Man vs Avalanche: A Snowboarder Survives A Disaster Of His Own Making

In the backcountry of British Columbia, Canada, Brock Crouch prepared to carve up a mountain as the star of a snowboarding film. One misstep later, he found himself fighting an avalanche of his own making 

Updated: Oct 16, 2019 15:08:41 IST
2019-08-21T13:14:42+05:30
Man vs Avalanche: A Snowboarder Survives A Disaster Of His Own Making Illustration by Christy Lundy

 

It was dark beneath the snow, which was cold and solid, like concrete. Brock Crouch could feel his arms but he couldn’t move them. They had been useless to him during his fall, and now they were locked in place, one by his side and the other twisted somewhere behind his back. 

He was trapped, badly injured and in a state of shock that left him numb to the sting from the snow pressing against him. Crouch’s back was broken, as were six of his teeth and his helmet—which had cracked against a rock, leaving him concussed. He was woozy, but alert enough to understand he was in mortal danger. 

Moments earlier, Crouch had free-fallen like a rag doll over a cliff, bouncing and flipping uncontrollably 300 metres down one of the unnamed peaks of the Pemberton Ice Cap in British Columbia [in Canada]. His board was still attached to his feet, which were the only body parts now protruding from the snow. He was upside down, and his head, completely submerged, was wedged between his knees—a painful position to be in, except he hadn’t felt anything since hearing the crunch of his vertebrae against a rock. 

There was no way to push or pull his head the half-metre required to get it above the snow, no way to clear his own airway. He couldn’t even spit the broken teeth from his mouth. He was 18 years old, too young to accept that this was how he was going to die. But there was no fighting it, either. 

He closed his eyes and slipped into the darkness. It was silent, almost peaceful. He didn’t hear his friends’ frantic screams coming out of his radio, which was located somewhere on his body, but smothered by snow. Nor did he register the sound of a chopper’s blades cutting through the sky above him while he slowly suffocated in the debris of his own mistake.

Then he blacked out. 

Five minutes earlier, Crouch had been standing at the jagged top of the mountain’s ridge, looking for his next line of descent through the fresh powder. It was 2:15 p.m. on 22 April 2018—a little late in the season to be heli-skiing on this range, which stretches north of Whistler. The air was warm—10°C—and the sun dangerous in the sky above, its rays weakening the snow’s grip on the mountainside. 

The odds of an avalanche increased with every passing moment the sun bore down. It was a risk Crouch and the six others in his party considered while deciding which slopes to shred and which to avoid. They’d flown to this particular corner of the Coast Mountains in search of a pristine backdrop for a snowboard film—the type that attracts an audience enthused by death-defying vertical drops. 

Crouch was the main talent on the mountain that day, one of the chosen stars of Absinthe Films’ latest movie. The transatlantic production had just wrapped months of shooting in the Swiss Alps and was now gathering last-minute footage of the teen in the backcountry of British Columbia—the birthplace of commercial heli-skiing. The competitive surfer from Carlsbad, California, and rising talent in the world of slopestyle snowboarding was a breakout star of the Winter X Games [an annual extreme sports event produced by ESPN], famous for his high-flying acrobatics over obstacles in a terrain park. But he’d never tested his skills anywhere as remote as the mountainside he was on that April afternoon. Though he was capable of taking on almost any drop, he was reliant on his Canadian guides to help him decide which treacherous cliffs to descend. Chief among those looking out for him was Shin Campos, a 46-year-old retired pro snowboarder- turned-film producer and mountain-safety coordinator who’d lived around Whistler and worked in the area’s peaks and ridges for nearly three decades. 

 ***

Campos knew the risks associated with backcountry mountain hopping better than anyone and had dug more than a few of his clients out of near-death experiences. He counted himself among the more fortunate guides in the area, but he knew about loss. Less than a month had passed since his close friend and fellow guide, Lisa Korthals, had died in an avalanche on a nearby ridge. She was still on his mind as he monitored the Absinthe team’s movements. He tended to remain high on the peak, as it gave him the ability to respond in any direction if one of his charges got in trouble below. He stayed out of the frame while Crouch and another snowboarder, Cam Fitzpatrick, carved the slopes. Then he watched the chopper bring them back up. 

At 25 years old, Fitzpatrick was a veteran of snowboard films. The Wyoming-­based rider had spent his winter working on this production in Europe. Like Campos, he’d just met Crouch a few days earlier, but Crouch’s talent and demeanour—driven but not arrogant—had already made an impression. 

When the chopper deposited Fitzpatrick and Crouch on the ridgeline for the last time, the men rode across to Campos to discuss a wide area of fresh powder they’d spotted from the sky. It was a perfect line, wedged between two cliffs—the type that would nicely lend itself to the camera’s lens. Fitzpatrick reckoned they could access it if they ventured 50 metres across the mountaintop. Campos agreed and reminded both of them to look out for cornices—overhanging masses of snow that clung to the ridgeline, looking deceptively firm from above but prone to break off at any moment. 

Campos watched as Fitzpatrick and Crouch moved across the top of the mountain and disappeared behind the jagged rocks and boulders that made up the ridge. He could no longer see the men but could still hear them checking in periodically with the team on their radios. 

Fitzpatrick led the way, conscious of not veering from the zone they’d established as safe. It took a while for him to realize that they’d gone too far, and even longer to notice that Crouch was standing right on a massive cornice that had been heating up in the afternoon sun. 

Fear crashed over Fitzpatrick. He couldn’t rush to grab Crouch, as his own body weight might aggravate the situation. It was best for them both to remain calm, but he needed to shout out a warning. “Be careful!” he yelled. “This is a hanging cornice!” It was too late. The snow and ice had already begun to give way. 

