Many of you will no doubt be looking to the backcountry this winter as a potential alternative to closed resorts and as a safe way to escape the crowds in those that are open. Do yourselves a favour, read this story before you head out there, and consider every step you take. Even people who have spent their entire their lives studying snowpacks and evaluating risk in the backcountry can still be blindsided without a second’s warning, with a few footsteps being the difference between being able to talk about it afterwards, or not.
Extracted from Methodmag issue 21.3
Words: Kyle HansenKhan
Photos: Brandon Huttenlocher
I woke up this morning in the same place I woke the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. The walls are an off white colour, neutral and bright. The lights themselves, familiar and dull, seem to shine in from every direction. This feels like home, but not one I built myself. Sixty days ago, an avalanche blindsided me. I had no warning - the first thing I felt was a shove on my back. And then: Down. Down 500 feet of a steep chute with trees on either side. I only had one foot strapped into my snowboard at the start, so I was truly powerless as the moving surface beneath me picked up more and more speed. I was in a dangerous position; I knew it would only take one collision with a tree to destroy my leg or crack my skull. Tumbling in a haze of the light, cold snow, losing track of up and down, I did have the time to scream. One scream to let my friends know that I wasn’t dead yet, but also that I could be soon. It could have been my last communication with another human being. I hoped I had communicated what I meant to. Soon, the roaring noise dropped to a halt, and the turbulent, amorphous, billowing cloud of white settled solidly on top of me. It was at that moment I started my journey to this room. I haven’t left yet. Nor do I know when I’ll be able to leave. I wasn’t expecting to be here. I mean, I wasn’t expecting to die either. I thought that of all of the possible outcomes of that day, the world would continue to turn, with me or without. Instead, the world seems to have stopped. Instead, I’m here. Looking at the same carpet I looked at yesterday - the only indication of time being the gradual buildup of pine needles on the floor from my daily limps out to fetch the mail.
The trip started in the middle of February. We were on a mission to find snow in a few remote locations around the island of Hokkaido, Japan. The location of the avalanche was just a secondary destination to our primary objective, a sort of back pocket mission we planned on checking out only should we find ourselves with the time. As fortune would have it, the first part of our trip did go well. So Rob Timmerman, photographer Brandon Huttenlocher and I did find ourselves with time to explore central Hokkaido. Rob is a coworker of mine, as well as a fellow powder-turn enthusiast. He also happens to be an excellent cook. He’d already scouted a location in a large volcanic nature reserve and was more than happy to share it with us. His description of the terrain around the backcountry onsen lodge he’d found cemented the goal in our minds. The fact that there was a fully stocked community kitchen, a massive outdoor onsen, and that Rob had volunteered to cook for us were just cherries on top of an already appetizing dream zone. On our mind before the trip were logistics, supplies, routes and powder. We had heard of the looming COVID virus, but as a byline in a world where a new disease seemed muted in headlines dominated by tense events and dire consequences. We were barely six weeks into the year, and already we’d had Australia burn to the ground, an exchange of missiles between our country and Iran, and WWIII trending on Twitter. We were mindful of hygiene on our flights over, but more out of a sense of general personal safety rather than an impending globe changing event. There had been no deaths announced in our state, nor were there reports of community transmission there. It was a normal world we embarked from. The world we’d eventually return to would be an altogether different reality.
My focus on the moment was crystal clear on the morning of Feb 29th - the day before the avalanche. That date only comes around every four years, but the conditions we were walking out into were far more unique and rare than a Leap Day. Lacing up our boots, we knew this was the kind of day we’d been searching for. Though Japan had been having an uncharacteristically warm and poor snow season to that point, the week before we arrived had been quite snowy and cold. The forecast was clear, fairly calm, and cool. Everywhere we looked indicated we were walking up a mountain covered in a stable snowpack. There were no chairlifts in the entire reserve and no worries of racing for fresh tracks. Touring up, we passed massive marshmallows of powder and rime blanketing frozen trees - greeting us with the welcome news that the snow would be light, fast, and just deep enough to feel bottomless.
