Just came across this. Pretty interesting stuff and makes you think long and hard about the crew you tour with, experience levels and the decisions you make.
We got to the Roundhouse at around 9am and to our delight the Peak Chair had already opened. We made rapid progress and were skiing down to Cowboy by 10am. We got faceshots down Cowboy which I can never ever remember happening. Pretty awesome. We broke trail and decided to skin up through Whirlwind Peak. The wind had been hollowing the entire day. As we got to Whirlwind the wind died, and we felt the heat of the sun. It felt like summer. At around 12ish we had made it to the summit.
Our first intention was to ski Fissile like a Missile, then skin back up to Overlord Glacier, and then go hit Summit Chute. We were all keen on having a warm up run before Summit Chute. Fissile like a Missile is one of the more aesthetic lines I have ever seen. I can’t remember seeing it when I was there 4 years ago. Lee had said it was beautiful and he was right. However, the only problem was that there was a 20 foot cornice on top. After about an hour of seeing if we could get in, and clawing at the cornice we decided that it wouldn’t be safe to drop in. It’s a no fall chute and dropping a 20 footer and having to stick it, wasn’t in any of our risk thresholds.
We continued to the peak of Fissile. We discussed skiing the North East face which is probably the crown jewel of Fissile. It’s probably a 600 meter shot over major exposure. We dug a pit. The snow was pretty sugary, however we didn’t really see any results. However, due to the amount of snow Whistler had seen in the last week and the windloading that we had witnessed while skinning, none of us wanted to ski a huge face with lots of exposure. We continued to the Summit. From the Summit there are plenty of options. The most obvious is Summit Chute. The chute below Summit Chute is called Saddle Chute. Then you go to the NorthWest face and then on to Banana Chute. Again, due to wind loading we decided that we would not be able to manage our sluff in Summit Chute as all the sluff only has one place to go. Oh well, I thought, I’ll get it some other time, maybe in another 4 years.
We decided on skiing Saddle Chute. I have to say it was probably the most epic run of my life so far. Saddle Chute is comprised of probably around 6-10 spines. On most years it is a chute. On a big snow year, like we have seen in 2010, the chute has turned into a ravine where you cannot ski because you will get hit by your sluff. There is a huge gully in the middle where all the sluff funnels. In order to ski the chute, however, you have to cross the funnel on several occasions which means managing your sluff. I dropped in first. It was incredible. Face shot after face shot, and super steep skiing. I got to about the 6th Spine. I had crossed the funnel several times and my confidence was probably a bit too high. I figured it could made it across the sluff pile without waiting for it to clear. Wrong!!. I got hit hard by the sluff and felt like I was in a washing machine. One of my skis ejected. Great, 4 years almost to the day of falling down Summit Chute and once again I only have one ski. I made a quick attempt to find it, but the sluff pile was long and big, and really there was no point. I was still ecstatic about the run and figured if I had hiked out of singing pass when I was injured on 1 ski, well then I could do it again.
I skied on one ski to safe zone and waited for Richard and Lee. Both made it down safely. We were all really stoked on the run. From here you have two options. 1 is you go to another ridge that drops you into the Russet Side of things. I’ve skied it several times and would have skied it for sure, had I had two skis. Lee was thinking the same thing and Richard and him made it over to the ridge. I kept skiing down the main bowl to Overlord Glacier.
After making it almost the entire way down, I saw a ski popping out of the snow. I thought I was dreaming. Sure enough I get down, and it’s the ski I had lost up high. The bottom of the NW bowl is probably 400 m from where I had ejected. Waist deep powder and I have ski brakes, and the ski managed to go down 400 meters!! I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be skiing out on two skis, and all I was thinking was holy shit we are going to get to do another run. I quickly put on my skis and traversed over the moraine into the Russet Lake Drainage. I figured my luck had changed and Karma was finally on my side. I was hooting and hollering the whole way with the biggest shit grin on my face.
