Crash-Test Dummy

Brad Zeerip knows how risky it is to ski the backcountry alone. which is why he brought an air bag.

Zeerip in the slide's aftermath, "looking up at what I got flushed down"     Photo: Brad Zeerip

ON MAY 3, 2010, I started skinning up Oscar Peak, near my home in Terrace, B.C. It's a place that is rarely skied. I ski in the backcountry more than 120 days every year, 30 to 50 of those days by myself. It was spring. The conditions seemed perfect, since new snow had come on wet and heavy and then firmed up with some cold weather.

I dropped in and made three or four cuts. It felt stable, so I started skiing down. Ten turns in, I could see surface snow sloughing around me. I moved to my right, along a rock face, to get away from the slough. Then the snow started melting all around me like wax.

I tried to ski down and to the left, but I didn't have the speed. The slide hit me at full force, pulling my skis out from under me. I pulled the cord on my Snowpulse, an avalanche pack with an integrated rescue air bag that I've skied with every day for the past two winters.

The bag inflated around my head like a giant pillow. It was a reassuring feeling. Then the slide took hold of me. I lost my view of the sky as snow boiled up over me. The slide built into a deafening, pulsing roar. I felt my left ski hit something and grab. I thought I was going to be split like a wishbone. But then my ski ripped apart and I pulled my feet together.

The torque of my ski catching flipped me around. I was still on my back, but now riding the slide at full speed upside down, when I hit something and started cartwheeling. I'm still convinced that if the air bag hadn't been inflated around my head, it would have split my skull like a pumpkin. I was still hauling ass, but the bag had pulled me up to the surface. I must have slid a good 1,500 feet down a steep 45-degree-plus chute.

The slide started to slow down and set up. I knew this was the most dangerous part—when you can get buried. Another tongue of the slide came again all of sudden—like waves hitting a beach. It hit me hard, and I started swimming and kicking with the other ski to try to stay above it. I went back under, but the air bag pulled me back up. Then a third wave hit.

When it finally settled, I was buried on my side with my head and left shoulder above the snow. My right leg was buried and attached to a broken ski. My left leg and right ankle were definitely injured, but nothing seemed to be broken. I got my shovel out of my pack and dug myself out within a few minutes.

Getting back to my car was more difficult. I spent over six hours crawling, sliding on my one broken ski, using my poles as crutches, and stumbling out of what should have been a one-hour hike. I had a SPOT Personal Tracker and could have hit it for help, but I felt a strong sense of personal responsibility.

I'm embarrassed. I'm not proud that I was caught in a slide. But the air bag saved my life. I certainly will never ski without it.

In July, I went back and found my hat. Another big, wet slide had swept it down to the valley floor, and it had melted out in the snow.

SCENARIO NATURAL DISASTER STRIKES WHILE ABROAD
YOUR WAY OUT: Smart preparation, like packing a SPOT satellite messenger device (findmespot.com) or signing up with Global Rescue (globalrescue.com), will save you in most situations, especially in wilderness areas. Didn't bother? Take down the phone number for the nearest American embassy (usembassy.gov); they'll get local authorities on your side or direct military personnel to pluck you from the rubble. Otherwise, head to the usual expat hangouts, like a famous hotel—even if they're in shambles. Intact or not, those areas often see the first response from American authorities.

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