A number of setbacks could have pulled the day off track. We struggled through each with good communication among the team. This was not our first venture, and our Leap Day was not to be foiled. The deep cold of the Hokkaido night had frozen our rental car’s battery, slowing our morning. A firm crust along the skin track at a somewhat exposed section tested our nerves, making us regret that we’d forgotten our Flex Locks. Once we first crested the peak, a well-lit alpine face just up the ridge tempted us to ride an impressively steep, weaving line. Our timing was perfect, with the daylight just beginning to peak into the north-facing throne, and plenty of light left in the day for the excursion. Brandon kept checking the line through his viewfinder. He would have loved the shot, and I would have loved to ride it. However, the danger factor was significant. The exit was clean, but just barely. An uncontrolled slide wasn’t likely, but if initiated in just the wrong spot, could end with a crash into rocks. After a group consideration, we made the call against riding it. We had moved mountains of gear to get there, scored perfect conditions, yet we still refrained from an extremely enticing line, valuing safety above ego. We’d all been riding together long enough to know that on a long enough timeline, even moderate risks can catch up with you eventually. We all intended, and still intend, to have long, safe lifetimes of enjoying the backcountry. We rode down a more conservative, yet still significant, gully as an alternative. We were rewarded with some of the most fun turns of our season. The extra time left us with enough daylight for two laps through exceptionally light snow.
We took full advantage of what nature was offering us. We covered ground quickly. Each ridge gained offered another view of the natural reserve. Peaks, ridges and valleys seemed to dance around us. The terrain was the perfect size. Big enough to awe us with every new view, small enough that our legs were able to get us to the next feature before the light had moved too far. We spent that day chasing the sun, riding whichever faces and gullies best caught our eye. The local fumaroles and vents were active all the while, adding still more to the grandeur of our time in the volcanoes of central Hokkaido. By the end of the day, we had circumnavigated multiple prominent features and pushed our bodies hard, though we seemed to always have just enough time to fully absorb the ever-changing vistas.
The day of my avalanche, on the other hand, started with the muted expectations of a filler day. The weather was far less ideal - cloudy and grey, with only an inch or two of fresh snow. Satisfied from the day before, we went touring that day simply because we were there, and we liked to move around outside. We had the expressed goal of a mellow, shorter day. The line we ended up choosing was the smallest of a series of chutes through the trees. Nice, but not particularly noteworthy. Making a high-speed turn in the cold, dry snow accumulated at the bottom would be worth the hike, though how much more is hard to say. Indeed, it was not worth dying for. There’s always a risk with any activity but had we better known the risk of this day, Rob and I would never have started walking up that line.
The problem is, we often don’t have a better knowledge of the risk. Knowing what you don’t know is a big part of growing, and a problem with backcountry riding is that often this knowledge doesn’t come until you learn it the hard way. Based on what we did know that morning, we were making safe calls and mitigating risks. Of course, we knew to always be on guard in the backcountry. We had identified and discussed a fairly comprehensive list of threats to avoid. Still, we were completely unaware that we were underestimating a significant danger of the day. The precise cause of the slide, much like the weather that day, remains somewhat blurry. The lightly snowing clouds hung low, obstructing the view of the release point. And ultimately, there is less to learn from the details of that particular slide than from reflection on the thought process that led me to that point. The knowledge of how to identify risky snowpacks in central Hokkaido’s backcountry in the first storm after an extended high-pressure system is knowledge that may or may not come in handy to me in the future. Figuring out how to identify situations with excessive uncertainty, or updating my risk tolerance altogether, could very likely lengthen my life.
We started on the valley floor, with cold, dry, well-bonded snow, and little hint of the sparse gusts of wind we’d seen along the road. A good portion of the chutes above us were sucker routes into exposure. Visibility was poor, and the higher elevations were often icy, so we opted to start low and stay in the trees, entirely avoiding approaches that would put us on top of lines from above. The idea to bootpack up one of the shorter chutes was not mine, but I loved it. The days before had shown us a largely stable snowpack, and only a couple inches of light snow had fallen overnight. The most significant danger in our eyes was getting lost and ending up cliffed out in bad visibility, or straying onto an open face that could slide us over exposure. This plan mitigated both of those possibilities - and it got us riding steep pow! Rob and I would hike up from the base of the line, with Brandon in touch via radio as he posted up across the valley shooting photos. Rob was the first one to back off from the line. I had sender plates; he didn’t. I was ahead, creating the bootpack with the help of the plates. There was some very challenging bushwhack climbing necessitated to get up around the choke, and he was unable to pass the crux without the plates. “Let’s get out of here!” He yelled. “OK,” I replied. “I’ll changeover a little higher. I see a good spot.” It’s hard to pick out which spot to stop at when everywhere you could changeover is exposed. Had the avalanche hit me in the spot I held that conversation at, I would have been less likely to survive.
