Last week the mountain community lost three of its own. JP Auclair and Andreas Fransson were killed in an avalanche while climbing San Lorenzo Mountain in Chilean Patagonia. Washington’s Liz Daley dies the same day in an avalanche in Argentina.
There have been no shortage of obituaries, essays, and articles honouring the fallen in the last week, so I’ll refrain from reiterating how much of a loss this is for the ones who knew these kind souls or looked up to them as heroes.
Instead, I’ll share with how this has made me look at my own risk taking in the backcountry, and how you should maybe take a look at yours.
The first avalanche I was caught in was on Rainbow Mountain here in Whistler. I was on a heli drop day of touring and was in the middle of shooting a skier dropping into his line when I triggered a cornice collapse. I had my expensive camera around my neck, but not for long once the slide picked up speed and shot me down the couloir. I held onto the camera as long as I could until I was turned around heading head first down the slope on my back, at which point the slide washed over me and lodged snow down my airway. I’ll never forget those seconds of the muffled, rumbling middle-gray as I struggled to reach the surface again. At the run out zone I resurfaced, coughed up the burning snow from my throat and realized my camera was nowhere to be seen. My friends were not far behind me, ready to pinpoint and resuce me if needed, and after reassuring everyone that I was ok the afternoon turned into a needle-in-the-haystack search for my $4,000 dollar camera and lens. We didn’t find it that day. I was due for shoulder surgery later that month and couldn’t return to the site until the Fall, at which point the rusted electronics had been rendered useless.
For months I lamented my own expensive mistake that day on Rainbow, but took comfort in the fact that I was lucky enough to walk away. I lacked situational awareness and shouldn’t have been standing where I was, my mind off in some dreamy world where I was nailing the shot. I read an article a week later about a skier being caught in a similar avalanche in Colorado. He was swept into a rock outcropping and broke his femur and later died from internal bleeding.
I swore that would be the last avalanche I was ever involved with, but as local backcountry veteran Lee Lau told me, if you keep heading into the mountains your probability of causing another incident – avalanche or otherwise – just keeps increasing. That’s why you have the best skiers in the world dying, not because they were necessarily reckless, but they played the odds and came up short.
I wish my first avalanche was my last, but there is always a different scenario that plays out which ends up biting you in the ass. The more time you spend in the mountains, the more vigilant you need to be against the impending odds.
This opinion piece first appeared in my Outsider column in the Whistler Question on October 6, 2014.