Anger. Pure and primal and coursing through every fibre of my being like molten fury. Not sadness. Not even fear, per se. ANGER was the overriding emotion as I lay under the avalanche slide, unable to move against merciless snow compacting around my twisted body like quick-dry cement.
My wife was seventh months pregnant and this was the unacceptable thought that reverberated around my head. I’m not going to be there. My baby’s birth, first steps, first “Dadda”, first heartbreaks, first ski turns for crying out loud, and a million more firsts and milestone moments. I’m not going to be there. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
A classic Canadian pow day
Tuesday, 15 March 2022, Whistler Blackcomb. Another classic Canadian powder day: poor visibility and much tree skiing on the cards. Myself and a group of Whistler regulars were having a blast on Blackcomb, hitting tree lap after tree lap. Arthur’s Choice, Outer Limits, CBS, some of our group gleefully proclaiming their “Best Evers” as sparkling glades echoed “Whoop, whoop!”.
As the day progressed, visibility improved in the alpine and ideas of a glacier lap started to form. I hinted that I had a good surprise if there was enough energy left in legs. Hell yes! was the consensus.
Moving toward our target across a relatively gentle traverse, I was slowly poling forward when I thought, damn, the snow is sluffing (surface snow sliding) and then in the next heartbeat, my life turned upside down as the entire slope released. Avalanche. I didn’t hear a crack, but others did, later stressing it was ‘deep’ and ‘haunting’.
It all happened so quickly. We’re talking seconds here. Fractions of, most likely. At first my skis were pushed to the side, about 90 degrees in an arc and were now facing downhill toward a cliff band. I thought, ‘Shit! Get out, get out’ and began screaming.
For half a second, I felt I could ski out to the side of the avalanche slide, but it was not to be.
A snowy arm burst out of moving snow and grabbed me by the scruff of my collar, yanking me back into its chaos. I was being avalanched.
I was in the ‘tumble drier’, unsure if I was physically going up and down, round and round, or if the snow was washing over me in waves, all the while pushing me down. My world was going light and dark, but fortunately, some training kicked in and I started to swim up towards the light, fighting with everything I had, screaming, and as a result of the latter, choking on rushing snow down my throat – something I know we’re not supposed to do in event of a slide, but it was pure survival.
All the while, I appreciated the further I was carried, the closer I would be to a very serious cliff. I thought I would suddenly be weightless and then that would be me. My light snuffed out forever. But I came to a sudden stop, a quarter of a second relief that I hadn’t ridden the cliff, then the gravity of my situation increased ten-fold. I was fully buried.
Punching through the avalanche for sky
The snow instantly compacted around me like dumped cement as I desperately tried to stand, swim, scramble, push, fight, all while continuing to scream choke. As the snow cocooned me, the light began turning out, like bulbs down a tunnel being switched off, one by one, plummeting me into darkness.
My left arm was taken first, fixed underneath me. My head felt at an odd angle, but I was able to tell which way was up (thank God – the alternative doesn’t bare thinking of). My right arm was reaching for the heavens, but I began to lose any movement as snow solidified around me. I could barely move my fingers, to the point where I was scratching at single snow flakes, desperate for the tiniest slither of hope.
Of course, I knew I was dead here. Certain I was a goner. And then that grim thought: were we having a baby girl or boy? I would never even know. I couldn’t believe or accept that I would never meet my baby or see my wife become a mother.
Where it came from or how, I’ll never fully comprehend, but someone was looking out for me. I understood all too well how stuck my limbs were, but with every single ounce of everything I have ever had I PUNCHED TO THE SKY. For half a heartbeat I thought, maybe, just maybe, I have penetrated the pack and got my glove out on top. I couldn’t be sure. But it’s all I had. My everything.
I knew at that point to try and calm my breathing. Which I did – for a moment – before fight set back in. I was still choking. My guess is I had seconds of life in the tank. I doubted minutes.
In all my training I have heard accounts of avalanche victims recalling how clear they can hear when buried. I can confirm it is 100% true. I could hear everything – including repeat cries of “Ryan needs help…” and then before I could truly panic or accept my fate, a good pal was on me, barking out instruction for shovels and assistance, generally kicking ass and responding to a situation you couldn’t believe, as good as any professional (a sentiment echoed by mountain guides, decades in the game). He had spotted my hand.
