By Emma Taylor
Published: March. 16, 2013
‘In the mountains, there you feel free’. T.S Eliot’s immortal words epitomise for many the spirit of winter in Sea to Sky country.
The allure of our spectacular Coastal Mountain playground, with its endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, can be irresistible. But it is said that freedom comes at a price. What if that price is life?
For Courtney resident Cory Cameron, the weekend away in Squamish was to relax and celebrate a family birthday.
But little did he know that on Feb. 23, his bleeding nails would be ripped to the beds, digging out a virtual stranger from the debris of a class 2-3 avalanche.
Cameron and a group of around six friends headed out of an overcast Squamish to sunny skies up on Brohm Ridge.
The group were experienced snowmobilers, with several years of sledding in the area behind them. However, it was Cameron’s first year sledding, and his first time in the area.
“I had booked my avalanche training course but I hadn’t completed it at that point,” he said. “I’d been going over the main points with a really experienced rider and he gave me insight into what I should be looking for.”
The Canadian Avalanche Association’s bulletin for the Sea to Sky area that day was rated high:
‘Very dangerous avalanche conditions. Travel in avalanche terrain not recommended. Natural avalanches likely, human triggered avalanches very likely.’
Heavy snowfall in the past 48 hours had left a thick layer on top of a packed ice layer. The adventurous group was aware of the danger, and all carried the necessary equipment: transceivers, shovels and probes.
Cameron saw two avalanches on the way up.
“Everything was sliding that day,” he recalled.
After riding a while, the group took a break and Cameron and Darrell Lavall, a recently introduced companion went for a lap.
Leading the two, Cameron started across the 30-35 degree slope, believing it safe. As he looked up hill to do a check, he saw the snow crack.
‘My entire field of vision was the hill sliding off,” he recalled shakily.
The snowmobiles had triggered a large avalanche, with a slab width of 150 metres – two and a half hockey rinks in length.
Most large slab avalanches begin on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. He rode quickly to an ‘island of safety’ under a patch of trees.
But when the snow stopped flowing around both sides, he realised his companion was missing.
Without hesitation, he pulled out his transceiver, and immediately got a signal 15m uphill. The transceiver said he was buried 1.7-1.8 meters down. With bare hands, he dug and dug furiously.
“My hands were numb from digging but it didn’t slow me down. I didn’t stop, I figure it took me about 10 minutes.”
Statistics show that 93 per cent of avalanche victims survive if dug out within fifteen minutes.
After Lavall started breathing on his own, it took him about 30 minutes to regain consciousness and about another 30 minutes for Cameron to dig him fully out.
The rescued man had a radio, so they called the group, who arrived and dug the hypothermic man’s machine out.
Amazingly, they all rode out of there.
The rescued man was Darrell Lavall, age 39, from Mission, BC. A friend drove him back to Mission that night, where he spent the night in hospital. He has made a full recovery.
“I honestly didn’t believe I was coming out,” he said.
“I thought Cory was taken as well. When I was under the snow I had said my goodbyes to my family.”
Both men still love the sport, and have been out again since the incident. Cameron advises people heading out to the backcountry to be prepared for the worst.
“It’s something I never expected to happen to me and it did,” he said. “Have the right gear, get the training and the first aid experience. “
“Over 90 per cent of recreational avalanche fatalities are triggered by the people involved,” said a CAC spokesman.
“Being educated and prepared for self rescue is vital.”
BC Coroner’s Service statistics show that 181 people have died in avalanches across the province since 1996. 41% were snowmobiling at the time.
Avalanche danger information is available on the CAC website.