Backcountry skier recounts near-death experience of being swept down steep couloir

Near-death in avalanche

A Revelstoke-area man is recounting his harrowing experience being caught up in an avalanche.

Andrew Sheppard, an experienced backcountry skier, says he had a "terrifying, near-death experience" on Friday as he was swept down the intimidating Brownshorts couloir outside of Revelstoke Mountain Resort.

"I write this in hope that others may learn from my painful mistakes," he posted on The Revelstoke Ski Tourers Facebook page.

Sheppard says he woke up Friday morning planning on meeting a friend and going for a "slack-country" walk outside the ski area boundary. Instead, he was in for a scary experience.

"I checked the Avalanche Canada website, and saw that they were calling the avalanche risk 'Considerable/Moderate.' My first thought was to heed the warning and manage the risk by making conservative terrain choices... I thought if we hiked the peak, we could ski back down the south side, sticking to mellow angles and previously skied terrain." 

But, when Sheppard noticed several parties on the peak already, he says "ski brain" took over.

"My 'let’s go skiing' voice drowned out any conservative thinking, and suddenly, I found myself ready to ski exactly what I didn’t want to be even thinking about earlier that day."

Forgetting his usual backcountry pre-run safety procedures, Sheppard wrote: "Off I went, skiing into the open mouth of a shark."

He barely got into the chute "when the whole thing cracked underneath me, instantly taking me on a magic carpet ride. It was hard slab, and I could quickly feel that even though there wasn’t an enormous amount of snow above me, it was dense, heavy, and powerful, and I was not going to be able to escape it easily."

Sheppard guesses he was about 50 metres down the chute when another powerful wave of snow overtook him.

"This extinguished any hopes that I was going to get out of this slide. Here I was, helplessly rag-dolling down Brownshorts in a turbulent slab avalanche, thinking 'will you be buried alive, or pasted on a rock outcropping at the bottom?' 

"I tumbled helplessly in a spin cycle of white, gasping for air but breathing in snow. I was dreading a massive impact on the rock outcroppings that were fast approaching below when suddenly I was airborne. I thought 'please be a soft landing, PLEASE be a soft landing!”, and sure enough the combination of avalanche debris and soft snow cushioned my landing as I continued to rag-doll through the cliffs. Then I was airborne again, tumbling through the air like a cat thrown out a window, this time with significantly more hang time."

He made another relatively soft landing and tumbled to a stop.

"I immediately stood up, performing a rapid self-assessment as I coughed out the snow that was packed in my lungs. I couldn’t believe it, after being freight trained down the entire chute and launched off two cliffs, I was able to stand on my own two feet, bend my knees, move my arms, my head, and there was no blood on the snow (or anywhere else)."

He could feel his backside starting to swell and realized he must have taken a substantial hit on the way down.

"I looked over and saw some people standing on the ridge ... and waved my hands, signalling that I was OK. They yelled out and asked if I was hurt, I responded yes."

The onlookers called in ski patrol as Sheppard waited, "rattled and in disbelief that I was relatively OK after what I had just been through."

He says he felt "pretty small and foolish" once help arrived and he was loaded on a toboggan.

He was taken to the hospital for X-rays, which showed he had broken his coccyx, "but everything else was fine."

Sheppard says he feels "incredibly lucky" to have survived the incident with only minor injuries.

"I have to look at this as an opportunity for reflection, and hopefully others can learn from my mistakes... I went from wanting to make conservative terrain choices, to being almost willfully ignorant of the obvious risks around me," he wrote.

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