Few things in the world strike terror into the heart the way the word "avalanche" does. It carries with it the image of death, destruction and injury, and in one breath reminds us of the awesome power of nature. Every year Pique and publications around the world carry stories of deadly avalanches — those they swept to their deaths and those who survived. On average 11 people die in the white maelstroms each year in Canada. This number is likely to continue to rise as more and more people head beyond the ropes and into the backcountry thanks to better equipment, and more awareness of the sheer beauty and joy to be found beyond the lifts.
Though the headlines can capture the horror of a snowslide it's rare to get a glimpse from a victim's point of view. In this feature reporter Vince Shuley reveals a harrowing tale of survival in Whistler's own backyard.
Lee Lau is not your typical intellectual property lawyer, few folk in the legal business manage to ski 100 days of the year with the majority of those days being spent on the uncrowded slopes of the B.C. backcountry. It was one during one of those backcountry forays on Fissile Mountain, just a few kilometres from a Whistler Mountain boundary rope, that a dream day turned into a nightmare — one in which he ended up fighting for his life. The slope had given away under his skis, a small crack in the pristine snow suddenly propagated into a jigsaw puzzle in every direction. The air was permeated with a muffled rumble. Though the avalanche happened over two years ago, for Lau it might as well have happened yesterday...
Lau yells the word at the top of his lungs in an attempt to warn his friend Richard Drechsler, who began his descent just seconds earlier from where Lau was standing. Was it Drechsler's skiing on this gentle, normally stable slope that triggered it? Right now, none of that matters.
The mountain of snow and solid rock suddenly morphs into a fluid mass. Lau begins to slide uncontrollably, his attempts to keep his skis above the undulating waves proving futile. The gorgeous view of the Spearhead Range across the valley is soon obscured by the growing powder cloud, a white mist propelled into the air by hundreds of tons of moving snow.
In the moment Lau has the level head to remember his training. By plunging his ski pole into the bed surface he attempts to self-arrest, but to no avail. With the other ski pole he stabs at his ski bindings in an effort to free the skis from his feet; if still attached the skis may get caught in the rapidly moving lower layers of the slide and suck him further under. But both poles are soon ripped from his hands as he is swept towards the 16-metre cliff at the bottom of the slope.
"The sense to me was a total loss of control", says Lau, recalling the life-changing incident almost three years later.
"My operative thoughts were to keep my feet below me, on the grounds that you try to keep a sense of gravity so if anything smashes it's your legs.
"The awareness that I wasn't tumbling was from the fact that I could feel the gravity below me, until I was in the air. At that point I was like, 'Great. I'm dead.'"
In these seconds, as Lau knew he was being carried off a precipice by a force only Mother Nature could wield, the important things in his life became instantly apparent.
"The first thought was 'I've got to stop this.' When that didn't happen, I distinctively remember feeling an immense amount of regret. Regret that I wouldn't see my mom and dad and my wife Sharon again."
During the 30 seconds it took to get to the lip of the large cliffs that Lau knew were there, he actually managed to maintain his composure. But the few short seconds of cartwheeling through the air to an uncertain doom almost seemed to creep by.
"I had way too much time to think about regrets..."
A PERFECT DAY
You couldn't have asked for a better Saturday to go ski touring on April 10, 2010. A deep spring snowpack padded by recent storms, clear blue skies and a confident avalanche bulletin all came together for the group. Lau and his two friends, Phillip Post and Drechsler, departed the Roundhouse on Whistler Mountain at 9 a.m. After a quick ride up the Peak Chair the trio bee-lined for Flute Bowl. All having exceptional physical fitness, they managed to reach the bottom of Cowboy Ridge in less than an hour. Several large storms had rolled through the Coast Mountains in the previous few weeks, giving the group joyous, powder-filled descents through the treed terrain as they made their way towards Fissile Mountain, the prominent pyramidal peak visible from Whistler Blackcomb.
With a prompt morning start and plenty of spring daylight, the group journeyed out with the intention of skiing several laps off the peak of Fissile. The howling wind felt during their approach had died down as they skinned their way up the gentle slopes of Whirlwind, Fissile's adjoining peak. It was around noon when they approached the summit of Fissile and began discussing their next move.
