Fernie local, Caleb Brown, cheated death last Sunday when he survived a deadly 3.0 magnitude avalanche which carried him 1.4 kilometres in just over a minute.
On the day of the full moon, Sunday, March 12, Brown and his good friend Pete Basaraba headed to Golden B.C., and upon arrival, set out into the back country to ski. On the way they noticed five signs, or red flags, that the terrain was dangerous, yet continued on.
With two red flags, a skier should decide to ski simpler terrain, at three flags you’re supposed to turn back.
Brown noted there had been snow, wind and warmer temperatures throughout the week which he recognized, but ruled out as a non-deciding factor.
Hiking up to the T2 peak, which is half in bounds, the two continued over to T3, completely out of bounds. On the way up, Brown heard a whumpfing sound, the result of an unstable snow-pack collapsing under their weight.
By this time it was 4 p.m.
“We should have turned around right there,” said Brown in hindsight, who ignored the fourth flag. “I let my ego get in the way. I just wanted to ski it.”
A voice inside his head told him to ski the lower, safer path, but he ignored this as well. He later noted how it was hard to differentiate between “psyching yourself out, and hearing your true voice of reason”.
Atop T3, Brown and Basaraba scouted out the chute before them. It possessed a near-perfect bowl feature, with a sharp spine on the right. The chute carried down about 300 metres and choked out at the bottom.
Brown pushed forward with two quick test turns, penetrating 15 cm into fresh powder. At this point, he decided he wanted to start skiing the spine, and pop back into the chute further down.
The two friends made plans to meet each other at the bottom, and set off, Brown taking the spine route, and Basaraba waiting atop the bowl.
As soon as Brown got onto the spine, he realized how much more snow there was there, than in the chute. He recalls it being extremely wind-loaded, the result of denser snow being deposited on weaker snow, creating a heavy slab on top which is prone to fracture and break easily.
“As soon as I got on the ridge, I realized it was a really bad place to be,” said Brown. “Before I could even get through my thought process it had all broken away, huge chunks (spreads his arms 4-5 feet) were going over this edge, and I didn’t really know what was down there.”
The bank fractured above Brown, and rushing snow immediately started to overtake him, pulling him down the cliff side with immense force. He knew that the chute (bowl) to his left flushed out at the bottom with no cliffs, and in the moment he considered his best bet for survival would be to dive headfirst back into the chute to his left, rather than plummet off the unknown edge in front of him.
“So I basically head-dove into the chute, because my skis were getting taken away, and I needed to get into it,” said Brown.
The skier dove head first to his left, in the direction the snow was falling. People asked Brown afterwards, why he didn’t have an air bag (inflatable backpack). If he had, Brown admitted it might have given him a false sense of security, to simply pull it and let the snow take him.
It turned out diving left into the chute, saved his life, as the other option would have taken him down a 250 foot slope of sheer rock, which exposed itself when the snow gave way.
“My air bag wouldn’t have helped me there,” he said with a slight grimace.
Diving into the chute to his left, Brown was enveloped by snow and covered in darkness. As the powder crushed him, it tossed him onto his chest, his back, his face, brief moments of light flashing in his vision. At this point he had lost all his gear, and he tried to reach a hand out of the snow for help, yet continually became buried.
As the snow tossed him unmercifully down the mountain, Brown struggled to swim out of the ocean of powder, eventually losing the use of his arms due to exhaustion. Time seemed to slow down as he entered a euphoric state. At this point he lost consciousness.
“The last 30 seconds I don’t remember because I passed out, lack of oxygen,” said Brown. “I reached a point where I reached this super euphoric state, and I couldn’t move my arms anymore.”
“It’s crazy, if I would’ve died that day, I would’ve died really, really peacefully,” he added.
While lying there, still moving, hopeless, and with energy escaping him, many thoughts rushed through Brown’s mind before slowly coming to peace with where he was. Firstly, Brown thought of his friend at the top of the ridge.
“My position was a lot easier than his was,” said Brown, explaining that Basaraba had thought he died.
He also thought of his mother and father, who had messaged him earlier, cautioning him to be careful, that temperatures were increasing and things were changing.
“It seemed like there was a lot of time to think,” said Brown.
Contrary to a cinematic depiction of a near-death experience, Brown did not see the future or have his life flash before his eyes. The one moment that stuck in his mind as he lost consciousness, was when he said farewell to his friend who had dropped him off at the ski hill that day; he wondered if this would the last person he would ever say goodbye to.
The last thing Brown remembers from the slide is being tossed off the edge of a cliff.
“I just remember feeling (weightless) and landing again,” he said.
When Brown came to, he was sitting upright in the snow, one foot buried. Attempting to lift it up, he realized his knee had been twisted, which turned out to be a torn MCL. Besides this, cuts and bruises were the only other physical injuries he sustained.
“I turned around, looked uphill, and I could not believe how far I had gone,” said Brown. “I couldn’t even see the peak where I started.”
According to Google Earth, Brown was carried 1.4 kilometres. It was incredibly hard for him to judge how long he was under, but he estimates he traveled this distance in about a minute and a half.
Brown took a moment to catch his breath while attempting to get in contact with Basaraba. He was in an extreme state of shock, although he did not realize it at the time.
Shortly after, Basaraba found Brown, and they embraced in complete awe at what had just happened.
Safe and sound at home, Brown was welcomed by all his good friends, in a celebration of life. This was surreal for him, as they had hosted a similar celebration a few years back, for a friend who passed away. Brown felt very privileged to be present for his celebration.
“Instead of it being a celebration of my past life, it was a celebration of what’s to come,” he said, smiling.
Looking back, the local doesn’t feel like the same person he was, two weeks ago.
In retrospect, Brown is worried that the trust other fellow skiers place in him will be less. However, he now considers himself wiser through this experience.
“I have been given a gift and perspective that will allow me to live my dream with wisdom,” Brown wrote in a blog post after the event. “Possibly there are no mistakes, only judgment calls that have consequences.”
Although his injury marks the end of the season for the skier, he knows he will be back, “more experienced and calculated than ever.”
Brown would like to click into his skies once more this season; something he foresees as being a powerful moment.
To read more about his Caleb’s experiences, visit his blog: https://freeskiercalebbrown.wordpress.com/