Right as I crested the moraine, everything went to shit. And I mean everything. I don’t think I have ever gone from such a high to such a low in an instant. Immediately, after getting over the moraine and having a view of the run Richard and Lee were to ski all I heard was thunder and all I saw was a 30 foot high cloud of smoke. “Holy Shit” I said, (it was probably more like holy f**ck), avalanche. It kept coming too. I swear the damn thing must have lasted for 30-40 seconds. It was deafening. If anyone has ever seen the avalanche footage that Ski Movie 1 or 2 has of the valley in Chamonix, picture that but on a smaller scale. To me, it looked just as big. After the longest 30 seconds of my life, the snow settled. I, immediately begin screaming at the top of my lungs for Richard and Lee. Nothing. Dead silence everywhere. F**ck was all I could think. Two of buddies had probably just died. As the cloud of dust cleared I saw one ski sticking up below a 50 foot cliff. I, immediately turned my beacon to receive mode, and put my skis in walk mode. Unfortunately I was going to have to put on my skins too as the ski was probably a few hundred feet above me and a few hundred metres away in distance. I had the worst feeling that both Richard and Lee were buried and I was going to pull out one alive and one dead. The problem from my viewpoint was that I was at the top of the moraine. It dipped down probably 100 feet and then crested again. So where the slide had gone, I could only see the left hand side of the debris. I couldn’t see the right hand side. The debris pile was pretty big too. From the 50 foot cliff, it was probably a 50m wide and probably 200m long. Richard and Lee had been caught in probably a 200-300 m slide from the very top. All this thinking probably lasted around 40 seconds. It’s amazing how some of the longest moments in your life can occur in such a relatively short amount of time.
The reason why I had a bad feeling was for the following reason. My friend Brad and I had saved someone from a burial a few years back while skiing Baker. We were able to speak to his buddy who knew within about 30 feet where he was. It wasn’t hard to locate him, and besides the fact that he was buried 2m under the snow, it wasn’t too hectic. My problem was that I had no visual of where my friends where, except for seeing one ski. The avalanche was massive. My strategy at the time was again to go hike to that ski and then do zig zags and hopefully uncover someone with my beacon. All this I knew would take longer than 15 minutes (most people die within 15 minutes of being buried). Again, all these thoughts were taking place in a span of around 30 or 40 seconds.
As I was about to go hike towards the only reference point I had, I thankfully saw Lee’s jacket. I believe he had stood up or had gotten to his stomach. I was a bit relieved, as I knew one person was alive. I decided to go to him, see how he was doing, and see if he knew were Richard was. Lee had said that I probably got to him about 1 minute after the slide had stopped. When I got to Lee, he was alright. He looked like he had gotten punched in the face and was spitting up a lot of blood. He thought he might have punctured a lung, but I figured he was moving around way too much for that to have happened. Besides that his knee was pretty bloody, but he was alive, and had no serious trauma, and wasn’t paralysed. To, my even greater relief, as I looked up from Lee, I saw Richard. He was also lying above the snow. He was on his back and not moving a lot, but he said he wasn’t paralysed.
Lee, thankfully had a VHF radio and was calling ski patrol to get us the hell out. I told Lee to get to a safe spot and that I would go help Richard. Richard, told me that he had almost stopped 3 times but every time he thought it was over something else propagated. Both Richard and Lee had been swept off a 50 foot cliff at the end. While Lee’s injuries were relatively minor, Richard could barely walk. He had smoked his ass on a rock while he was tumbling off the 50 footer. He said that he might have had a broken hip. I worked on retrieving gear. I found one of Richard’s and one of Lee’s skis. Richard ended up sliding down on his stomach on that one ski to get to the spot where he heli eventually picked us up.
After meeting them at the bottom of the debris field I ended up making an X/Circle for the heli to land. The heli came about 20 minutes later and within 15 minutes we were sitting at the Whistler hospital.
You can see a bunch of photos of the area in question marked up by one of the survivors here
At we got to the hospital, everything kind of kicked in. I still don’t really know how I lost my stupid ski, but f**ck if I hadn’t I would have been in that slide too. 3 people all in the same slide. That probably would have been bad. I kept thinking as well, if I hadn’t found my other ski it would have taken me another 20 minutes to get to the moraine. While I wouldn’t have witnessed the avalanche, I would have for sure thought that both Richard and Lee were dead. I’m not a particularly religious man (I mainly believe in the fact if you do good things for people, good things will happen to you, and if you do bad things that bad things will happen to you. What happened from me finding my ski, to just getting their in time to witness the slide, almost feels like too much of a coincidence. While I’m selfishly happy I wasn’t in the slide, I almost wish I was. Watching that shit first hand was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever witnessed/experienced. It must have been the same way Toby and Athan felt as I fell down Summit Chute. Completely helpless. Just hoping that by some miracle everything would turn out alright.
