Last week, the legendary freeride snowboarder saw his friend die in an avalanche. He talks us through it, and implores others to consider the life-threatening dangers of powder fever
As told to Abigail Butcher. Feature image by Tero Repo.
Secret had already slid on the Friday, but not in the same spot — the real consequence in that couloir is on the access, where Jamie got taken. It slabbed in a huge, crazy way that I’ve never seen before because it had been so dry for so long that a very bad layer had formed at the base of the snowpack. By this time in the season we’ve had more snow and everything is normally well skied which stabilises it and makes it safer — but not this winter.
I was in the very basic run, the wide open col on the side of Attelas where it was really tracked. Halfway down I saw the big slide coming down Rock n Roll — it looked like a lot of dust and I kept my eyes on it to watch for any victims while putting my transceiver into search mode. As it settled and I went over, I saw an airbag sticking out of the snow and started to dig out some snow around the head of the victim.
“When I started CPR I felt so useless”
His legs and arms were in such weird positions for a brief moment I thought “it’s a dummy — why would they send a dummy down there?”. My mind blocked, I was going through the motions and kept digging. That’s when I saw blood and realised it was a person, but I didn’t recognise Jamie as his face was so bruised, he had a big hole in his helmet.
I felt so angry, so stupid, that I’ve spent years doing safety videos and mountain safety demos … only a couple of months ago I did one on CPR, yet when I started CPR I felt so useless. I directed others to continue searching but felt like I didn’t know anything. Someone came to help who was very experienced with CPR and took over but there were no signs of life at all.
The media reports of a big group were all wrong — Jamie was skiing with one other friend of mine who had gone first and was waiting in a safe spot behind the ridge but Jamie never arrived. No one above him set it off, he was not a professional but was experienced in the mountains and spent a lot of time in these couloirs. One other girl further below was partially buried and sustained a knee injury, another guy was taken but thrown out of the side without injuries, but it could have been a lot worse.
The hardest thing about this sport is that when something happens, it happens so quickly. You go from having the best moment of your life — with sunshine, powder, friends, everyone excited — and in a flash it becomes the worst day of your life and I mean injury, death… it hurts to say it, but it does happen.
“I’ve gone through bad situations in the mountains… I was resuscitated and brought back to life after effectively dying in an avalanche in 2008”
That same weekend in Switzerland, seven people died (five in one week in Verbier which is completely unseen and tells how unsafe the conditions are). The numbers are getting so crazy it’s becoming close to everyone. On the Saturday before Jamie died, 20 people in Verbier had to pull their airbags — it’s a very rare tool of safety, a last resort. I’ve only ever pulled mine twice. When you see those numbers you know people aren’t using them as a last resort but thinking ‘I have an airbag, I am safer’.
I’ve gone through bad situations in the mountains. I know a lot, I’ve done a lot — I was resuscitated and brought back to life after effectively dying in an avalanche in 2008. That happened because of over-confidence. But experience in the mountain has limited value as the snow always proves you wrong. I’ve never dug anyone from an avalanche, I’ve never seen anyone die.
I’m always the one preaching for people to be reasonable, but I would have done the same thing as Jamie if I hadn’t been playing it safe with the big group because however much stronger I like to think I am, I have the same weakness in new snowfall that we all have. It’s too good to turn back because you’re unsure. Turning back and saying no is the hardest thing in this sport — risk is too subjective.
So on such a day I don’t go up to the highs of the resort, I go later when the fever has cooled, I don’t give myself the temptation. For the first track I still get the chance to do really cool and really crazy lines but when it’s safer and that all the stars are aligned— I really pick my days. I like being chilled, waiting for when it’s good and feels good and then going for something big.
“Experience in the mountain has limited value as the snow always proves you wrong”
Since the big avalanche in 2008, when I’ve openly said I got myself into that situation because of over-confidence, I’ve been really scared. It was the one and only second chance that you get in life. One of the routines I learned through these bad experiences over the years, is that I always force myself to be scared, to be paranoid and not to succumb to the excitement of the moment and close my eyes to potential danger. It took work but helps me a lot to take the right decisions and stay aware of potential dangers around me.
Also when considering dropping into a line, I automatically think of the worst-case scenario and see if I can play around it, if there is a solution. If not, I turn back. And it’s annoying and a burden to always be the one killing the fun and reminding people of the dangers and procedures.
The sad thing is that I don’t know what the solution is to the surge in freeriding and the way it is leading to so many fatal accidents. As more people go into the backcountry (particularly this year with Covid), more carry airbags, there are going to be so many more accidents. We inspired it with films of freeriding — but when you see the result, it’s so painful. I feel a duty to explain how to ride safely, which is why I’ve been producing my series How to XV on YouTube with The North Face and safety webinars, but the truth is people will only take what they want from it. We speak of education but the reality is that the message is quite heavy and tough to acknowledge.
“I won’t forget the pervading feeling I had when digging that snow”
I really don’t know what is the solution to all this. Having the ability to close off freeriding access like in the US is not an option but I do know that these guys who sit behind a desk for a year and look forward to their one week in the mountains will of course be on that first lift if there’s powder. It’s human instinct.
As for me, getting back on the horse will take time. Going up again riding lines will be tough — I will only do it when it feels super-right. Taking risks, feeling like I’m pushing it will feel disrespectful. I won’t forget the pervading feeling I had when digging that snow; that here I am giving lessons to others and in the real situation all my senses are blocked.