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Backcountry no place for complacency

 | March 15, 2021

Local skier recounts avalanche burial in Blue River

Andrew Helton was relieved when he heard his friends were coming for him. Photo Andrew Helton.

One local avalanche technician has shared a cautionary tale as a reminder that avalanches can happen to anyone and the backcountry is no place for complacency.

On Feb. 26 Andrew Helton was fully buried in over a metre of compact snow with no room to move.

To make matters worse, there was only a small pocket of air to breathe, he had no idea what had happened to his companions and he was in a remote part of the North Columbian mountains near Blue River, B.C.

“It [took] only 30 seconds for the slide to envelope me and at that point, everything stopped and went freakishly silent,” remembered Helton.

He tried to relax, but his mind began to race.

“I hope my boys are going to come get me, I hope no one else is caught in this,”Helton thought while buried under snow that felt like concrete.“ 

“I didn’t know who was caught, I didn’t know if l was the only one, I didn’t know if all of us were. I didn’t know anything at that point in time. This was the most helpless I’ve ever felt.” 

The weekend had started as typical as any other for Helton and his friends. 

The day before consisted of deep storm skiing which fueled a stoke that would follow them to the next morning when they woke up to bluebird skies.

“All of a sudden we had this little extra motivation to get after it, which I mean, is red flag number one.”

However, what came the night before was intense overnight loading in the form of rain, coupled with strong winds which prompted an avalanche danger rating of high at all elevations for the area.

Their initial plan was to go and ski long runs in the alpine.

“We tried to climb up [on sleds] but there were lots of signs that other avalanches had happened in the past day because of the loading and obvious wind in the alpine.

“It was a beautiful day but it was pretty unanimous that no one wanted to ski up there,” Helton recalled.

Helton is a 27 year-old skier, sledder and a professional avalanche technician for Sun Peaks Resort with seven years of experience and is used to being the person his cohort looks up to to make critical decisions in the mountains. 

The group stopped for lunch then opted for plan B,  which was to ski a cutblock on the other side of the valley that Blue River locals and families  typically ski.

“This was like our backup plan, so it’s like no matter what it should be fine. That’s probably the biggest mistake that was made that day was assuming that something would be fine just because it seems safe.”

On their way to the cutblock where the avalanche would take place, they stopped to ski at an area called “Last Chance.”

“We had a really awesome run down it with absolutely no [avalanche] results. I was [ski] cutting everything on the way down, no results and the snow was great,” Helton said.

In hindsight, Helton said that bit of information was just another false confidence boost.

After that, the group made their way across the valley to ski the cut block.

“This is where more red flags start popping up.”

According to Helton, that side of the valley sees more wind and less sun. He explained that because of those factors, plus the snow and cold weather that had occurred in the days and weeks prior, a weak layer of facets was more prominent on that side within the snowpack, meaning the snow wasn’t bonding well.

“We were in a sheltered area in the first half of that cut block and once again, all concern just kind of went out the window and we started skiing down,” remembered Helton. “It was like 50 centimetres deep and amazing skiing. I saw this pillow right at the break of the treeline so at this point that [wind] loading was coming in and cross loaded onto the slope.”

As Helton approached the pillow, the snow went from 50 centimetres deep to about two.

He made a turn to the right to escape the hard wind slab, but it was too late.

“As soon as I made that turn everything turned into a rippling white ocean.

“I looked at each flank and didn’t have a good option [to escape]. So I basically just kind of tried to straight line it out, there was a road about 30 metres below me,” Helton recalled.

The road was an obvious terrain trap he said, where snow from the avalanche would pile up and has the potential to accumulate and bury someone even deeper because of the change in angle.

Helton tried to catch some air and get past the road.

“I landed on the road and stood up and as I’m trying to push myself forward, I was engulfed, snow was going over top of me. At that point I tried to throw snow out of my mouth that kept falling around my face.”

Then, there was no moving.

Helton’s group was above him, unaffected by the avalanche and quickly began to search for him with no signs of Helton or his gear above the surface.

One of the three rescuers quickly skied down to see if there were tracks coming out the other side of the debris. Meanwhile, the other two pulled out their transceivers, switched them to search mode, and yelled down to the other member to do the same.

“They said the snow was waist deep on the outskirts of the debris pile. It was pretty tough for them to search for the first two to three minutes. Then they got really close to me and so it was a bit easier to walk as the snow got [firmer] in the middle of the slide,” said Helton.

Of course this also meant that moving the snow would be more difficult.

“They got their transceivers down to two metres, then I was able to hear someone yell ‘Andrew, we’re here for you buddy!’ At that point I made a couple of jokes to try and calm them down…It was the best feeling I ever had, from pretty much the worst of all time.”

Helton wants other backcountry enthusiasts to know an avalanche burial can happen to anyone and if you don’t apply your skills and experience, you could land in the same situation, or worse.

“It was complacency that caused the whole issue.”

In the days and weeks following the incident, Helton has lost sleep at the thought of nearly letting down the people that have reached out in support of him.

“It’s insane the amount of feedback I’ve gotten from friends and people that I may not have thought of as close friends, [they’ve] helped show me how much my life is worth.”

Ultimately, Helton said he has a new outlook on life, and he won’t take the reality check he received lightly.

He also reflected on what they could have done better, and said it’s important for people to remember their avalanche skills training and to use ‘best practices’ when the danger rating is elevated.

“We’ve become relaxed in our practices. We easily could have split that run up into two pieces, but instead we party lapped it.”

Helton said it’s best to ski one at a time from safe spot to safe spot, to keep eyes on each other while skiing, to communicate via radio about the changing conditions on the slope if need be and to make sure you are with an experienced crew that you can trust to save your life.

To read Helton’s Mountain Information Network report from that day click here
Or, to learn about AST courses, avalanche forecasts and more, visit www.avalanche.ca.

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