Technicalities of Disaster


Philip McLachlan Photo

My recent experience has left me with new outlooks and appreciations. It has also left me with haunting thoughts and realizations. I want to go over a few of the mistakes I made that day to help myself and others in the future. I also want to express what I am now most grateful for, only a few days after the incident.

As an avid backcountry user, there are signs that I am aware of and heed too. The day of the avalanche I noted five red flags. Five! After three red flags we should have firmly decided to ski simpler terrain. After the fourth red flag we should have gone back in bounds.

There had been recent snow and wind throughout the entire week and earlier that day I noticed recent avalanche activity. It was a small pile of debris on a different aspect than what we wanted to ski so it caught my attention but I ruled it out as a non-deciding factor. Those signs were at the back of my mind, I did not spend too much time thinking about them. Red flag #4 was a whumphing cornice on our ridge walk over to the peak. We should have turned around right there. The last, and to me the most important red flag was the voice inside my head telling me to ski the lower, safer slope but I ignored that voice. This voice is so important, but it can be very hard to know the difference between psyching yourself out or hearing your true voice of reason. To differentiate the two comes down to instinct. You may hear many voices of concern before you ski a line but if you pay attention and trust your instinct you will know when to listen and act on it.

Being in tune with myself and with nature has helped me be successful in the backcountry for over ten years. I’ve been pushing boundaries as long as I can remember, with almost no close calls. Until this winter. I made a few decisions that brought me closer to an avalanche than ever before. I thought about this before I dropped into T3 which ended up cracking 40-50cm deep, 150m wide and ran for over 1km.

I had been building up confidence all season, I was comfortable with the dangers. Those close calls were not enough to scare me away. I will admit my ego got in the way that day. I allowed it to overpower my voice of reason, a mistake I am ashamed of but can learn and grow from.

Many things will come to light over the next few weeks. Now it is fresh and my mind is still processing. Since Sunday I have come to appreciate a few things, things I love already. But love itself now has a new meaning.

I am grateful for friendships and family. The amount of love and support I have received over the past few days has made me realize how many people I have affected, and how many lives I can still change.

I am grateful for the peaks around Fernie. They recently showed themselves. The clouds retreated and the peaks had sunlight and fresh snow on them. I wanted to ski them, which felt good, reassuring me that I will return to the mountains.   

I am grateful to have people to think about. Instead of closing my eyes and being surrounded by snow I feel surrounded by love and by light.

I am grateful for this winter. It was one of the best winters I’ve ever had, and this experience does not change that.

I am grateful for being able to dance and play music for my friends. I can’t imagine not being able to do this.

I am grateful for avoiding the slope that ripped to ground and everything that happened for me to be left above the snow.

I am grateful for the strength to fight for my life and the guardian angels that I know were there.

I am grateful that my partner was able to make it down safely and for us to be able to ski away that day.

Two days ago a friend that I have never skied with before said that he could not wait for next year. He wanted me to show him around the backcountry. I was astonished. I was worried people were going to be afraid to ski with me. This has been my greatest fear. Are people going to trust me the same? He made me realize though that If anything, this experience has humbled me. I will be more cautious and pay more attention. I now have a sense and understanding that not many people have. With that, I am more apt to protect myself or anyone in my group from a circumstance like this.

I have been given a gift and perspective that will allow me to live my dream with wisdom. Possibly, there are no mistakes, only judgment calls that have consequences. But if I take responsibility I will grow through this and be stronger. At this time it is hard for me to imagine skiing a loaded spine, but I know I will be back. More experienced and calculated than ever.

3 thoughts on “Technicalities of Disaster

  1. Caleb, if you had to experience this, it is wonderful to see what you have learned. You’ve thought of your decisions that day and why you made them. In a great way, you have aged and matured. Thank God you are safe!
    Carry on, o ski bound nephew and ride those waves! 💖

  2. Good read, glad your here to write for us. Enjoy the mountains with what they give. Be careful because they can take. See their signs,understand their triggers, know and feel when to say no. Live long share and be wise.

  3. I am so grateful for you, Caleb. Continue to use your voice and heed the one inside, as your guide. I love you forever.

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