Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reality Check

This came through my in box last week. Lots of good points to consider:

Friends and ski buddies,

I’m sending this email to you because I have backcountry skied /or you hang in the same crowd of friends and spend time in the hills on skis or boards.

On Thursday Feb 26th, I was completely buried in an avalanche. I was cat-skiing in the Valhalla Mountains in British Columbia in the Kootenay Boundary area. I was caught by a slide, buried in a tree well, about 1.5 meters deep, and for approx 10+ minutes. It was the scariest moment of my life, and I never EVER want to experience such a thing again. It was a class 1, maybe class 2 avalanche, but nonetheless it was plenty to scare the #### out of me. The fracture was about 100 feet wide, a 24” crown, and ran out about 200-300 feet.

I hope by sending this email to you, you will take a step back and think about things a bit. I urge you to sharpen up on your backcountry awareness, safety, skills, and your thought process while out skiing next time and for years to come. I almost feel obligated to send this email.....

It had been snowing steadily for a few days before our Thursday morning “trip of a lifetime” cat-skiing day in the Valhalla’s. The guides made a decision to ski the trees and play it safe with the 50 cm of fresh snow that had accumulated. It was the first run of the day. I hadn’t made but 20 turns when I cut left and noticed a rush of snow sliding down the mountain right on my ski tips. It happened so fast.

I tried to fight, but I was overcome by the strength of the slide. It just knocked me on my fanny and that was the end of it. Buried. I couldn’t get an arm out to punch through to the surface once I was buried. I started to hyperventilate. At that point, everything I had ever learned and read about surviving avalanches, went zipping through my mind in 5 seconds like a flip book. When the snow stopped sliding, I was trying to cough the snow out of my mouth, but it was somewhat jammed in there. I tried to make an air-pocket without the use of my hands. My efforts were futile. I was helpless under the weight of the snow. Never before has the F-bomb been such a practical word of choice.

I distinctly remember what ‘felt like hours’ under the snow. After a few minutes of controlling my breathing, I tried a second time to fight my way out. I couldn’t even budge one millimeter. That was short lived, as I started to hyperventilate again. I had to control my breathing and put to use all my breathing tricks I learned in fire academy wearing a SCBA like in a real fire survival situation. At this point, my only option was to control my breathing and be as calm as possible, preserve what little air I had left, and pray that my skiing counterparts had there A-game on that day andcould locate and dig me out.

I felt myself going hypoxic those final few minutes before the shovel smacked my helmet and I got that first breathe of air. OMG. I wanted to cry with emotion, but I was overcome by gasping breaths, as I tried to cough up endless amounts of thick blood stained mucus. I was coughing up red crap nonstop. That bloody mucus just kept coming up for what seemed like an eternity (and continued for another
36 hours post accident).

I am indebted to the others in my group and my two friends who were also part of my rescue.
Thanks Brian and Eric. You guys saved my life. (Brian was also caught in the slide and was buried standing up to his waist, and Eric dug his legs out, and then they both raced back up hill post-holing in the snow to help out with my rescue. Eric’s ski tails were hit by the end of the slide, as he narrowly escaped the mess.)

Looking back after this whole incident and reflecting with Brian and Eric, we talked for hours about the incident, from before the day even started all the way through the events. We found ourselves talking about things over and over, asking ourselves questions, back seat driving, and most importantly trying to learn from the incident so this would never happen again. AND, so this would never happen to other people…. Thus the reason I am writing this email to you guys. Brian and Eric both commented to me afterwards that knowing that there friend was buried was the ‘worst feeling they’ve ever experienced. These thoughts expressed in this email are a culmination of discussions amongst me, Brian, and Eric.

I hope that by telling this story to you that I’ve made you take a step back and at least think a little bit and reflect upon your backcountry skiing experiences and review your backcountry decision making processes, skills, and safety protocols. I see it all too often in people out skiing. Just because you have the shovel, beacon, and probe gives people a false sense of security while out skiing. We are all guilty of it to some degree.

Please take some time and think about some points. I’m by no means the authority on avalanches. Hell no. But here’s just a tiny sampling of things to think about, and I hope this gets you thinking and your mind engaged:

-Have you taken an avalanche course recently?
-When was the last time you practiced with your beacon?
-Can you find someone in 3 minutes or so? Why not in 2 minutes? Or how about 1 minute?
-Do you have one of those crappy lexan shovels or a solid metal shovel that can move a large amount of snow FAST? What’s more important…saving 7 ounces on that ultra light shovel , or being able to dig out your friend or loved one?...think about it….
-Did you do a beacon check before you started your day of skinning up Sunburst?
-Do you perform a beacon check EVERY time you ski a run?
-Do you encourage open communications within your group while skinning up and skiing down? Don’t poo-poo your friend if they have a concern.
-Do you practice spacing yourselves on up-tracks across exposed slopes?
-Do you ski one at a time and spot each other for the entirety of each run?
-Can you ‘read’ terrain and pick out terrain traps?
-Can you pick out clues of snow instability?
-What are your batteries like on your beacon? Did you know that in ‘search’ mode, your batteries burn up 10-20 times quicker? So the next time your beacon reads 70% batteries, do you think you’ll have enough ‘juice’ in them to locate someone?
-When was the last time you played beacon games? Why not host a beacon party some night with your friends? Practice single burials, doubles, triples. Probing lines, etc…
-Do you read the avy forecast often on avalanche.org? How about checking the avy forecast for 5 minutes each day and follow the trends from before the snow even flies in September allthe way throughout the whole winter…? Reading the forecast every day and learning from the experts keeps you up to date on the stability.
-If you were caught in a slide (and were lucky enough to even attempt to ski it out), did you locate ‘outs’ at the top of that run or safe zones for leap-frogging down the slope with your skiing group?
-Do you ski with a first aid kit with a CPR barrier mask to revive your buddy if they were dug out but weren’t breathing? What about wraps to bandage up a banged-up skier? Sam splint? Cell phone (hell! if it even works…). Did you call and at least tell someone where you were going skiing?
-Don't assume that others in your group know more than you do regarding BC safety.... and we were skiing with a guided company.

In the end, we don’t want to stop backcountry skiing. No way. It’s like the movie Top Gun or Days of Thunder….. ya gotta get back out and do what you love to do…BUT with a heightened awareness. Avalanches are a part of the calculated risk we take in the backcountry. But, with sound decision making and the ability to ‘say no’ at times, we can minimize the risk of being caught in a slide. And, if you are caught by chance, you then have the skills to locate your friend. What if that person buried was your wife, husband, or best buddy? You owe it to yourself and your skiing partners to have the skills and knowledge, and ability to put your ego aside EVERY time you strap on your skis. Just make sure the grey-matter stays larger than the ego.

I was a complete burial. Go open an avy book and look at the statistics of survival rates of complete burials. It’s pretty low. I got lucky.

I’m not asking for sympathy. I don’t want you to feel bad for me. I don’t want to come across as bragging or gloating. I don’t want to be like “ooohh, look at me!” Hell no. I just don’t want one my friends to go through what I did. I survived. Not everyone is as fortunate as I was when buried in an avalanche.

PLEASE be careful out there. You’re all my friends. Feel free to forward this email if you think someone else might benefit from reading this.

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