A HUSBAND saved the life of his wife Jan. 21 after she was buried in an avalanche while both were skiing outside of the Shames Mountain ski area boundary.
Reports indicated it took the man 10 minutes to dig out his wife after the avalanche buried her in the Dome area, about 3km from the ski resort boundary.
“It was the worst possible nightmare digging out my wife,” the man wrote on a forum contained on the website of the Canadian Avalanche Association, adding she had drifted out of consciousness by the time he found her.
“Though her face was uncovered in ten minutes her lips were blue and she was breathing very weakly.”
“Within a few minutes she regained consciousness and full breathing without assistance, while I continued to dig.”
The couple, from outside of the area, were on their first day of skiing when they went beyond the facility boundaries of Shames and chose an area of moderate difficulty.
“We were taking what seemed to be to us the most logical route,” the husband said on the forum.
But while they climbed the mountain on skis to their chosen destination, they noticed signs of avalanche risk.
“We were not comfortable with a short steep slope above, knowing we were on a hard windslab,” the man said.
A hard windslab is a term for crusted wind-deposited snow, recognizable by soft rolls and dune-like shapes with a hard exterior. Snow packs in a hard layer atop softer snow, and signifies avalanche danger as it’s unstable depending on its bond with snow beneath it.
“The ultimate mistake was not choosing to turn around immediately and instead trying to contour around the small bench below the slope hoping to find an alternate route.”
The husband crossed below the steep-slope first but when his wife crossed, the avalanche was triggered.
The snow broke off along the entire length of the slope above, carrying her about 100m on the surface until the slide stopped and buried her about half a metre deep.
“She slammed her head forward as the snow settled around her in an attempt to make an air pocket,” he said. “This was mildly successfully, providing a few centimetres in front of her face.
“She was able to chew and swallow the snow that was in her mouth instead of choking on it.”
Her husband, unable to see her, skid downhill, found her, and uncovered her buried face within 10 minutes.
Badly shaken, but without injuries, the couple began to travel back to the Shames ski facility.
Backcountry skiing is a double edged sword for the Shames ski facility, said general manager Christian Theberge.
Signs clearly mark the boundaries, explaining skiing beyond is at one’s own risk, and the resort doesn’t patrol the area beyond or take responsibility for anything there, said Theberge.
“The reason we don’t go into backcountry is we have a responsibility to our skiers,” said Theberge. “We can’t put our people at risk either.”
The hill did pass some radios to others unaffiliated with the business who went looking for the skiers.
Upon their return, ski patrollers checked the couple out and encouraged a hospital visit.
“No injuries. She was very fortunate,” said Theberge, adding that in an incident like that one, self-rescue is the best chance for survival.
“I shudder to think of the alternative scenario,” wrote the husband in the forum.
But while the couple knew what avalanche signs to look for, and had basic equipment such as a shovels, beacons and probes, Theberge said he knows of people skiing backcountry without these things.
“And we really hope that this sort of event can open people’s eyes to the dangers that exist out there and the importance of having the proper equipment and training before you leave the area,” he said.
“There’s definitely a growing population of backcountry enthusiasts.”
Avalanche information, including daily conditions, is available on the Canadian Avalanche Association website.
“There isn’t much you can do about the avalanche conditions but you can make terrain choices that are appropriate to the avalanche conditions,” said Hatha Callis, a local professional member of the avalanche association and ski guide.
Hatha said training is critical to making safe choices and performing rescues if need be.
Training providers and avalanche related information can be found at avalanche.ca.