a snow cave to spend the night in. As the temperature dropped below zero I began to reconsider what I had actually signed up for. I had a few decades of experience on the mountains as an intermediate snowboarder and occasional day-hiker, but I am definitely not an accomplished winter mountaineer.
Eytan, our driver, and Konstantinos were our guides. My close college friend, Gg, invited me on this trip and she was good friends with Eytan's roommate, Santiago. Looking back, I find it mildly insane that I agreed to go on such a perilous journey with two complete strangers, but I was immediately impressed by both their welcoming presence and extreme preparation for the adventure ahead and extended to them the trust of friendship. If Gg trusts them, I can trust them.
It was December 31, 2016, and we left Downtown Vancouver hours before sunrise and arrived at the Elfin Lakes trailhead as the sun awakened. I had just bought my first "professional" camera and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to capture some once-in-a-lifetime photographs with it. The sun welcomed us to the Elfin Lakes trailhead and I stepped into the cold morning air to take a few pictures of everyone gearing up. Eytan & Konstantinos had shovels and snow shoes and skis and poles and thermometers and altimeters and saws and cups and several foam pads and thick puffy coats and I began to feel a bit bare. My excitement outweighed my fears and I clipped my camera to the waist strap of my pack as we set off into the crisp December morning.
The first couple of Kilometers were quite easy, even in my simple Leather & Gortex army boots with no snow-shoes attached. I was enamoured by the snowy scenery and we all shared in the joyous conversation of the magic that awaited us in the cave. Konstantinos explained how we would build our shelter and his guidance inflated my confidence. The weather was clear as we neared the halfway shelter. A few Canadian Jay's flitted around the airspace of the shelter. Eytan became visibly excited and poured some grains into his hand. The Jay's flocked to him, with no trace of fear, and landed on his finger to eat straight out of his hand. He laughed and excitedly yelled for me to take a picture.
We spent a half hour warming our feet in the shelter and spoke with the other hikers about the conditions. It didn't look good. A storm was rolling in above us that promised whiteout conditions and an earlier loss of light than planned. We had to get moving if we hoped to build our shelter before the sun went down. My toes had barely regained feeling when Konstantinos ordered us to strap on our gear and prepare for the next leg of the ascent. I stuffed a few more hot packets in my boots and promised my toes I would bring them all home safely.
Another group led the way up the steeper second ascent and I snapped pictures from the back of the group as we disappeared into the whiteout blizzard; like a plane climbing through the clouds. Konstantinos charged forward on his skis so he could start the cave-building process and Eytan held back to make sure Gg and I didn't get lost in the blizzard. My lack of snowshoes made the journey slow and taxing. The snow on this half of the trail was deep. The wind was strong, visibility was maybe 50 meters, and the temperatures had dropped to nearly -30˚ Celsius.
Our only guidance came from the bright orange stakes that had been placed along the trail during warmer weather. The trees were no longer green and they hung their heads to bear the weight of hundreds of pounds of snow and ice covering on their bodies. We climbed a steep hill and the full force of the unobstructed wind welcomed us to a great plateau. A few trees called this flat land their home and they stood like fallen monuments to the spirit of adventure. I couldn't help but feel I was walking through a graveyard and the very real threat of freezing to death crystallized in my mind.
Eytan's silhouette was visible as a small speck of darkness along the horizon and with no orange posts in my line of sight, I continued to hike toward him. With each step, his dark outline grew larger. When Gg and I caught up with him he pointed to the hill that lay ahead of us. With childlike excitement, he brought out his Pokemon-themed sleeping pad and proclaimed that he would ride it through the snow. I unclipped my camera and got in position to capture the epic ride. He ran a few awkward, duck-like, steps in his snow shoes and launched himself up into the air; expertly throwing the board under his body in preparation for landing. The snow sucked his body in and he went face-first into the fresh powder of snow with his legs reaching up to almost touch his head. The shovel and other metal pieces of gear that he attached to his bag made a loud clanging noise that announced his comical failure and I continued to snap away as he picked himself up and joined Gg and I in laughter.
We all hiked down a shallow hill off the plateau and into a section of the mountain that protected us from the harsh winds of the storm. With each step my feet grew more distant from my body and the pain of the cold disappeared along with all other sensations in my feet. "How many toes do I really need to survive?" I began to ask myself with each step. I did a mental scan of my body. My core was beginning to feel the sub-zero cold. It must be from my cotton sweater that was now soaked in sweat beneath my thin jacket. Due to either a lack of money, time, or experience I had neglected to acquire the appropriate non-cotton mid-layer this kind of journey required. I convinced myself if I kept moving, I could make it to the shelter and dry my sweater overnight against the fire. The warmth of my sleeping bag will keep me alive as it dries.
With no wind, I could enjoy the beauty of the snow-covered landscape. Soon the outline of the Diamondhead Ranger Station suddenly appeared in a grouping of trees ahead of us and I stopped to take a picture of Eytan trudging through the snow. I didn't know it then, but this picture would later become iconic in my own development as a photographer.
The Eflin Lakes Shelter came into view a few minutes after we passed the Ranger Station and a smattering of tents, ski's and poles dotted the white landscape around it. We found Konstantinos furiously digging in the snow and he instructed us to quickly begin our duties as we had lost an hour of light due to the storm and needed to work quickly to build our shelter while we could still see. He had already dug out the entryway and Eytan would help him shovel the snow out of the cave as Gg and I walked and walked and walked in circles above the cave to pack down the roof so it wouldn't collapse on us. I was tired, hungry, and poorly insulated.
