"The snowboarder, who was on a family vacation with his family and other relatives, went missing on late Friday afternoon. He was last seen by a cousin around 3:00 p.m. near a tree'd section of [Blackcomb] mountain."
- Vancouver Sun, Dec. 26, 2010
It was an e-mail I couldn't ignore. "Hey Michel," it began. "Just thought I'd try to get your help on this."
The writer was Robin Avery, passionate mountain enthusiast, aspiring storyteller and a member of the Whistler Blackcomb Safety Patrol. We'd corresponded before and at first I thought it was more of the same. You know, along the lines of 'here's a story I wrote, let me know what you think.'
But this time, his first-person account of a fatal mountain search on Christmas morning hit me like an avalanche on a sunny day. Death still does that to me. Particularly during the holiday season when everyone is so busy celebrating life.
And once again I was struck by the fierceness of our mountains. Doesn't matter whether you're an expert or a beginner, a 60-year-old veteran or a 20-year-old neophyte, venturing beyond the urban confines of Whistler Blackcomb's groomed slopes carries consequences that few people ever consider seriously.
Know what I mean? The terrain around here is deadly. Avalanches, cornice falls, cliffs, tree wells, open creeks - there's no end to the nasties that can bite you on an off-piste run. But how often do we hear that message? It seems not often enough...
Especially when WB's advertisements promises chest-deep snow and untracked powder around every corner. Check it out for yourself. There's Mike Douglas popping through a grove of firs and into a patch of snow so deep you can barely see him. Look at Mark Abma doing his thing on a trackless face of pure powder bliss. Is that Canada's freeskiing diva Sarah Burke effortlessly negotiating a pillow field of unimaginably light fluff? It sure is. Wow! I want some of that too!
Sadly, that kind of riding is becoming rarer and rarer inbounds. Blame it on technology if you want. Faster and more efficient lifts that give keeners access to slopes that once took hours to reach on foot. Fatter skis and boards that allow just about anyone to get into terrain once reserved for experts. Helmets and back protectors and shin guards and avalanche beacons... you name it, it's all available to the wannabe freerider, regardless of his or her experience.
And the message is repeated in just about every ski and snowboard ad you see. Technology rules. 'It's not how you ride, baby, it's what you wear.' Forget education. Don't worry about paying your dues. Immediate gratification is the goal here. You too can be a rad, gnarly dude just like the pros. You just have to buy the right stuff.
Whatever. The results are the same: unless you're ready to venture into terrain where few others go these days, chances are you'll be enjoying sloppy seconds (and thirds and fourths) all day long. Yuck.
But technology is only one of the culprits. Communications is a way bigger issue. Consider the WB imagery for a moment. Do you know that most of those aforementioned shots were either taken on "closed" slopes, heli-accessed terrain or at a time of the day (or year) when others weren't allowed access to the mountain?
I mean, c'mon man...
But I digress. A young man died on the mountain on Christmas Eve doing the thing he loved best. A 20-year-old on holiday with his family. Looking for a little untracked powder at the end of the day in an area that had once been the preserve of only the very best of riders. So sad.
This is how Robin Avery described the next day's search:
"I woke up Christmas morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt. I wished that I had some Amaretto to put in my coffee, and some Advil to put in my water. I'd spent the night before commiserating with some other orphans (or was that celebrating?) after Midnight Mass.
"It was a Midnight Mass in a hotel ballroom, something I've never done before. Just the same, if you closed your eyes and listened to the choir, you wouldn't know otherwise. It reminded me once again why I love that mass so much. People can say whatever they like about church; there is no shortage of opinion on that subject and rightly so. But it seems to me that many times people get so hung up on the details that they miss the proverbial trees in the forest.
"The people are the trees; they come from many different walks of life. They come with their families, and they join in something that makes them part of a bigger family. I've always feared and loved that moment when we turn to each other and say, "peace be with you" - but when it comes I say it and I mean it. It seems other people do too, and that makes me hopeful.
"Maybe all masses should be held in the late evening hours, when people are so dog tired from the day that they just relax and let the feeling and music wash over them. 'Give thanks' the mass says, and it is right to give thanks and be thankful. Thankful that all the shopping and preparations are done, thankful that we are together, thankful for our health, for the roof over our heads, whatever it is that we feel thankful for. I think it's important. I think it's difficult to be wanting more when we are being thankful.
"Unfortunately while you and I were enjoying our Christmas evening, there was a family gathered at the Fairmont. One of their sons was missing...
"A young man had not returned from the mountain that day. Some of us know the mountain better than others but I think we'd all agree it would be difficult to not fear the worst in a situation like that. So while some of us were maybe feeling lonely - maybe embracing the holiday, maybe rejecting it - there was a family dealing with the unthinkable.
"At 8:30 on Christmas morning I arrived at the ski patrol hut. I had missed the early morning meeting but quickly heard that a boarder was missing from the day before. Initially I heard that the ski patrol was looking around CBC. A tree well was a likely scenario. By 10 a.m. we were asked to meet at Two Degrees, the area below Glacier Lodge. Our job was to stop people from entering the trees in that particular area. The ski patrol gathered and a very skillful patroller with her little white dog entered the forest five metres from where I was standing. There must have been 15 of us at this corner. Red and yellow jackets, our skis off and crossed all along that corner and still we had to yell at people to not enter the trees.
"I personally stopped 10 people or so from entering in this area. I have to say that most looked very capable yet a couple seemed like they would struggle on a run like this.
"It didn't take very long for the patroller's voice to crackle over the radio. 'I got him.' There was a pause; it felt like a collective holding of breath. Maybe like me, everyone was waiting, hoping to hear something encouraging. It didn't come. Dispatch asked her to repeat herself.
"Suddenly the task had changed from 'search and rescue' to 'recovery.'
"I watched and listened to the procedure. I gained even more respect for the ski patrol and their skills. I don't think you can say enough good things about these people.
"The whole time this was going on I was thinking to myself: 'how could this happen? What did he do wrong?' and 'how can I keep myself from getting in a situation like this?'
"I kept asking questions, and the answers were similar and equally simple. Creek, creek-bed, weak bridge. That was it. Like it was the most obvious thing. Bridge? "Is there a bridge down there?" I had to eat my pride and show my ignorance. I didn't care. I wanted to understand..."
And so Avery's sad story ends. An unsuspecting 20-year-old. A devastated family. And at least one witness who continues to question himself about his off-piste knowledge. But will it change anything?
Who knows? But it's an issue that won't go away. When it comes to off-piste adventuring, knowledge is everything. Being prepared is what it's all about. Riding with a buddy. Knowing the terrain. Having an exit plan. Wearing a beacon. Hiring a guide even. It all makes a difference when the mierda hits the proverbial whirlygig.
Alas, education is diametrically opposed to immediate gratification. I expect the status quo will be preserved for some time yet. As I said, so sad...