Personal Account of the March 9th, 2013 Avalanche at Empire Cabin
Empire Cabin Avalanche, March 9th 2013 ~9:45 a.m.
“Hey Nat, I’m going to start skiing, watch me.”
The slope was inviting, glistening snow, and a nice long moderate/steep line out to the bowl’s high point where we would regroup.
One turn, two turns…I started to relax into the slope, but seconds later noticed the large blocks that were forming all around me. I couldn’t hear anything, I just stared in horror as I tried to ski out right, only to be met by an ever extending crown line, and thousands of pounds of snow pulling me down the slope. I looked below me and saw a sizeable larch in the way of my trajectory. I was too entrenched to even be able to try and move to either side of it. WHAM- I hit the tree full on, darkness enveloped me, and I was under the snow.
Still fully conscious, I was extremely aware of my body as it went completely limp, rag dolling down the slope. Feeling myself hit numerous trees as I was dragged down the slope, I remember having a fleeting thought that I’d be a goner if my head or back smashed into one of those trees. I also remember having the thought that once I felt the snow slow down, I would have to make sure I had some sort of airway to prolong an air pocket if I was buried. WHAM- I hit something else with a lot of force, but this time I could feel myself pinned against it as the snow flowed past me, shoving itself up my back, underneath my jacket. My head was bowed downslope, as the snow continued to flow over and past me, and I couldn’t tell if I was buried or not. Eventually, the pressure against me from the snow diminished, and I could lift my head slightly. I saw blue sky, a branch, and a sense of relief washed over me as I realized I was not buried, I was still alive, and I could feel my entire body. Looking down, I could see the slide flowing and slowing down, a sizeable debris pile fanning out onto the flats below. I was caught in between two trees, my torso was partially wrapped around the trunk of another sizeable larch with my legs below me. My skis and backpack had been ripped off of me without me even noticing. I started yelling, letting the rest of the group know I was ok. I tried to pull myself up, and while I could stand on my left leg, I looked down and saw my right lower leg was at an odd angle, and seemed much floppier than usual. I tried to deny that anything was wrong, but as I bent over to take a look and lifted my snowpants, the blood oozing out told me otherwise. I stopped trying to look at it, fearing that I might pass out if what I saw was too gruesome.
Soon, one of my friends skied down to me, and then another, and they dug a small platform where they lay me down on top of a Z-rest they had been carrying for their dog. They covered me with all of their down clothing, and even despite that and the sun shining, I started to shiver and shake as the preliminary stages of shock set in. We discussed what they should do to try and get help, as it was likely we would need a heli evacuation. I knew there was cell reception in parts of the bowl, and near the cabin, so I told them that if they could find my backpack, my cell phone was in it and they could use it to call for help from one of the ridges. We could hear sleds in the valley, and earlier we had watched as a helicopter from Stellar Heli Ski flew guests to the north of us. At least we weren’t completely stranded, and it was only 10 a.m. on a bluebird day, which meant we still had a lot of daylight left for a rescue. This helped to ease my mind as I fought to stay calm and breathe. Two more friends came down the slope to stay with me as the other two went for help. Both Level 3 first aiders with experience, they exposed my lower right leg after doing a rapid body survey, and found a compound fracture at my boot top. They removed my boot with incredible care, and bandaged my leg so the bleeding would be slowed down. I continued to concentrate on my breathing, and only went into shock for about 10 minutes where I had no control over my body- it seized up so strongly that I couldn’t even open my tightly clenched fists, despite my concentration and will to relax. I had never experienced such helplessness in my own body.
After a while, the two that had gone for help returned, saying that Search and Rescue would be on their way within the hour.
Soon, we could hear the drone of the helicopter as it did a fly by, assessing whether they would try and longline me from where I was, or get me down to where the helicopter would land and load me internally. They decided to load me internally, and soon a paramedic and a SAR member were at my side with Entonox and a blood pressure cuff while my friends helped to bring up the clamshell and basket stretcher. My vitals were remarkably stable, and the Entonox took the edge off of the movement and bumping as I was loaded onto the board and into the basket. They had to lower me down in three separate 15m belays before they could slide the basket along the snow to the helicopter. The plan was to fly me to Trail, and soon I was up in the air, straining to look out of the floor-level window at Retallack’s tenure, and then the Kokanee and Woodbury Glaciers as we flew through the beautiful Selkirks. My rescuers were kind enough to give me a pillow to prop me up for better viewing, and some sunglasses to reduce the glare of the sun.
That evening, I was in surgery in Trail hospital where they inserted a metal rod between my broken tib/fib, and attached it with screws, top and bottom. I would end up having a second surgery a few days later to remove the anti-biotic beads that they implanted in the wound to prevent infection. I spent one week in Trail hospital, as my hemoglobin had plummeted, verging on the need for a blood transfusion. They held off though, and I spent a number of days where even sitting upright would make my head spin and I would break into a cold sweat, trying to fight off an impending black-out.
