Tim Collins and Billy Neilson took all the necessary safety precautions but even that couldn’t save them from the temptation of a great looking run down a backcountry mountain about 100km north of Golden last Sunday. Collins and Neilson, long time friends who have each lived in Golden for the past 12 years have extensive avalanche safety training and noticed some red flags earlier in the day when they tested the conditions around Hope Creek. Still, they were able to safely complete a couple of runs while following some conservative lines to avoid potential trouble spots before breaking for lunch, which they shared with friend Dana Kerr and Tim’s brother, Bryan, who were not skiing that day.
It was after lunch that they met up with their friends Dan Munro, Jay Ross and Tom Lopushinsky, all from Calgary, and saw where they had dropped in earlier. It was an area that Collins and Neilson had previously avoided due to avalanche concerns.
The pair deliberated for some time on whether to try the run themselves and discussed how they would ski the terrain and where they would meet up. Kerr and Bryan left the group on snowmobile so they could pick up Neilson and Collins at the bottom of the run.
The pair weren’t 100 per cent convinced the run was skiable.
“I don’t know about this man,” Collins said as he discussed it with Neilson.
However, with a fresh set of tracks ahead, a growing sense of confidence in the conditions and an urgency to make their rare ski days count, Collins and Neilson decided to drop in despite their uneasy feelings.
Collins went first to see what a lighter load would do on the slope.
“I’m built like a linebacker and [Collins] is built like a placekicker,” Neilson joked.
Collins snagged a rock with his ski on takeoff, causing him to do a somersault before popping back onto his skis and making a few turns down to an area the two had decided was a “safe zone”.
Seeing Collins land hard on the snowpack built up Neilson’s confidence even more and led him to ski an aggressive run onto the slopes.
“Let’s give ‘er,” he thought.
Collins could see his friend begin his run from several hundred metres down the slope.
“I watched Billy drop in and on his second turn, as soon as he landed off his bottom layer…the whole slope gave all at once,” said Collins.
“I landed and I looked forward and I just saw the release or glide part of the avalanche. What surprised me the most was looking downslope and for as far as I could see I could just see the whole thing moving,” Neilson said.
Neilson yelled down to alert his friend, but before Collins could run for cover it was too late.
“It happened so quick, I peeled out then I stopped and hesitated for a second…I was trying to keep my eyes on Billy. Then I looked at the slide and thought ‘this thing is going biblical, it’s going huge’,” Collins said. “I literally got maybe 10 feet as I was heading for a tree line and then it was over.”
Collins and Neilson were helplessly consumed by the powerful slide as it rumbled down the slope. Their struggle for survival was immediate.
“Both of us had the exact same thought, ‘we’re dead’,” Neilson said.
The men described the feeling of being in the avalanche as similar to heading down rapids on the Kicking Horse River with debris flying all around them.
When the avalanche eventually slowed, Collins found himself partially buried with his lower half sticking out above the surface. He knew that he had to fight immediately for the surface or risk having the snow harden and condense around him. Collins started pushing his arms around and managed to get his right arm above the surface. He took another swipe to get snow away from his mouth before he started screaming to alert Munro, Ross and Lopushinsky who were watching in horror from the top.
Neilson was fully buried. When he felt the debris and snow start slowing down, he started thrashing wildly in an attempt to find the surface. He soon felt air and got the snow away from his face.
“I couldn’t believe I was seeing light and breathing. I thought to myself, ‘as if’, am I really alive right now?” Neilson said.
Despite escaping burial, Neilson and Collins were far from being in the clear. Battered and bruised from their tumble down the mountainside, they continued to call out to their friends for help. Both men were understandably ecstatic to hear that each other had been found and began walking their friends through some basic first aid, as they both have extensive training in that area as well.
Collins owns a satellite communication device that allowed them to send out S.O.S. signals to rescuers through his phone. However, it was nearly 4 p.m. when the avalanche hit, far too late for Golden and District Search and Rescue (GADSAR) to come out by helicopter that day. GADSAR sent a team on the ground rather than wait for the morning.
With the nearest shelter a few kilometres away, Neilson knew that he was likely to spend the night on the mountain and had his friends make him as warm as possible. Ross skied down to the cabin and brought back as much survival gear as he could in order to ensure that Neilson stayed warm through the night while Lopushinsky gathered wood in order to build a fire.
Collins was much closer to shelter, but moving him proved to be precarious and slow at best and his friends failed to get him to the cabin before GADSAR arrived around midnight. At that point the rescue team helped get him to safety with their equipment but it still took several hours. Collins arrived at the cabin around 4 a.m. after 12 hours exposed to the elements.
Rescue that night proved to be impossible for Neilson, who was extremely cold and shaking uncontrollably by the time GADSAR arrived. Adam Sheriff and Eric Brogno, good friends of both Collins and Neilson, were two of the rescuers on the scene. They brought big heat pads and dry sleeping bags. Neilson had seen Brogno go through a similar situation two years prior. Seeing his friend was a welcome relief.
“Seeing Eric and having him tell me I was going to get through it made me break down and cry,” Neilson said.
GADSAR’s helicopter arrived at 9 a.m. the next morning and brought Neilson and Collins directly to the Golden hospital 18 hours after surviving the avalanche that nearly killed them both.
Collins suffered numerous cuts and bruises along with a fractured heel and was released from hospital on Tuesday morning. Neilson tore his ACL and MCL in his right knee and every ligament in his left knee. He also has a broken fibula and severe frostbite on one of his feet. He remains in hospital and was on his way to Banff for an operation at the time of print.
Most of all, Collins and Neilson feel incredibly grateful for the care they received from all of their friends out on the mountain as well as the GADSAR crew that responded to their calls for help.
“We’d just really like to thank our first party rescuers…they saved our lives,” Neilson said. “Also, the fact that [GADSAR came out in the middle of the night], that was so huge.”
They also hope that their story will be a lesson of caution to other backcountry skiers. No level of training can completely protect you from making the wrong decision.
“We just became complacent. We hadn’t skied with each other all year, we just wanted to go out and have fun…We know our stuff, we knew there was danger but we underestimated the danger and shouldn’t have even put ourselves in that position in the first place,” Neilson said.