Alta States 

Christmas Mourning – Life and death in the mountains

"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.

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