BRITISH COLUMBIA

Snowboarder Survives Whistler Avalanche After Being Buried In Tree Well

12/24/2015 02:23 EST | Updated 12/23/2016 05:12 EST
Philip Johnson/Facebook
Colin D. Watt says he's lucky to be alive after an avalanche in Whistler swept him into a tree well and buried him in snow Saturday.

The experienced snowboarder and two friends ventured into the area under Whistler's Sea to Sky Gondola, which had pristine powder that morning. It was also out of bounds.

Watt was caught in an avalanche and pushed 150 feet down the slope and into a tree well. He says it was the worst thing he had ever experienced in his life.

"Basically, I was a present under a Christmas tree, and snow just kept funneling in and did not stop until I was completely buried."

From bad to worse

Watt had one hand free and managed to sweep away some of the snow above him so he could see.  His friends carefully made their way toward him.

He began to call out to his friends.

"Boys, boys!"

Then, more snow came crashing from above.

I FUCKED UP and I'm fully willing to admit it, but these mistakes are also mistakes that plenty of people make too often and I'd like to try to help change that... hopefully people can learn from my mistakes instead of learning the hard way. You'll get the full story tomorrow but I went against my instincts twice in one day, and both of those decisions could have prevented things from going the way they did: I woke up on Sunday December 20th and checked the snow report to see 27cm of fresh had fallen on top of lots of recent storm snow and thought to myself that wearing a beacon would be a good choice but then I thought that I'd be riding the resort, it's relatively safe and nobody else will be wearing a beacon anyways. Once we found ourselves on top of a sketchy run beyond the boundary ropes on Whistler, I thought that ski-cutting the slope to trigger any moving snow would be a smart decision so that we could test to see if anything would slide without letting anybody go down with it, and I didn't do this either. I thought of 2 smart, safe, reasonable ideas and for some reason I went against my instincts twice in one day. Don't be an idiot like me, always go with your instinct, and always go with your friends, safely. #ThankYouPhil #ThanksGary #SorryMom

A photo posted by Colin D. Watt (@colindwatt) on



"All of a sudden, snow just enters my airway ... I couldn't breathe. I had snow all the way down my throat."

His friends accidentally triggered another avalanche on their way down.

Now, Watt was completely buried and his friends could not see him. He says they took a guess and just started digging.

"It went from pitch black and it went a shade lighter with every scoop of snow he peeled off. Next thing you know I've got a leather glove sweeping snow off my face," Watt said. "I look him in the eyes and he doesn't hesitate. [He] shoves two fingers down my throat and rips all the snow out of my airway."

Tree well safety

People often don't see trees as hazards on the mountain, but ski patrol professionals say that needs to change.

"Just because you think you're an intermediate skier, and you're off just in the trees on kind of a mellow run where no avalanches exist, that doesn't mean deep snow and tree well hazards don't exist in those places," said Gwyn Howat, vice president of operations at Mount Baker Ski Area and the co-author of deepsnowsafety.org.

Howat says staying in the line of sight with friends at all times is critical. The time it takes to find a friend again in the trees can be the difference between life and death.

It's so imperative that when people go into treed areas, and deep snowed areas, that you actually remain in sight with your partner," she said. "People can suffocate in a tree well in deep snow immersion as quickly as someone can drown."

Watt says people should always bring their avalanche gear if they plan to go into the backcountry. One out of three people in his group on Saturday brought that gear, which included a shovel.

It almost certainly saved his life.

To listen to the full audio, click here.

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