Two backcountry skiers

The finger of god: an avalanche story

This is a story of luck and survival in avalanche terrain. I’ve told it before, but after exploring Avalanche Canada’s excellent Rescue at Cherry Bowl feature, I’m sharing it again. Both as a reminder of the role human factors play in backcountry decision-making and in the hope it might alter a single group’s actions or save a life. (If you haven’t explored the extraordinary story of what transpired at Cherry Bowl, just outside Terrace, BC, in March 2013, it’s well worth your time, particularly the embedded video interviews of survivors and rescuers.)

My story started, as all adventures do, with the simple, wholesome desire to have some fun. My good buddy – and expedition partner of fifteen years – suggested we go ski touring. Despite the fact we live in the same small town, busy schedules had prevented us from getting outside together for over a year. To remedy the situation, we picked a day in late February or early March and marked it in our calendars weeks in advance.

The night before our planned departure, a heavy winter storm blew in. By dinnertime, snow was piling up at over an inch an hour, and for the first time, I began to wonder about our plans. Had the commitment been with anyone else, I would have suggested spending the next day at our local ski hill instead of travelling in the backcountry, but there was human history to consider. For years, I’d been the conservative one in our partnership; the one suggesting bailing when things didn’t look or feel right. It had become such a bone of contention that my friend and I began doing less together. This outing was supposed to be a step towards healing that rift, and I knew he’d still be game. I set my alarm for 5:30am.

By dawn, a foot of new snow lay on the ground outside my house. There would be more in the high peaks. The avalanche danger rating was Considerable for alpine and treeline – one of the most challenging forecasts to deal with; the same one the skiers at Cherry Bowl had faced – but neither my friend, nor the two experienced skiers he’d invited to join us, seemed concerned. They’d all been out more than me that winter, and lacking the heart for confrontation, I decided I’d bite my tongue. In fact, I decided I’d bite it all day long, and for once, to just go with the flow. It was a mistake that nearly killed me.

The road into the southern Purcells was obliterated beneath a blanket of featureless snow. Just minutes outside town, my friend missed a curve and drove full speed down a farmer’s lane, soft powder billowing over the hood as we drifted to a stop. Even as it happened, I knew it was another warning. We should have turned back, but we didn’t.

An hour-long snowmobile ride along abandoned logging roads brought us to the basin where we planned to ski. Heavy clouds and mist meant we could see nothing. I’d visited the area before in the summer, but never winter. Now I would have to rely on others for their understanding and judgment regarding the terrain both above and below us; we were in that grey zone between the treeline and the alpine.

Skiers discuss backcountry route

Even as we attached skins to our skis and tested beacons, the ominous sound of natural avalanches filtered through the forest. Somewhere, in the cliffs above, snow was coming down on its own. First one. Then two. Then three. Surely we weren’t going to ski now? “Not a problem,” someone explained. “We can stick to safe trees.”

Skinning upwards, the trail we cut felt protected, weaving through stands of old-growth draped in old man’s beard. An hour later, as we reached a high ridge, the trees were thinning. In the mist to our left appeared silhouettes of thicker forest. To our right, blowing snow and cloud obliterated what looked like an open slope. “Which way?” shouted my friend, in the lead. “Go right,” came the answer from behind. “Better turns.” I knew it was the wrong call, but said nothing.

Backcountry skinning with dog

We had a quick snack, shared a few sips from a thermos of tea, took off skins, made our plan, and dropped in. Skiing one at a time, we regrouped after just ten turns in a small clump of wind-blown alpine larch. Then the first skier set out again. Soon his faint call wafted up through the mist. “Safe!” I went next.

Six turns in I dragged a hip in the powder to slow speed, and I suspect that is what broke the hillside free. Suddenly, everything in front of me was moving. As far as I could see, the slope was breaking into blocks the size of washers and dryers, tumbling away as puffs of snow rose like smoke. Acting purely on instinct, I managed to make a quick, messy turn away from the chaos. But ahead of me, in the opposite direction, the slope was moving too. Not knowing what to do, I put on the brakes.

Far above, I heard my friend scream, “AVALANCHE!” There was an urgency in his voice I’d never heard in fifteen years of friendship. My skis ground to a stop. I wasn’t moving? The hillside was silent. From below, a muffled cry: “I’m okay.”