Lee ended up with a bit of a banged up face and a tweaked knee. Richard’s face looks like the Joker. His ass cheek is quite swollen, but I’m happy to report that his hip isn’t broken. He tweaked his MCL and will likely be out of commission for a few weeks. I saw him yesterday. He was high as a kite on percasetts but in really good spirits. I’m completely amazed that no one was seriously injured and that everyone is still alive.
In skiing, especially ski movies, you here a lot of people say the risk of skiing powder is worth dying for. I think I was in that boat before this instance. I think if you are the only person skiing and no one is with you, then that may still hold true. But I don’t think watching your buddies die is worth the risk of skiing powder. Kind of f**cked up logic, I know, but mentally I’m a f*cking mess right now.
I’m 99% sure I’m done with anything that has to do with backcountry skiing this year. I’ll probably do it again next winter. Who knows maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll pick up the normal city life, get a girlfriend, watch movies on Friday night. drink latte’s on a Saturday morning, buy an expensive Arc Teryx jacket and walk around the Seawall, and be content. I think I would have to quit skiing before I quit backcountry as it has become such a big part of my life. Without it, I don’t think skiing would be fun.
I briefly chatted with Toby and he kind of reiterated my thoughts. While skiing is inherently dangerous, for people like us, it’s a way to release stress of our daily lives. What are we going to turn too, if we can’t ski and ski the way we want too? Heroin, cocaine.
I still don’t think we did anything wrong. You can’t dig a pit everywhere. We had skied a 55% degree pitch with nothing but slough coming down, which we were expecting. We had skied a large bowl with no reactions. I spoke with Richard and Lee about this too and we share similar thoughts. What pisses us off and what scares us is that we can’t think of anything that we would have or should have done differently.
1. How many times do you dig multiple pits after skiing 90% of your run and having no reactions?
I guess the only thing I may change is to not ski lines that don’t have clean run-outs in the backcountry. The problem with the line that Richard and Lee skied was that there are a bunch of cliffs in the middle with one chute. If an avalanche were to rip from the top which it did, there would be no clean run out. Otherwise, I’m confident that both Lee and Richard would have tried to straightline out of it rather than try to dig into the snow and hold on. However, saying that, we ski so many lines with exposure even in the resort. Think Bad Attitude, think Bushrat, think Teetering Rock. Hell even think about the 25 foot cornice that we duck under on Whistler to get to The Cirque. Ski patrol don’t ski cut all of them and don’t bomb all of them. Something like this could have happened there as well. So who knows at this point.
The one thing that I will change is to get a VHF radio or a Satellite phone. That thing saved our asses. While I would have been able to get out fine, I can’t say the same for Richard. Lee probably would have made it.
I guess in the mountains shit happens and occasionally something like this will occur. I think it’s probably nature’s way of evening the playing field or bringing things back to an equilibrium. We’ve had so many epic days, without incident, I guess every few years there is bound to be one. I think you can do all the drills but you will never be mentally prepared for when shit actually does go wrong the way it did. I’m still amazed at the highest highs I experienced from finding my ski to the lowest lows of my life that I experienced 10 seconds later. I’d like to end it by saying that I’m super glad that Richard and Lee are alright, and to thank Athan and Toby again 4 years before for calmly dealing with my fall that probably should have killed me.
I’d also like to thank Steve LeClair, who was on the radio with Lee and got a chopper to us right away. Thanks also go to the rest of the Whistler Patrol and to Kevin for sending us those avalanche photos from the heli.
If anything positive can come of this, I think an experience like this shows who your good friends are. I sent off a text to some people who I thought might be in the backcountry warning them that we had an incident and to be careful on choosing their routes home. I would say about 4 people who I hadn’t even mentioned this too, joined me in the hospital. Almost every other person that I had sent the text to, showed up shortly after. I have also received numerous calls from friends who subsequently found out about this. It makes me realize that I have amazing friends who will be there through thick and thin. Finally, an experience like this also shows you what is important in life. It shows me that all the bullshit drama and the grudges I have held recently and in the past aren’t worth it. Life is meant to be lived, and holding onto any of that shit just isn’t worth it.