The next thing I knew he was digging my face out with his hands. I still thought my time was up as my airway was rammed with snow. Bloody typical, they’ve only gone and quickly found me and I’m still going to cark it. Then he told me to cough, which released a chunk of ice allowing sweet, sweet oxygen back into my lungs. But I was still struggling before another of my group went into my throat with his fingers and cleared the remainder. Oxygen…
What followed was surreal and something I will remain both shocked and proud of for the rest of my days. Bizarrely, I was clear minded and quickly started accounting for my group, our location, the precarious position of snow perched above my head, our safety, and then, being the most experienced, I started to try and assist the rescue as best I could from my would-be snowy tomb, only my face free.
Those around me were responding in impressive fashion. Also telling me to shut it and preserve energy. I even had the thought to instruct one of the group to take pictures of the scene for witness reports (or a future article). Strange feeling. I’m pleased to know that when shit truly hit the fan, some training, clarity and selflessness came flooding in.
I quickly learned, much to my horror, that two group members behind me were also buried, but I was assured the person directly behind had managed to swim to the surface, free herself and was attending the third burial. Two others were caught, but not serious as to get buried.
Before I knew it, my team were digging me out with hands and shovels. A heroic effort. A couple of the group were understandably frozen in terror, doing what they could, but terrified to press ahead in fear of somehow making the dire situation worse.
The difference maker and reason I am here: training and equipment. Three members of my group all had their AST 2 (Avalanche Skills Training Level 2), two of those thankfully carrying their gear with them. Without that…
There are many educational beats to be learned from this experience. We have discussed them in depth. Every decision and step has been analysed to the nth degree with the group, mountain guides and patrol.
Why wasn’t everyone in my group carrying a transceiver, shovel and probe some of you may be wondering. Frankly, it’s not the culture in North American skiing.
The avalanche occurred within the boundary of Whistler Blackcomb. Many of you will have skied the very same area, some with myself and other Ski Club Reps. The concept of inbounds patrolled areas is one of the reasons I love it out there. We get to regularly ski terrain that would only ever be considered in Europe with pro guides. I’m not suggesting that makes us/me not take the hills seriously, but there is undoubtedly a higher degree of trust placed into resort management within this ‘inbounds’ culture. I always wear my safety equipment. But honestly, the vast majority of people skiing resorts in North America do not.
Believe you me, not a single member of this heroic party (or other friends, for that matter) will ever ski again without kitted-out packs, transceivers and education. If this story helps even a tiny percentage of riders follow suit, then it can only be a good thing.
Indeed, just as I was being pulled out, some guy skied right above us, ignoring our pleas and screams, completely oblivious. If we hadn’t been there and he skied that line, alone and backpack-less as was his intent, would that have been his final ever run? Clearly the slope was ready to go. Frankly, I’m relieved it happened to me and not someone else less equipped to survive.
Once out, I halted the effort to try and locate a missing ski (not my own, they remained fixed – surprised my legs weren’t broken – probably why I was anchored) and several missing poles – the ground was still whoomping underneath us, so I quickly moved the group to a place I deemed safe.
As a team we worked out coordinates, took pictures, started dishing out snacks and drinks (God bless the member carrying a primed hip flask!). Patrol joined us carrying a spare ski and were shocked at where the slide had occurred.
We were asked if we could ski. And we did. Heck, we still skied our target after all! I’d told the group I had a big surprise for them. We were shellshocked, shaking, shedding tears, but a solid après awaited. Best ever, my friends.
Those involved know that I am, and will forever be, beyond thankful, and to one man in particular – Chris Wheater. Without his quick thinking and amazing response… Well, you’d be learning of my death right now. But, it was a group effort that saved my life. No two ways about it. Team Heroes.
I was there…
The slide was a size-two soft slab avalanche, human triggered, with a crown wall of approximately 22m in length. It propagated to my front, rear, and above, carrying me 50-75 metres down to a flat section before the cliff band.
One of my biggest decisions was whether to tell my wife about the incident. I decided I must, but via a diluted version of events. However, after the initial shock calmed, she knew there was more to it and we talked it through in detail. She has been my pillar of support.
You’ll never be avalanched in front of a computer screen, in a classroom, or slouched in the comfort of your sofa, magazine on lap, but it could happen to anyone. Even in places where you least expect, like the confines of a resort, for example. So please share my tale far and wide. It’s important to try and accentuate the few positives.
I love the mountains. Scary and unrelenting as they are. This experience is not something I imagine I’ll ever shake off, but I am hopeful it will make me stronger.
Signing off, from a very-happy-to-be-here Ryan Crisp, new dad to Phoebe Jean who came into the world on 12 May, 2022. And I was there!