With the help of some radio communication, I quickly ascended towards the new designated changeover spot. I was near to safety when I discovered a problem. The small section above me was somehow far deeper than any other section of the chute, though the aspect and angle were nearly identical. I was perplexed. I tried moving through a bush on the right side of the hill, but the snow there was just as concerning. Time to turn around - now! My changeover was fast, but I lost some time picking up pieces of my nearly new whippet, which had chosen this ascent to start falling apart. Had I gotten my pack together just 30 seconds faster, I could have fared much better in the slide or avoided it altogether. But blaming my nearly-new whippet’s failure doesn’t prevent me from getting in another slide in the future, or fix my leg now. I made the call to be up in the snow that day, and managing gear is one of the responsibilities I took on when doing that. I got one foot in, and my bag mostly packed. I was on my heelside edge. I could have strapped in my back foot, but I found it easier to keep snow out of my pack by dealing with my headwear first. That decision not to rush to get my back foot attached to the board would cost me my hamstring tendon’s attachment to my hip. Some lessons are cheaper than others. Suddenly, I felt that indiscriminate, powerful shove from behind. My very first reaction was almost that someone was pushing me, but my next thought made it through enough circuits in my brain to be accurate - avalanche. I immediately reached to unstrap my front foot. I was unable to in the rush of snow. Reaching forward to unstrap was unbalancing me, and I needed to keep my feet ahead of me. I was in a bad spot.
The slide moved fast. I tumbled a couple of times, but I kept swimming to keep myself near the top. The enveloping white cloud obstructed my view, and the turbulence kept me from ever really knowing how I was positioned. My fighting may have helped influence my path down the avalanche, though I’ll never know for certain. When the dust settled, I was relieved to discover I was not terribly buried. I was mostly on top, near the very toe of the apron. I’d slid a long way - 400 feet of elevation at least. Rob and Brandon yelled. They didn’t know if I was conscious or where I had ended up. I was able to shake and brush myself out of the top layer. It was relieving to see my friends’ faces, though unnerving to hear the concern in their voices. I could tell Brandon thought he might have lost a friend. I let them know what I knew: “I’m safe, but I might be hurt. I might have torn my left hamstring.” I didn’t have any pain yet, but I’ve been injured enough times to recognise when I’m in too much shock to register pain. From the way I had tumbled through the avalanche, I suspected my leg would soon start to hurt. It took me a while to work up to trying to move any parts of my body.
As one does in shock, I kept replaying the events of the slide in my head. Everything was so vivid. If I had to name my mistakes now, I can say that I underestimated the extent of windloading in that zone, and really the power of windloading in that entire region. Wind is an issue everywhere, but at home in Washington, I’ve never seen that much snow drift so quickly. In the fourteen hours since we were last on that hill, the upper mountain had changed drastically. I learned this lesson at a price, and a hefty one at that, but at least it was a cheque I could write while breathing. And as it turns out, it was a debt I was going to pay either way. Either to this avalanche or to COVID-19’s lockdown, my 2020 season was to be a wash from that point forward. The next lesson the mountains offer could cost even more.
As an isolated case, it might be fair to brush the whole accident off as simply unlucky: one of those unlikely accidents that happen when time catches up to lives built around small, acceptable risks stacked up over time. The buildup of snow in that chute was truly perplexing: seemingly entirely unpredictable. I was hit from above by a slide that may well have been remote or naturally triggered. Looking at that peak, the area I was in really didn’t seem to be such a likely target for such a slide. Many other groups had toured to more dangerous areas on that same day, looking at the same conditions we had done. Looking at the mountain from across the valley, the chute we chose looked to be one of the safer, more tame chutes. Even if the risk is minimised, highly unlikely outcomes can still happen, and I would be ignorant not to acknowledge that aspect of backcountry risk. I’ve accepted that. The question I have to ask myself is: had I done everything I could to minimise the risk that day?
