“I had to erase that video…”, my ski partner said. Nine hours and a ferry ride from anywhere you might call a city and over an hour for the nearest heli-evac to arrive, the words, ‘be prepared for self rescue’, took on a new meaning and falling backward head first into the impossible nightmare, the want-to-be know-it-all armchair experts reading stories and commenting on the near dozen tree well deaths in as many days were silenced by the white light turned black.
I still don’t know if I should post the video, or if you should watch, or if you want or need to. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure my ski buddy didn’t need to see it three days in to four days of backcountry cat skiing in one of the most remote areas of British Columbia, but he did. Sometimes the look in the eyes at the bottom of a run says it all. “You OK?”, someone in the group said down at the cat road. I coughed up a little more ice, amazing how that stuff can get in so deep, and looked up without a word. “It’s good to know that even you guys get scared.” I couldn’t laugh.
The cold numbing reality had set in one turn behind the guy in the orange jacket with the 50 pound pack just moments before. He turned left, I turned right and in the most benign insignificant twist of gravity and fate I cut loose the snow beneath my feet, the slope fell away under my skis and my head and shoulders were diving downhill. There was a moment of, “oh no”, and then the sound of the wind stopped and everything turned dark. Listening to the audio on the head-cam video (which eerily recorded the whole run with a snow-covered lens) I remembered weakly yelling, “help…”, before the snow covered my face and the daylight of the lens turned grey and dark.
(This is the part where time stood still…)
And then, “I Stopped”, I somehow stopped. The back of my helmet and my shoulder were wedged against the tree (thank you God!) and I pushed away the block of hard snow that had come to rest on my hands, face and chest (after failing to keep my feet downhill I put my hands in front of my face to keep the airspace alive). “Not yet old man.” I thought to myself in that brief moment of victory… and relief, pushed my skis deep into a heel first wedge above, pushed my weight above my feet and climbed out. I forget what I said when I realised the camera was still rolling but it was probably something like the story Steve Casimiro posted on what to do if you fall in a tree well, “…clear the airspace in front of your face, get your feet below you, climb out…”
There is something to be said for being prepared for the worst. The words, “be prepared for self rescue”, took me to a place where my hands in front of my face and the pure will to keep my head up kept me in the game for one more day.
The truth is, in the moment after it is never as dramatic as the pure potential for disaster. I will be the first to admit it. We laugh and say, “that was a close one”, or more often than not the mostly illegible, “duuuuude!”, that comes with that eyes-wide-open look after our hearts return to somewhere in the low triple digits. If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. At 30-something thousand feet in a cabin full of business travellers (myself en route to Denver via Minneapolis for the annual SIA – snow show) or sitting at home in front of your computer reading this story, or even preparing for backcountry trips reading avalanche reports and snow safety tips, it is all quite surreal, but a few days and a few hundred miles away just for a moment, for a split second I looked up through the snow and branches, saw the back of my buddy’s orange coat and thought, “this is how it happens.”, and then heard the words of our lead guide the first morning in the lodge saying, “We can’t change the way you ski…”
More… Link to the Tree Well Post: Click!