Backcountry skiing wipeout

It took a moment to piece together what had happened: a massive fracture had ripped across the slope above, 160cm deep and roughly 100m wide. Miraculously, a single vertical finger of snow smack in the middle of the avalanche path had not slid. And that finger extended all the way down from the crown to the point where I now stood. I’ll never know what caused that sliver of snow to stick – micro variations in the terrain or the finger of god – but I was perched atop the only safe island in a swath of total destruction. Had I been skiing just a few metres to either side, I’d have been swept away.

What about the skier below?

Leaping off the snow finger, my skis landed on the rock-hard slide surface below. Side-slipping as quickly as I could, I followed the yells until I spotted him, jammed between two pine trees, buried up to his neck.

“I always stop on the uphill side of trees,” he smiled, still unshaken. It was a decision that probably saved him. By the time I’d dug him out, the other two had joined us.

Below us, the slide had run over 800m to the valley bottom. We followed its path though the old-growth stands where we’d skinned earlier. Far overhead, beyond the reach of our extended poles, was a “high-tide” mark of refuse (branches, twigs, ice) showing the depth of snow that ran through these stands. Below, the slide funneled into a rocky gully, tumbling downwards and eventually spewing across flats below.

I appeared to be the only one shaken. And in my final act of stupidity, I kept skiing with the group that day.

I take full responsibility for the incident. I was the one who didn’t speak up and share my intuition, and in hindsight, my actions appear ridiculous, almost unfathomable. I pride myself on being an extremely conservative decision maker, with many avalanche courses under my belt and twenty-plus years of experience travelling in the backcountry. Why did I remain silent in the face of so many alarms and obvious warnings?

Backcountry skiing first tracks

Human relationships and dynamics can exert powerful (and insidious) forces in the backcountry; personal histories, the perception of pecking-orders, the unspoken hierarchy of experience, the desire not to disappoint others, even those we barely know. Anyone who spends time in the mountains will recognize such influences, and I suspect will have wrestled with them at some point.

Following our “near miss,” I found myself returning to the day’s events over and over, trying to understand how to avoid similar situations in the future. Eventually three themes emerged. These lessons don’t encapsulate all the human factors that can influence backcountry decision making, but I think they’re a good starting place. And I made an oath to myself to follow these as best I possibly could. I share them now in the hope they might benefit you or the ones you love:

Always speak up. If you have reservations about snow conditions or route decisions, speak without fear. Speak even if you don’t know why you are worried; if it’s just a feeling in your gut. Ignore any concerns about the judgments of others. Speak up because it’s the only way you will learn. Speak up because you care about the lives of the people you’re with. This sounds easy, but anyone who has spent time out there knows it can be challenging.

Don’t defer to experience and local knowledge when it pushes you toward risk, or a decision that feels uncomfortable. Your opinion and judgment count too. While experience and local knowledge are extremely valuable, they’re not always correct. Other factors can be at play – including overconfidence, overfamiliarity and even the false sense of security that comes from surviving previous bad decisions. Trust your inner voice. (On the other hand, if you ever find experience and local knowledge suggesting you should act conservatively, listen up immediately.)

Gravitate toward partners who share similar risk assessment, or even those more cautious than you. Better to find yourself mildly disappointed at the end of the day than continually dragged into situations you don’t like. Travelling with a group with similar ambitions can take all the stress out of a day in the mountains and allow you to enjoy the splendor.

Backcountry ski summit

Staying safe in avalanche terrain is an odd mix of science and zen, of collecting facts while simultaneously listening to instinct. It’s a game of constant observation in the search for ultimately unattainable answers. No one can tell you with absolute certainty whether a given slope on a given day is safe or not. You might ski a run where nothing releases, but still have made a mistake. If you walk away from a slope, you’ll never know if you were being wise, or unduly conservative. So instead, the best we can do is stack the odds heavily in our favour.

A solid understanding of snow science, weather patterns, pack history and avalanche dynamics is the starting point. Carrying all the requisite safety gear and knowing how to use it further tips the balance in your favour. Proper training via an Avalanche Skills Training course (AST 1 and 2) and particularly the Companion Rescue Course that saved lives at Cherry Bowl, is critical. Don’t make the same mistakes I did by allowing human issues (pride, ego, time constraints, goal-oriented objectives) to pull even one chip from your stack.

The right training, plus avalanche and backcountry safety gear can save your life. Get everything you need for backcountry trips and get trained with Avalanche Canada.

MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby
Bruce Kirkby

Adventurer, MEC Ambassador, author, columnist, photographer, family man – Bruce’s talents roam about as wildly as his adventures do.