In a split second, everything beneath Crouch’s feet disappeared with the loudest crack Fitzpatrick had ever heard, followed by a vacuumous ‘WOMPF!’ Fitzpatrick looked on in horror as Crouch, too, disappeared. For a time, he could hear his colleague screaming as he plummeted along with 140 square metres of snow that had broken off from the ridge. Then he heard the sound of Crouch’s body scraping against the rocks below. After that, nothing. 

 

untitled-design_082119011226.jpg

 

From his perch on a neighbouring peak, helicopter pilot Josh Poole could see a cloud of snow rising up near where he’d dropped off the two snowboarders. The 40-year-old had just landed his chopper, cut the engine and was sitting out in the sun. He knew what had happened even before he heard Fitzpatrick screaming “Avalanche! Avalanche!” into the radio. He bolted back into the cockpit and started the blades. 

Lifting into the air, Poole pushed the chopper’s nose down and began sli­cing through the kilometre and a half of clear blue sky that lay between him and the cloud of snow dissipating in the distance. Meanwhile, Campos and two other boarders, Mark Tremblay and John Jackson, both also featured in the film, made their way as fast as they could toward Fitzpatrick, who was still standing in shock. Soon they were all together, calculating the risks associated with their own descents. 

Poole was coming in fast but already feared the worst. He’d been on the scene of Korthals’ death just weeks earlier, hovering overhead as rescuers struggled to locate her remains in the debris of the avalanche that had buried her. The odds were grim: Only 47 per cent of avalanche victims survive. And 90 per cent of those who lived were dug out within the first 10 minutes. Crouch’s chances were dwindling fast.  

***

The pilot could see the runout from the avalanche that had been triggered by the broken cornice, but there was no sign of Crouch. And he could hear Campos on the radio, asking for eyes on the mountainside. The boarders desperately wanted to help in the search, but were afraid of hangfire—residual snowfall that often breaks off in the minutes after an initial avalanche. 

As he eyed the debris, Poole looked for traces of anything—a glove, goggles, a twisted body. It didn’t take long before he thought he saw something. The tip of a snowboard, maybe. He locked its location in his mind, quickly mapping a route down from the top for the other snowboarders. He radioed directions to Campos, then spun the chopper toward the object in the snow. 

A clock was ticking inside Fitzpatrick’s head. Three minutes had passed since Crouch had fallen out of sight, if not more. It felt like forever to him before any of the boarders deemed it safe to start down the mountain. Jackson and Campos led the way, heading to the end of the runout, while Fitzpatrick and Tremblay tracked higher, where the debris began. Each of them hoped to pick up a pulsed radio signal from Crouch’s location transceiver.

Poole spotted a safe spot to land near the runout and dropped the chopper. He killed the engines, then jumped out of the cockpit with his shovel, running through the snow toward the object he’d spotted from the sky. Brushing its surface off, he confirmed into the radio that he’d located Crouch’s board. Poole started to dig. 

The chopper’s blades were still spinning as Campos and Jackson joined Poole—the two snowboarders quickly working at the compacted snow with the shovels they’d carried in their packs. It took a minute just to expose Crouch’s legs, and a few more to uncover the top of his head. He’d been folded up like a taco, and his face was blue by the time they got it exposed. He wasn’t breathing.

Jackson put his hand in Crouch’s mouth and cleared his airway of snow and broken teeth. Besides his head and feet, his body was still buried. Blood was coming out of his ears.

He looked to be dead. 

Campos readied to revive him. Then, suddenly, Crouch’s eyes opened and he began gasping for breath. 

“Oh god!” Campos said, shocked. “He’s alive! He’s alive!”

Crouch had survived for an estimated seven minutes under the snow. He looked around but could hardly register what had happened. 

Then sensation returned to him, and he began moaning about the pain piercing through his spine. Campos asked him if he could feel his fingers and his toes. He said he could but continued to complain about his back. Fitzpatrick and Tremblay arrived on the scene, and soon the five of them were digging delicately around Crouch, none of them wanting to do anything that would leave him paralyzed. 

When they got the teen out, the men gingerly straightened out his body while Poole sprinted back to the chopper for a stretcher. Close to 2:40 p.m., about 20 minutes after Crouch first began to fall, the pilot flipped the propellers back on. Campos and Jackson climbed into the aircraft along with Crouch. Once secured, Poole lifted off from the mountainside and pointed toward the Whistler Medical Clinic, some 20 kilometres away. 

***

It wasn’t until the chopper was out of sight, and Fitzpatrick and Tremblay were alone, that the emotional weight of the event began to set in. Fitzpatrick was the first to cry. But he wasn’t the last. 

It took almost a full week to sort through the extent of Crouch’s injuries. Besides the knocked-out teeth, he’d torn his pancreas and fractured three vertebrae. He was thankful to be alive, and still is. 

“I thought I was dead,” he says.

“I honestly did.” 

However, at no point in the months since the accident has he contemplated not getting back on his snowboard. In fact, the thought of returning to the sport has helped him to focus through the pain of his recovery. 

***

Not everyone on the mountain that day sees it the same way. For Campos, last year’s ski season was the most emotionally gruelling of his career, while Fitzpatrick has spent months questioning why he and Crouch and the others even fathomed putting their lives in danger for the sake of a thrill and a film. Poole has taken himself out of the heli-skiing business. Although he says the timing is a coincidence, he has struggled with what happened. “That winter affected me,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.” 

Last September, Stay Tuned—the film Crouch was working on—premiered in Zurich. Days after that, and five months removed from the ordeal, he got some good news from his doctors.

“Cleared to board,” Crouch announced on social media, along with the image of himself being rolled into an MRI machine after his fall. 

And now he says he longs for a return to the very ridge where he nearly died. “I’d like to go back and conquer that mountain.”

 

Do You Like This Story?
3
0
Other Stories