How I Survived Two Avalanches… And Avoided A Third
Sep 05. 2018
It’s amazing how many thoughts can go through your head in the seconds you suddenly find yourself helplessly caught in a rapid mass of moving snow, hurtling headfirst toward a stand of trees. For me it went something like “Oh-S**it-OhF**k-ThisIsActuallyHappening-PullYourAirbag-ProtectYourAirway-Nononono!!!”
My head is pushed under the snow, I hear my airbag inflate, and I lose sight of the world. With one hand I try cover my airway and the other I stretch in front of my head in an effort to block a paralyzing headfirst impact into old growth spruce… which never comes.
An eternity later, or possibly just a few seconds, I come to a stop in a stand of trees as the rest of the avalanche debris continues for another 80m. Miraculously, I’m in one piece. Somehow, I’d slalomed through the sporadic trees - caught up in the avalanche without hitting a single one - and came to a gentle stop on the surface.
I had left my partner in a safe spot and started to ski down a chute. About 50m down I felt the snow under my skis change. It looked chalky and felt almost like Styrofoam. I realized I was skiing on a fresh “windslab”. I decided to retreat over to the other side of the chute which had less wind drifted snow. This worked for another hundred feet or so until I found the Styrofoam-feeling snow again. I couldn’t escape it now, it spread across the whole chute. Deciding to “think light thoughts” and hope it would be ok I carried on. A couple meters later I saw a telltale crack shoot out from my ski… and then close up again! Bad news. This meant a weak layer within the snow had collapsed and the failure had spread. Traveling way up above me within the space of a second; an indeterminate amount of snow was now avalanching down on me.
That was the first time I was caught.
I reflected deeply on the experience. I learned, and I shared the experience with as many others as I could hoping to spread a message of safety in the backcountry I love to play in so much.
A New Challenge
Over the past 14 years, I’ve worked as a ski patroller at 5 different ski hills, as a cat skiing guide, and as an avalanche educator. My current work is as an avalanche field technician with Avalanche Canada. I’m responsible for gathering information about current weather, snowpack and avalanche observations in the South Rockies and Lizard Range/Flathead public avalanche bulletin areas. My friends say that’s a fancy job title for someone who gets paid to ski tour and snowmobile in the backcountry. I love my job and the mountains I get to call my office and playground.
Despite the overall awesomeness of my work and life in Fernie BC, a couple years ago I felt like I needed more adventure, more of a challenge. I took a leave of absence in 2017 and embarked on the wildest expedition I could dream up; a ski traverse of the Coast Mountains from Skagway to Alaska. It would us take all winter, an expected 6 months through some of the most remote, glaciated and complex avalanche terrain in North America.
We were three and half months in when I triggered and was caught in a size 2 avalanche. There were signs of recent avalanches and extreme gusting winds literally blew me off my feet a couple times that day. Visibility was poor and close to whiteout. It felt like just another day in the Coast Range.
“Oh-S**it-OhF**k-ThisIsActuallyHappening…” The same hundred thoughts flew through my brain in the space of a second. I couldn’t believe it was happening again. This time I had no mandatory work prescribed helmet or expensive airbag to pull. Instantly, I found myself tangled in the cord joining my toboggan to my pack. There was no way to fight or swim hogtied like that; I was once again at the mercy of the avalanche and lady luck.
Swept about 100m down the slope, I once again managed to stay on the surface. I got lucky. I wasn’t hurt, no equipment was lost, and there was no terrain trap like a gully at the bottom to trap me under meters of snow. I had known there was an avalanche problem, felt the sketchy snow under my skis, and yet I carried on: because I was hungry and tired and cold and felt confident I was managing the risk like I had been for three non-stop months already that winter. Me, with all my education and years of experience, caught a second time. I got lucky, a second time. Will there be a third?
It’s the human factor: I'm a person, not a robot. We all make mistakes. For me, the key is to keep learning from them. The ultimate goal, of course, is to be exploring big, beautiful remote mountains for many decades to come. There’s always an element of risk if you’re putting yourself into avalanche terrain. I try to calculate that risk as best I can and be as prepared as possible if things go wrong. Avalanches do not strike without warning. Often there are many obvious signs and clues that point towards instability, and learning to read those signs lets me push farther and spend countless days enjoying the mountains on skis and snowmobiles every winter.
It took 13 years of recreating and working in the backcountry before I went for my first ride in an avalanche. For someone relying solely on luck instead of a solid avalanche education and an informed decision-making process, I believe it’s likely to be a much shorter amount of time before they have an avalanche story too. Hopefully it’s a survivable one.
If you want to have fun in the winter mountains, I recommend setting yourself up for success: Get the gear (avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel), check the avalanche bulletin at www.avalanche.ca and take an avalanche skills training course. (https://www.avalanche.ca/training/courses )
-by Martina Halik, Photographer, Writer, Adventurer (and subject in the film This Mountain Life)