Surviving 1,000 feet of falling snow: avalanche danger high

While it has been publicized on the news, many people still haven’t been aware of the extremely high avalanche hazards blanketing the province and Two Mile resident David Blackburn learned first hand how dangerous the mountains are last Friday.

Extreme avalanche hazards in the back country have triggered several natural slides around the Hazeltons and while conditions have been slightly downgraded

Extreme avalanche hazards in the back country have triggered several natural slides around the Hazeltons and while conditions have been slightly downgraded

While it has been publicized on the news, many people still haven’t been aware of the extremely high avalanche hazards blanketing the province and Two Mile resident David Blackburn learned first hand how dangerous the mountains are last Friday.

Snowmobiling on Nine Mile mountain in the Hazleton’s has been a favourite place for Blackburn and his friends Skye Jones and Kiefer Larson until last weekend when Blackburn came as close as he could come to losing his life in a massive avalanche.

“We had been sledding on the same spot earlier in the week for a couple of hours and then for about half an hour earlier that day,” he explained. “Skye went up and over the top and then I started and that’s when it broke. I turned around right away and raced down the mountain as fast as I could with my sled full out but it caught up with me and knocked me off. It threw me and rolled and … then I heard my neck crack. It’s amazing all the things that can run through your head when you are getting tossed … it was a lot of power and it was so scary and I thought my neck was broken and I was just waiting to go unconscious.”

When Blackburn finally came to a stop he found that not only did he miss all the trees, he was able to get one hand free and was facing upwards and thought he could see blue.

“My one hand was in front of my face and I was able to clear away some of the snow in front of my face so I could breathe,” he said. “But the rest of me couldn’t move. My legs were under me and apparently under my sled which I could still hear running and my other arm was pinned straight down.”

Luckily, fate was on Blackburn’s side in more than one way and his friend Larson had somehow escaped the avalanche’s path and was there within minutes.

“Kiefer dug out my face and shoulders before Skye got there because he was at the top and had to run down because he couldn’t get down on his sled as it was all rocks where the avalanche had been,” he said. “I didn’t realize how bad the avalanche was until they dug me out. It was massive. It was the entire year’s snow pack and more than 1,000 feet across the entire ridge line.”

The next day his friends went back to get his sled and found his helmet, which had blown off his head in the turmoil, right beside it.

While Blackburn said he has been in and seen smaller avalanches, it was nothing compared to the whole ridge line that had fractured on this occasion.

For local UIAGM certified heli-skiing guide Giacum (Jake) Frei, hearing about an avalanche such as the one that almost claimed Blackburn’s life was almost expected. While he has been working as a guide for 16 years, he has spent the last eight working in the Skeena mountains and said this year is like nothing he has ever seen here before.

“I have never seen the hazard this high,” he stated. “We have had similar poor stability but never so wide spread and variable, and never with such high crowns (fracture lines). Since Jan. 13 we have had continuous strong southwest and west winds with heavy precipitation, so the Jan. 13 layer was loaded very quickly with over 120cm of storm cycles, all bound very heavily. Such heavy loads, bound by the strong continuous winds and the Jan. 13 layer have created these dangerous conditions.”

When asked if Frei was surprised that such a massive slide had occurred on Nine Mile, he said “not at all”.

“When you have such hard slabs and such deep instabilities, it is common to see large propagation,” he explained. “Sometimes you can set off a whole side of a mountain by just flying past the peak or landing on it.”

Overall, for Frei and his skiers, that translates to skiing the trees for the most part, below 1,400 meters right now. However, when the next snow fall comes, he said it has the potential to get dangerous even in the glades below the treeline.

For Blackburn, things worked out in the best possible outcome and he has not only learned a lot he said but he will be dealing with the mental trauma for a while to come.

“I was really lucky that I didn’t even hit a tree when I was getting tossed under there,” he said. “And now, the hardest thing is the mental aspect to it and whenever you close your eyes … you see it. It sure happened fast and was like nothing I had been in before.”

Blackburn said this was his third avalanche experience with the second one coming only the week before.

“Last week I broke one off but it didn’t slide very far and I wasn’t in it up on Sidina mountain,” he said. “We drove past the hill and the sounds of our sleds triggered it but was only little chunks and we had no problem missing it.”

Yet, despite his previous experiences with avalanches, this most recent, potentially deadly, episode has changed his thinking and is by far the scariest thing that has ever happened to the avid outdoorsman.

“Last year I almost drowned in the Bulkley River on a rafting trip and it was nothing compared to this,” he said in a reflective tone. “If almost drowning and being only a second away from inhaling water was a one on the terror scale, this was a thousand. You feel stupid because it shouldn’t have happened but you can’t go back, you can only learn from it. If someone asked me if it was worth it all these years, I would say no, not at all. I feel really lucky to be alive.”

While the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) has slightly downgraded the current conditions, Frei said the danger has not subsided.

“The stability has improved a bit, but here is the catch, the hazard … has not,” he said. “The natural cycle has passed but, there is still those slopes that have not released naturally, and hence those are prone to skiers or snowmobilers, and when they go, they will go deep and full path. This is a very high hazard. A lot of accidents happen during this time after a cycle, since people think it is over and ok.”

Many who play in the mountains in the winter know the importance of being safe and taking the necessary precautions but that doesn’t mean they always do.

Blackburn had an avalanche beacon but didn’t have it turned on which is not uncommon and Frei added that there are lots of ways to ensure a certain level of safety.

“Carry a beacon, shovel and probe, all of these, you can not dig someone out with your hangs and more importantly know how to use it,” he said. “Take an avi course. Next carry a sat phone or radio with tower Tel, that way you can get help. Getting help around these parts are hard due to communication limitations. You can rent a satellite phone from Tower Communications or other places, it can save your life or the life of your friends. We also always have a [helicopter] on stand by and we would assist if needed.”

Other ways to help improve the safety for yourselves and others is share what you observe. After the incident on Nine Mile, Blackburn posted the avalanche on the CAA website to help warn others.

For more information on current conditions, safety precautions, courses and more, Frei said there is a ton of information available not he web and through videos and he encourages everyone to think safe and play safe.