As a recap of how things went from a rescue perspective, I find it hard to think of how things could have gone any smoother. I had the utmost trust in my friends who were caring for me, knowing that they were all competent in regards to first aid, critical thinking, problem solving and of course, backcountry travel. This was absolutely crucial in my ability to remain calm and focus on myself, as opposed to the alternative of feeling insecure, unsafe and not knowing if important things were being taken care of. My friends were prepared with first aid kits, and more importantly, knew how to use them in that situation.
Search and Rescue had apparently been forewarned by Stellar that an avalanche with skier involvement had occurred, and they should expect to get a call soon. That meant that by the time my friends got through to them, they were already re-fueling in anticipation of coming out to us, greatly reducing my wait time, which is always a huge bonus.
We were fortunate that the event occurred early in the day, and that the weather was spectacular, which meant no complications for extraction and flying.
In terms of how the event happened in the first place, there are definitely a number of factors that came up in discussions post event. The area was new for all of us, with the exception of me who had skied one day in the area around Empire cabin with one of the society members although I hadn’t been to the exact spot where the avalanche occurred.
The day before the avalanche, we had spent the afternoon digging pits on various aspects, observing as much terrain as we could and noticing some smaller natural slides on different aspects. Our pits and compression tests were not giving us results that were particularly alarming, however we were aware that there were a couple significant weak layers in certain areas, mostly the mid February crust/surface hoar combination that had been on peoples’ radar for the last several weeks.
The pits and tests we observed were definitely not conclusive, but they did give us a sense that with careful terrain choice, we would be able to ski fairly safely in most areas.
Our group was mixed in terms of experience- some had been skiing together for a few years, others had just started backcountry skiing this season. All were fit, enthusiastic and positive, and looking forward to a fun 5 days of skiing.
Perhaps because of my one day of skiing in the area, I was seen as the ‘knowledgeable’ one, so on the morning of March 9th, we set out as a group and I was in the lead. Some of us had discussed in more detail where we wanted to go, and others were happy to just follow behind. Those of us in front made the decision of going farther along the ridge in order to ski the slopes across the bowl by what is known as Cabin Peak, reasoning that it would be a great run, setting us up for our next objective of another climb across the valley. We figured that although south facing, it was early enough in the day that solar effect would not be strong enough to destabilize the snow, and that it was a windward slope, so perhaps less affected by the surface hoar layers found in other more protected areas.
As I lead out along the ridge, staying back from the cornices that were on the north side, I didn’t hear or see anything in the snow that made me second guess the decision to head to those slopes. I dropped into a small ‘safe’ area that had barely enough room for all nine of us to de-skin and regroup, but it seemed like the best option at the time. One by one, people side slipped there way over to where I was, and I directed them to the flattish area around me. I assessed the slope, and it looked great- a nice moderate to steep line on a rib-feature of the larger slope with small stand of trees farther down that lead into the bowl below, and then a high point with a few more trees. I decided that would be our regroup area, as it would be well out of the way of any sluff or avalanche debris were something to happen, and it would give people a good visual of where to aim for while going down one at a time. I discussed this with a few friends that were close by, and they agreed that it sounded like a good plan. I was ready first, and since I knew where it was I wanted to get to, I suggested that I would go first. One friend pointed out that there was a small section below the trees where she wouldn’t be able to see me until I skied out into the bowl below. I said that was fine, as I figured it would only be a very small section, and that possibly I could go farther skiers left where the slope was more continuous. I started skiing, and the rest of the story you know already.
Looking back, two of the major factors that were overlooked had to do with group dynamics and terrain assessment. I have gone over the whole situation numerous times by myself, and in discussion with others who were there, as well as with avalanche professionals, and I will share the key points that came up.
We were with a large group, and while that in itself can be a red flag, in this case I think it was more the fact that there were certain people non-verbally given leadership/guide status, while others felt they were just along for the ride. In any situation, group discussion and input from everyone is not only important, but also very useful. With this group, that didn’t happen, or at least not as much as perhaps it should have, as I was more concerned with keeping the group moving, and relied on input from those immediately around me, thinking that those behind were fine with just following, as had been expressed before.
Terrain assessment is something that we are continually working on, and unfortunately the times you learn the most are often the times when something goes wrong and your choices are put under sharp scrutiny. In this case, I neglected to think twice about my friends’ comment that she would not be able to see me after a certain point- this should have been a red flag that I was about to ski a slope that was unsupported, at least in part, and of course, that part was what ended up giving way. The trees on the slope gave a false sense of security, and perhaps if we had taken an extra few minutes to look very critically at that particular slope, we would have decided it was too unsupported to ski, or at least taken a step back to look at some other options.
My hope in sharing this story is that it will open up a space for people to discuss their own incidents as well, and not feel shame in having made a ‘mistake’. I am fortunate enough to be able to learn from this experience, and it would be even better if it opens up an opportunity for others to learn from it as well.
Thanks you to everyone who has helped out before, during and after this event, my appreciation and gratitude is definitely beyond words.
Photo credit to N. Stafl
Looking down the slope from where I was caught
I was caught between these two trees, which saved me from being buried, and is probably what broke my leg.
Looking up slope, slightly left from centre is where I was caught between the trees.
View of the slide.