Hours passed. The wind picked up and the light dimmed. Snow whirled around us like the magic of a Dr. Strange scene in a Marvel movie. Konstantinos furiously cut away blocks of snow with his saw and we began to stack them around the roof that Gg and I had packed down. The idea is that the blocks will stop someone from walking on top of us and potentially collapsing the cave.
A few hours after darkness fell, Konstantinos proclaimed our cave was done and we headed into the shelter for a late dinner. The shelter was packed with other hikers who were drinking, playing games, dancing, and swapping stories. There was no space left around the fire for me to properly dry my sweater and in my exhaustion, I threw my sweater on top of a bunch of other gear and hoped it would dry. The cave we dug was impressive, but not large enough for the 4 of us to comfortably sleep in. Gg opted to stow away in the warmth of the shelter for the night. I contemplated joining her as the warmth of the fire enticed me to abandon the adventure in exchange for comfort. Eytan would have none of that. I must spend the night in the cave.
The clock struck midnight and after a brief celebratory drink with our fellow hikers, we put on our gear to return to the cave. Eytan noticed my still-soaking wet sweater. "You can't wear that! You'll freeze to death!" He exclaimed. "Here, I have an extra mid-layer, it's not the warmest but you will survive," he said as he handed it to me. I graciously accepted and hung my sweater for the night. In the cave Eytan noticed another issue - I had only 1 sleeping mat. "You need 2 mats for snow. Use my extra solid mat and your therm-a-rest on top of that so the cold doesn't get into your body." Eytan said as he handed me another piece of extra gear. It was as if he prepared for my un-preparedness.
Konstantinos brought out a handful of tea-light candles to light the cave and made us some hot chocolate on his stove. He put on some music from his phone and the three of us shared this wonderful moment together huddled in the side of the mountain before succumbing to our fatigue.
A small flurry of snow woke me. At first, I thought the cave was collapsing and I tensed for a moment in anticipation. Nothing. I had been sleeping near one of the air vents and some snow had fallen down onto my face. A pool of gratitude formed in my chest and radiated out through my extremities. I had survived! I am still alive! I look over and see Eytan and Konstantinos stirring as well - we had done it!
The morning light illuminated my final error. I had left my boots outside my sleeping bag near the air vent. They were frozen stiff and full of snow. I plunged my feet into them anyway and we birthed ourselves into the crisp, clear morning to begin a New Year of life. The storm had passed and a breathtaking panorama view of the Canadian Cascades against a deep blue sky greeted us.
After a quick breakfast, we began our descent. Konstantinos proclaimed the weather had warmed up to -15˚ today which kickstarted our excitement. The descent exposed all the beauty the storm had covered up. Eytan was so energized by the glory of it all that he kept running ahead of us with the fervor of a toddler who just discovered the freedom of walking. The snow shoes caused him to run with an exaggerated gait that seemed to reinforce his child-like excitement for something that most people consider ordinary.
To this day I still credit Eytan with my survival of that trip. He taught me to be prepared and to help others on the mountain. We must bring excitement and joy to the arduous work of climbing these desolate and hostile environments. His enthusiasm in facing down a blizzard is a reminder that attitude is everything.
Years after this hike, I found myself again face to face with death after receiving a Stage II Lymphoma diagnosis in early 2020. During my post-chemo recovery, I started running. Eytan's roommate, Santiago, had been posting videos of his daily runs so Eytan and I met up one evening to go for a brisk January run around the Seawall near their apartment.
We ran from Charleson Dog Park all the way to Elsje Point near the Maritime Museum. At this point, we stopped to admire the view downtown and continued our conversation without the added burden of running. The whole run was a non-stop conversation about our lives, the pandemic, my cancer experience, and taking guesses at the meaning of life.
Eytan pulled out his phone as we ran back toward his apartment and suggested that we record a video to send to Santiago, who was traveling at the time. Neither of us had eaten and we stopped for a post-run meal at the Legendary Noodle on Broadway where our conversation dove deep into careers, purpose, and love. Both of us were very single at the time and we talked at length about the loving partnerships we yearned to find in this life.
The bill arrived and Eytan insisted on paying. I agreed on the condition that I would pay for the next meal. We trudged up the hill to his apartment where my car was parked and hugged goodbye as I drove into the night back to Langley. This was the last time I saw Eytan in person.
Later that year he responded to one of my Instagram stories and asked if I could shoot a portrait of him. "I'd love to make that happen!" I responded. Life happened and we were never able to make that portrait sitting before I moved away to Calgary. I don't know what kind of portraits we would have made, but I'm sure it would have taken us on a grand adventure to some beautiful piece of the world.
Eytan was no ordinary person. He possessed an extraordinary generosity and spirit that my camera could never fully capture and that my words will fail to express. He may be gone from this world but he continues to live in the pieces of his soul that are scattered across the world in the memories of those he shared himself with.
It is a painful honour to carry the memory of others. This pain, however, is a reminder of the deep and true love that was once shared between us.
In Memory of:
Eytan Michael Fiszman
March 9, 1991 - September 22, 2022