Still images from Owen Leeper’s video. (Photo: Owen Leeper)

A Skier Filmed Himself Being Swept Away by an Avalanche

Pro skier Owen Leeper discusses the terrifying ordeal, which he captured on his helmet camera

Owen Leeper

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Confession time: I sometimes spend hours scouring the internet for videos of avalanches. Nature is badass, and there’s something utterly hypnotic about watching snow and ice careen down a mountainside. Of course these clips also make me feel sheer terror for the person filming, since many of them are captured by backcountry users who got far too close for comfort to a slide. Let me tell you, there are a lot of these clips on the web.

A new scary avalanche video entered the oeuvre this week—luckily nobody died—and it provides one of the clearest viewpoints of what it’s like to be caught in one. And boy, does it look horrifying.

The footage belongs Owen Leeper, a big-mountain skier from Jackson, Wyoming, who is known for hucking huge air off of cliffs in the Tetons. Leeper was skiing in the backcountry near Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on February 11 when he triggered the slide at the top of a narrow couloir. He was wearing a helmet camera at the time, and conditions were utterly bluebird. His device caught the ordeal in crisp high definition.

You can watch it below.

Leeper was skiing into the gulley when the snow crumbled beneath his skis. He was not buried by the debris, and instead rode on top of the avalanche as it careened downhill. Unfortunately, the gulley becomes narrower at lower elevation, and Leeper struck two rock walls at high speed. He suffered a dislocated shoulder and required an airlift from the local search and rescue team.

I phoned Leeper this week to hear about the incident. He told me he still remembers the thought that went through is mind when he felt the snow slough away under his skis. “I remember thinking ‘this is going to break me really bad,’” Leeper told me. “I really thought I was going to wake up in the hospital.”

Leeper had scoped the couloir several times before his run, and he had even aborted a previous descent because the snow coverage was low—he boot packed out at the midpoint. He wasn’t scared of an avalanche, he told me, because of the recent days of sunshine and warmer temperatures in the area. Indeed, the Bridgerton-Teton Avalanche Center rates the current danger level as moderate (two out of five).

“The snow had a few days to settle with blue skies, and I wasn’t worried about wet slides. I was more concerned about the rocks in the middle,” he said. “I was skiing into it very cautiously. I knew exactly what I needed to do for the descent. I just wasn’t ready for the avalanche part of it.”

It was the first time Leeper had been trapped by an avalanche, and he was amazed by the speed at which it began, and by how quickly he went from feeling in control to being utterly powerless. The entire slide lasted just 18 seconds, but Leeper says it felt much longer.

“I remember sliding down the chute and hitting the first rock with my skies, and that launched me into the other rock,” he said. “I put up my hands to protect my face from slamming it, and as soon as I did that I felt the pain in my arm.”

Leeper came to rest in the couloir shortly after striking the wall. He immediately knew that his shoulder was badly dislocated, and the pain from the injury surged through his arm and shoulder. But he knew the outcome could have been worse. He stopped sliding just before reaching another band of sharp rocks, which would have done more damage to his body.

Leeper uploaded footage of the ordeal on February 14 In the three days since he published it, the clip has more than 1 million views.

I’ve watched the clip a dozen times at this point, and each time the dizzying footage leaves me with an elevated heart rate and an anxious feeling. You can see the snow go from solid to almost liquid in a matter of seconds, and then behave like a raging river descending a waterfall.

Leeper’s ski season is likely over, as he will require surgery to fix the shoulder, and does not yet know how long the recovery time will be. He’s has been skiing professionally for the past five years, and doing the sport at a high level for decades. He said he realizes that the video may turn some skiers away from charging big lines in the backcountry—which, he said, may be a positive development. This is the worst accident he’s ever had.

“Even looking back on it, I don’t regret skiing it,” he says. “I ski gnarly lines—it’s what I do. There’s no way to remove all of the risk, and sometimes it all catches up with you, no matter how careful you are.”

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