Just a single interview on today’s show but probably the most significant and important program we’ve produced so far. Nick Reese is a climber, skier, blogger and outdoor enthusiast in Canberra, Australia. He’s been on the show before. A few weeks ago, he emailed Gary and told him about a weekend backcountry skiing trip he’d been on that ended in tragedy. Nick and his buddy were witnesses to an avalanche that resulted in the death of a young skier. It was just the third avalanche fatality in Australia in the last 50 years. Nick was involved in the search for this skier. He’s written a detailed and compelling account of the tragedy in his blog ‘Wild Adventure‘ and on the Australian climbing site ‘Chockstone Forum‘
If you’re a backcountry skier or boarder or if you spend time in the mountains, you owe it to yourself to listen to this interview.
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(I hope you enjoyed the last podcast from Purcell Mountain Lodge-DSO-43. One of the big surprises of the trip was my close encounter with a small avalanche. Here are some photos and an account of that adventure from a recent column for the local paper.)
I just got back from an amazing two weeks of skiing in western Canada. Getting there and returning had some challenges but that’s a story for another day. Likewise the experience of skiing at a mountain lodge only accessible by helicopter is another incredible experience worthy of a detailed account. I’ll save that for later too. What I want to tell you about now is that instant during a sunny, blue sky day on a backcountry slope in the Purcell Mountains when the earth moved.
I know the avalanche danger has been high this winter in the mountains of western North America. There have been record numbers of slides and deaths because of an unstable snow pack. The first day we arrived by chopper at this luxurious lodge situated in a beautiful alpine meadow, 7,200 feet above sea level, we all received the mandatory instruction in avalanche rescue. We learned how to wear and use the avalanche beacons. We practiced using the device to search for a victim buried under the snow. Our guides showed us the proper way to use the probes to poke through the snow and how to dig out around the buried person using our collapsible snow shovels. We were told how to locate the victims head and work at freeing his breathing passages. This is the same routine training people receive when they enter the backcountry, either to go heliskiing or like us, attaching skins to our skis and climbing into alpine areas using our own power. Nobody ever thinks they’re going to need the training. That would be a wrong assumption.
On our second day at the lodge we headed out early for a full day in the backcountry. The sun burned our faces as we climbed through the trees to a higher elevation. This one particular slope was steep at the top, about a 30 degree pitch, steep enough to avalanche but then it quickly flattened out. That proved to be a good thing. There were six of us in the group and two guides. I skied down last because I was shooting video of the others making turns through the untracked powder. Everyone else had skied down and stopped on a ridge just out of my sight but they could all see me. I put the camera in my pack and started down the slope. My first turn was to the left and I could see two large fracture lines in the snow. I thought to myself that doesn’t look good. As I initiated my next turn something didn’t feel right. I looked down and saw the snow under my skis cracking and swirling. I glanced sideways and saw that I was moving down the slope along with all the snow. I instantly knew I was caught in an avalanche and I got scared. This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially to a maritimer on his first backcountry expedition into the big mountains. Fortunately the slide was short lived. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I can’t remember hearing any sound either. Luckily I was at the edge of the slide and skied off to the side toward some trees. The moving snow covered my downhill ski and tried to pull it down but I managed to shake it loose and ski away. As quickly as the slide had started it ended. Everything was silent and I was fine. I couldn’t see the others down the slope and didn’t know whether to yell for help or just get out of there as quickly as possible. In the end I skied down as fast as I could keeping well away from the avalanche. When I joined the others I realized they had seen the whole thing and were more concerned about my welfare than I probably was. The guides told me I did exactly what I should have done by skiing out of the avalanche. Believe me, it was an easy decision to make.
We all went back to examine the slide. The guides called it a level one slab avalanche caused by a persistent weak layer of snow. They even knew the day it formed back in February. The slope slid for about 60 feet and left a debris pile over a meter high. This was a small avalanche and there was no danger of being buried in it but I could have twisted an ankle or worse if I’d gotten caught up in the mess at the bottom. Our guides measured the slide, dug in the snow and took photographs. It was an excellent opportunity for them to study an avalanche close up.
Leaving the area we had to traverse across a steep slope with overhanging cornices. We did it one at a time to minimize avalanche exposure. After my experience I was understandably shaken a little and surprised by how quickly I skied across that slope. I think it was the fastest I’d moved all day.
That night the guides presented me with a special drink made up of a number of different liquors and topped off with a mountain of whipped cream. They called it appropriately the ‘Avalanche’. I drank and enjoyed it, thankful that I was there and able to.
It was a small slide but a gigantic eye opener for me and the others in our party including the guides. The risk of avalanche is always there in backcountry alpine areas and has to be taken seriously.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
On this special edition of Doing Stuff Outdoors Gary goes to Purcell Mountain Lodge in British Columbia. It’s a slice of heaven nestled in an alpine meadow surrounded by towering summits and tumbling glaciers. This luxurious, wilderness alpine retreat is accessible only by helicopter. It’s a magical place, completely off the grid with its own water treatment plant and power generation from a nearby stream. Only a limited number of visitors are permitted each year. They come for hiking in the summer and the champaign powder in the winter. Guests can choose from backcountry touring with skis or snowboards, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or even tobogganing. It’s a winter wonderland.
Gary joined five others for a four day telemark backcountry adventure. There were plenty of fresh tracks through knee deep powder every day. They experienced 2000-foot descents through treed glades and in alpine bowls. And there were some surprises thrown in as well. Gary recorded an audio diary every day with all the skiers, the two guides and lodge staff. You’ll hear about all the experiences, all the stories and adventures… it’s like being at Purcell Mountain Lodge yourself. Enjoy.
Next week Gary wraps up his BC skiing adventure with a visit to Panorama Mountain Village.
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LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
Some sobering content on todays program. This is a record year for avalanche fatalities across western North America. The snow pack in many mountain areas is unstable creating dangerous conditions for outdoor enthusiasts venturing into the backcountry. In our feature interview we check in with the Canadian Avalanche Centre. Poor winter driving conditions are also to blame for the deaths of eight people recently in a horrible highway accident in New Brunswick. The tragedy struck close to home for Gary and he talks a little about that.
Running guy Alex Coffin is back with a conversation about some of his most memorable runs. We have more of your comments about the show including praise for a climber who sometimes gets forgotten in the story of Mount Everest and comments about Gary’s rant last time concerning access to the outdoors.
If you’d like to leave a comment about anything you hear on the show call the comments line at 206-600-4557 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on our webpage. Be sure to check out the Doing Stuff Outdoors website for regular blog posts and subscribe to the podcast in iTunes .