The original plan was to ski Fissile Like a Missile, a steep 45-50 degree couloir that drops down the east side of Fissile onto the Overlord Glacier. Lau had skied the line before and was keen to ski it with his friends that day, but upon reaching the top of the line they discovered that the recent snow and wind had formed a six-metre high cornice at the entrance. Having negotiated entry hazards such as large cornices in the past and recognizing the danger they can pose, Lau spent the next hour probing and picking at the cornice with his shovel from a safe perch. But even after excavating a notch in the cornice to see exactly where to drop in, the line just didn't feel right. With all the recent snow accumulation and evidence of strong winds that had formed the cornice in the first place, the sluff (sliding surface snow usually triggered by a skier) would be too difficult to manage in the narrow chute and could endanger the skiers by sweeping them off their feet down into the exposure below. Even with the excavated cornice, the sizable drop into the line was beyond the risk threshold of the party.
The decision was made to turn around from Fissile Like a Missile. The question now was where to next? The North East Face (considered the crown jewel of Fissile) was a possibility and seemed tempting, but given all the factors affecting the previous route consideration, the group again made a collective decision to err on the side of caution.
"Fissile Like a Missile starts off as a broad fan funnelling into a narrow chute surrounded by very wide cliffs," says Lau.
"The NE face is a very open face over a very, very big cliff. If anything goes wrong, you will end up in the glacier off the cliffs. Both those faces have a serious amount of objective hazard that is unmanageable because there is little room to move. There was no way to escape (an incident on either line) if we didn't ski it really well."
The more commonly skied Summit and Saddle Chute were the next options. Summit again raised the red flag of sluff management, the tight corridor leaving little room for error. Post had skied Summit Chute once four years previous and sustained a fall on the steepest pitch that tomahawked him hundreds of metres down the slope, losing a ski in the process. His one-ski exit down the icy traverse of Singing Pass towards Whistler Village was perhaps the most gruelling experience of his life. But on this day, the late season snowpack had shaped Summit into an aggressive funnel so Post would have to settle for the relative safety of Saddle Chute, as would Lau and Drechsler.
Post dropped into Saddle Chute first, cutting across the sluff path onto the edging spines. Snow was flying in his face as he experienced the ecstasy of skiing deep powder down a steep mountainside. But it was on about the sixth or seventh turn that Post had an unfortunate recurrence of that terrible fall that happened just metres away four years earlier.
"I kind of got a little too greedy," says Post, who works for a professional accounting and auditing firm in Vancouver.
"I tried to beat my sluff and I got taken out and my ski popped off."
With another tumble on the very terrain he had been reluctant to return to, and again losing a ski, Post had a sinking feeling he would again have to brave Singing Pass on one ski. As he came to rest from the tumble he reminded himself that he had done it once four years ago injured, so there was no reason he couldn't do it again.
After making his way down to a safe zone — without finding the second ski — Post watched his two friends descend Saddle Chute, listening to their hoots and hollers as they celebrated the glorious run they had just experienced. With Post not able to continue with them down the following slope, the group decided to separate. Post would make his way down the easier route towards Overlord Glacier and traverse back, Lau and Drechsler would continue down the main bowl and negotiate one of the chutes that dropped closer towards Russet Lake.
As Post slowly made his way down he suddenly felt a rush of excitement as he saw his second ski protruding out of the snow. It had travelled down the slope over 400 metres from where he had lost it. Post was again mobile on two skis, uninjured and already thinking about where he would ski on his second lap. With an elated smile on his face he traversed back towards the Russet Lake drainage to regroup with his friends. But as he crested the moraine and looked up at the slope he knew Lau and Drechsler were about to descend, he heard a thunderous roar and saw a nine-metre high powder cloud rushing down the mountainside.
"In my mind I thought my buddies were going to be dead," says Post recalling the horrific moment.
"Remembering my avalanche training, I immediately switched my beacon to search mode and put on my skins."
With adrenaline rushing through his veins, Post quickly traversed the slope on his skis making sure to maintain his elevation and climb where he could. After reaching the run-out zone, his plan was to zigzag his way down the debris field using a single protruding ski (belonging to one his friends) as a starting point.
"I was kind of blind from where I was, but when I came around towards the cliff I could see both Lee and Richard. They were pretty banged up but they weren't buried in the snow. From that point on I felt a lot better, I didn't know whether they were hurt or not but I knew they were alive."
Both men had been shot off the 16-metre cliff at high speed, both somehow avoiding fatal collisions with protruding rocks. During the resulting tumbles Lau again puts his training into action by making swimming motions and keeping his hands in front of his face to create an air pocket. Once the debris pile came to rest and he realized he was not buried, Lau's first reaction was to make sure his airway was clear. He could breathe.
