Avalanche survivors share their story in the hopes of saving lives 

Risk of avalanche stays high in Sea to Sky country

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY LEE LAU - Richard and Phil look towards Fissile from Oboe.

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"There's no way you should survive that," says Lau with clear conviction resounding in his voice.

"You should die. The snow should fall on top of your head and bury you. We figured later on that because we were moving so fast as we went off the cliff, we managed to clear everything — the rocks, the snow, the deposition zone. We landed beyond the kill-zone at the toe of the slide rather than the middle of the deposition zone where you would certainly be buried."

Indeed, luck was on the side of these two backcountry skiers on that sunny and seemingly stable Saturday. But with all the seemingly conservative decisions made that day such as turning back from Fissile Like a Missile and Summit Chute, the question still remains: where did the group go wrong?

"The part that caught me off guard was that this was a gigantic unsupported slab," says Lau.

"The entire terrain above the cliff was a gigantic slab. The weak layer built quickly."

That weak layer was most likely due to the wind suddenly changing direction earlier that day. The standard prevailing SW winds usually load the lower slopes of Fissile and leave the upper slopes less covered and less likely to accumulate slabs. The unusual NW winds that were present that day loaded the ridgeline where the group skied, creating a dangerous slab that was triggered by Drechsler or Lau skiing over the sweet spot that caused the release. After careful consideration and execution of the Saddle Chute, the group had successfully mitigated the risks associated with that part of the descent. Lau and Drechsler were simply "meadow-skipping" a gentle slope on their way towards the next chute to ski, a slope that Lau had skied dozens of times before with no signs of instability.

"I wish there was a more glaring error that I made," says Lau reflecting on the series of actions that led to this life-changing incident.

"The decisions that we made that day were not great, but in the end, speaking to other people who have no reason but to be anything but honest with me, (they) said 'You didn't make poor decisions, you were just maybe not as alert as you have to be.' That did not make me feel better."

It was not the size of the avalanche that caught these two very experienced backcountry skiers that made it so dangerous — it was the set of cliffs two hundred metres below them, out of direct line of sight, that lurking terrain trap, that threatened their very lives. Lau knew the cliffs were there, but both skiers were far enough away that they didn't treat the situation as if they were skiing directly above them. The slope was 28 degrees, on the lower cusp of the range of slope angles where slab avalanches occur (the range for slabs is 25-45 degrees), perhaps why the possibility of a slide was overlooked.


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