February 28, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

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.

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...

Avalanche!

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.

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