Lau's second reaction was to yell for Drechsler, knowing that his friend had just gone off the same cliff. Drechsler answered, his voice carrying from hundreds of metres uphill. Lau self-extricated from the debris and wanted to check that his friend was out of range of the "hangfire" — snow above the crown face of the avalanche that hasn't released in a slide — but realized that his own injuries were not going to let him move anywhere quickly. While he had no critical injuries — his head and neck had not suffered any major trauma — both his knees had been wrenched by the impact, as had his shoulder, and he was coughing up blood.
Post headed to his friends as quickly as possible and as they re-grouped they sized up their situation. Post was uninjured and mobile, while both Lau and Drechsler were unable to ski out. With Lau coughing up blood, there was a chance he had sustained internal injuries. Lau took out the VHF radio which he had carried in his pack for five years — and never used — and made the call to Whistler Ski Patrol dispatch. The cavalry was soon on its way with a helicopter, dispatched to their location to whisk the party to the Whistler Medical Clinic.
Though uninjured, Post did not return into the winter backcountry for almost a year. A self-confessed weekend warrior, Post skis around Whistler and enjoys touring more than skiing the resort. The avalanche ended the 2010 season for Drechsler, who currently lives in Squamish and works in minerals exploration for resource firms in the Yukon, though he was out skiing the backcountry — mainly in Whistler — the following season.
"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.
The fact that Lau had skied the slope safely so many times before is also another key reason the avalanche risk there that day was overlooked.
"What am I embarrassed about? I'm alive," he says.
"I made a mistake and someone else should learn from this. Very often you don't hear from survivors of really violent incidents. Objectively speaking this was a size 2.5 avalanche, it's not even that big. What it was, was a size 2.5 with a huge terrain trap at the bottom which should not have been survived."
The question of how groups of advanced skiers with extensive skills and knowledge get caught in avalanches has often been answered with the ambiguous term "the human factor." Researchers are now looking beyond the physics of how snow slides and more towards why people in the backcountry make the decisions that they do. One theory explored by Utah-based avalanche researcher Ian McCammon is the concept of "heuristic traps." In an article published in Avalanche News titled "Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications," McCammon describes how heuristics can affect critical decisions.
"One possible explanation is that people are misled by unconscious heuristics, or rules of thumb that guide most of our decisions in everyday life. Such heuristics work well for dealing with routine risks such as driving, using crosswalks or avoiding social embarrassment.
"Avalanches present a unique hazard that renders some of our heuristics irrelevant, and in some cases dangerously misleading."
McCammon's study reviewed 715 recreational avalanche accidents that took place in the U.S. between 1972 and 2003. The six heuristics that are recognized as being widely used in our daily decisions, and particularly when touring in the backcountry, are familiarity, consistency, acceptance, the expert halo, social facilitation and scarcity (see sidebar for explanations). Such theories are difficult to confirm explicitly — controlled experiments on people's behaviour in avalanche terrain is far from practical — but they do help explain why groups can stare hazards squarely in the face and still make the decision to ski the slope.
Dr. Pascal Haegli, a native Swiss living in Vancouver, is the principal of Avisualanche Consulting and has collaborated with the Canadian Avalanche Centre and several other researchers on the Avalanche Decision Framework for Advanced Recreationists Project (ADFAR). Haegli believes part of the reason why poor decisions are sometimes made in the backcountry is because there is very limited feedback when travelling through avalanche terrain.
"You can be very close to the line for a long time without ever knowing," said Haegli.
"That can create a lot of confidence in your ability to make decisions, even though you might have been very close to an accident for a lot of your backcountry career."
Lau had never seen a slide on the face that caught him and by investigating after the incident he found out anecdotally that the slope had indeed slid once before several years prior. Out of the six heuristic traps documented by McCammon, the biggest one that hit home that day was familiarity. Fissile is quite close to home for Whistler locals, and experienced skiers like Lau know every single line on every single face. The expert halo may have had a small effect, but all decisions were made as a group and Lau did have the skills and experience to lead the group safely. There were no other people in the area to show off to, there was plenty of powder for this group to enjoy on their own and decisions did not follow the path of least resistance.
LIVE TO SKI ANOTHER DAY
If anything positive can be taken away from this incident it's that close calls need to be wake up calls. Walking away from an avalanche alive is a blessing, and not one to be taken lightly. Lau, who still aims to ski 100 days a year, reads his blog notes on this incident several times a season because he believes he shouldn't need to be reminded by his friends or family about the mistakes he has made in the past. Rather than keeping his story quiet in fear of judgement, Lau has told as many people as possible so they may learn from his mistakes and not suffer the same consequences of complacency in the backcountry.
"To defeat complacency it doesn't hurt to remind yourself of mistakes you've made or mistakes made by others."