It was every skier's worst nightmare - a headfirst fall into a tree well with nobody around to help.
Luckily, Sean Hirtle was found in time by two guys who happened to be in the same area and who did all the right things to save his life.
On Saturday, Eamon Sallam and Brad Tkachuk were recognized for their efforts and presented with a St. John Life Saving Award at the Whistler RCMP detachment. On hand were Mayor Ken Melamed, Whistler Staff Sergeant Steve LeClair and Chief Inspector Neil Cross. Hirtle himself was also in attendance with his girlfriend and father to thank the men once again.
It was the first time they had sat down together to discuss the incident since it happened on Dec. 4, 2010. Hirtle, an experienced skier, knows how fortunate he was.
"This all probably started because I didn't kick the snow off the bottom of my boot properly," said Hirtle, who was in line at the Harmony Chair on a powder day and jumped into his skis when the lift opened. "I was coming down through Robertson's and my downhill ski popped off. After the premature release I fell headfirst and put my hands out and just went through the snow. I didn't even fall that close to the tree but because the snowpack was so unstable it funneled me in that direction. The next thing I knew I was upside down."
Hirtle, who got separated from his friend on the run, tried to remain calm but he knew he was in trouble. Every time he tried to clear snow away more of it fell into the hole he had made.
"I couldn't move and every time I tried more snow was coming into my mouth and I couldn't breathe, and I'm thinking, 'how long until I pass out?' I knew the area was off-piste and I didn't know how long it would be before someone else came through the area - it could be one minute, or 20 minutes or an hour. It's this weird little part of Harmony that's not on the normal beaten path.
"It was like being in a really deep sleep and the next thing I knew someone was yelling at me and it was Brad, yelling 'he's alive.'
"It's a hell of a thing to think you're going to be dead and waking up to find that you're alive."
Hirtle first thought he was in some kind of a skiing accident, but gradually figured out where he was and what had happened. He had the presence of mind to take Sallam and Tkachuk's contact information as ski patrol arrived, before the two left to enjoy the rest of the powder day.
There was a lot of luck going around that day. Because it wasn't a big powder day, Sallam pulled up in one area to scout his line and re-establish contact with Tkachuk. That's when he noticed Hirtle's skis and legs sticking out of the snow. His first thought was that a skier had fallen, and decided to help him out.
"When I got within six-to-eight feet I saw the tree branches and boots and realized that, hey, this guy is head first down a tree well, and I started yelling," said Sallam.
He immediately started trying to dig Hirtle out and pull him out of the tree well, while Tkachuk, who was lower down the slope, climbed back up and around to join the rescue effort. He was careful not to send more snow into Hirtle's direction.
"It was really loose and full of holes, so I popped off my skis and went up about 20 feet and back across. It felt like it took forever," said Tkachuk.
"I don't know how his neck wasn't broken because his head was so twisted, I literally couldn't find it," recalled Sallam. "I just kept digging and digging and (Hirtle was) all twisted in the tree braches and I couldn't budge him for the life me. I remember Brad yelling 'calm down' and I did, and we managed to pull him out."
Hirtle was blue and wasn't breathing, and there was blood around his mouth. Sallam used his fingers to get the snow out of Hirtle's mouth, and he started to breathe. "I got one piece of snow out and then just heard this gurgling exhale, when (Hirtle) started breathing," said Sallam.
Relieved, they put Hirtle in the recovery position and monitored him until ski patrol could take over.
Sallam did not have any first aid training, although Tkachuk had a wilderness first responder course.
Mayor Melamed, a pro ski patroller before taking up the top job on council, pointed out that Doug Robertson, who the area was named for, died in the same area back in 1978 after being caught in an avalanche that started above him.
"Having been a professional ski patroller for 28 years, I know what this means," he said during the presentation. "You guys experienced something really incredible and I'm honoured to present you with these life saving pins."
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