If a day with such low expectations can nearly kill me, and one of my goals is a full life of chasing snow, am I doing this right? What more, and what less, can I do to stay safe? I’ve long believed that every moment we’re alive should be treated with significance and enjoyed. That being said, snowboarding is an existence dictated largely by our relationship with the ever-changing conditions of nature. And so much of this search comes down to the moments, incredibly rare, where conditions come together perfectly. It is the life built around the chase for these moments that I crave. The moments themselves, I’ve had a handful of already. But the life built around them, and all the wonderful little excursions they introduce me to, I don’t think I’ll ever stop needing. Learning to be selective is a vital skill; the ability to walk away is what will keep this life of chasing going. The issue at hand here isn’t the lack of willingness to walk away, but rather the intrinsic difficulty of separating the moments worth walking away from, from the moments worth diving into. That’s the skill I need to improve upon, though I must also acknowledge that I will never be perfect at it.
I’m alive right now, sitting in my room, but it’s certainly a different kind of existence than the one I had on Leap Day. And even today, chipping away at desk projects, I feel a little more invigorated knowing that this is just another step on the way to the next adventure I’m dreaming of. The thought of another day like that fuels me. Leap Day was not devoid of risk, but it was certainly full of what I’m looking for in life. The problem isn’t that I can’t eliminate risk in the backcountry. I can. I can stop snowboarding entirely. But that also kills a part of me. The question of how to keep snowboarding, of how to keep doing any of the things that truly make us feel alive, is a little harder when faced with the probability of death. So, how do we balance that? How do we evaluate risk? The truth is, I’m not in purgatory after almost dying from an avalanche. I’m recovering from hamstring surgery in the middle of a global pandemic. Life is complex, hard, and often unpredictable. So is evaluating risk in the backcountry. I’m not in some deity’s waiting room. I’m in my old bedroom, recovering. All the same, I’m stuck here reflecting on my choices, and what they say about me. The backcountry is serious and doesn’t get any less serious as you get more experienced. Every trip takes preparation, and every region is different. Decision making is a constant battle, weighing what we know against what we don’t. We weigh what we might hurt, and who we might hurt. We weigh what could be lost, and who could be losing it. We weigh what could be gained and what that means to us. Our choices leave lines behind us, pointing to who we are.
Sitting at the toe of the avalanche, I couldn’t quite believe what had happened, or how quickly it had happened. One second I was thinking about my hat, and before the next thought could hit I was swept off my perch with the force of a couple of linebackers. It was a surreal feeling at the bottom, gathering myself and realising I was still alive, trying to figure out if my leg was okay or not. We were about a mile and a half from our car, then a short drive from our lodge. The lodge itself was tucked up in the mountains of central Hokkaido, some 4300 miles from this room. Brandon and Rob were handy and quick. Rob unburied my pack and grabbed my emergency layering jacket. He helped me shake the snow out of my jacket and bibs, then helped me get the layers on. They turned my splitboard into a makeshift sled, and hauled me all the way to the road. The trek out was hard, but also somehow enjoyable. On the downhill sections, we discovered I had a knack for legless board sledding. Rob still had skins on his split skis, whereas my board had a well-waxed base, so I could even chip in a bit and pull him on these downhills. It must have been quite the sight to see a sitting snowboarder pulling a splitboarder by an ice axe down the skin track. Rob and I burst out laughing. I was lucky to be alive and deeply grateful to have friends like Rob and Brandon. I had to feel some positivity for that. Still, I felt significant shame under the waves of relief, punctuated by a growing pain in my leg. I was disappointed in myself for being up on that chute at all. At the same time, the choice of whether I would go be in the mountains that day seemed not to exist. Even then, broken and hobbled, I couldn’t imagine a life where I didn’t see a snowy field and at least go walk around in it.
Before this is over, I’ll have lost months of my life to this room. I might not ever be as strong as I was before. If I am, it’s only thanks to the hard work and skill of my surgeon and a team of medical miracle workers. This avalanche has taken from me significantly already and still threatens to take more. I won’t know the final cost until I’ve fought through this whole healing process of eight months or more. That said, this time has also given me something. I saw my friends work to pull me for over a mile through deep snow out of the backcountry, managing to keep each other smiling the whole way. I saw Brandon carry my board bag and suitcase on top of his own board bag, camera bag and suitcase through the massive Japanese railway system to make sure I made it onto my flight home. I saw the owner of Karakoram drop everything at work to make sure my employee insurance processed in time for my surgery (thank you, Tyler!). I saw the people I love in my life pull together to make sure I had a good room to heal in. Challenges like this show us the best of ourselves as well as the worst of ourselves. I have months here in this room. I have an opportunity to reset, refocus on what matters, and start again.