Avalanche Burial – Too Close For Comfort

Early Season Avy Accident

My name is Rick Tams, and I’ve been snowmobiling in the mountains for over 40 years. I’m writing about this incident and sharing it with you for two reasons:

  • bring more attention to avalanche safety and discuss some of the hazards that we face as sledders.  Everything as it unfolded was too close for comfort.
  • to recognize and thank the eleven people that literally saved my life.

*Written by Rick Tams, with help from Dave Ure*

The events in my story took place on April 22, 2007. I’d arranged to take my Dad on a one-day snowmobiling trip into the Forester area near Radium, British Columbia. He’s 71 and also an avid rider, however as a Canadian snowbird, Dad hadn’t had a chance yet this year to get out riding. My cousin and his 17-year-old son came with us as well. The trip from Innisfail, Alberta to Radium was uneventful, and we were unloaded and on the trail by late-morning. We rode up to the cabin at Forester where we stopped and had our lunch, with the thermometer there indicating a noon hour temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit. It had been slightly overcast that morning with some flat-light conditions, so when we saw the sun poking out on an adjacent mountainside, we proceeded in that direction. As we rode into the area, we came across a small, and seemingly safe looking bowl, which I immediately began to ascend.

It was not a particularly difficult climb for the M7 I was riding

I knew that I had certainly climbed many areas much more challenging and intimidating then this. At about the half way point up the bowl I decided to turn around, and it was then that I noticed something about three quarters of the way up the hill. It was hard to detect at first but very quickly a large fissure began to form that made me realize that an avalanche was happening. My first thought was to look for snow from a cornice or overhang that had broken off further above and that could start coming down at me. However I quickly determined that the failure of the snow pack I had spotted initially marked the start of a large slab avalanche that I was now positioned directly in the middle of!!

I estimate that the slab of snow that broke free was about three hundred yards wide, and that I was about a hundred to a hundred and fifty yards from the top of it.
“When something like this happens to you, there unfortunately isn’t a lot of time to analyze the situation and chose a game plan from a long list of options. I was still pointed up the hill and moving forward.

I decided that my best choice was to try and climb up and over the top of the avalanche fracture to safety.

I pinned my machine, which at first enabled a very smooth and rapid climb towards the edge of the broken slab. I kept thinking, “C’mon, I can make this”, but very quickly that massive, angled sheet of smooth white powder was turning into a fast, churning river of snow. The forward momentum I had momentarily achieved by hitting my throttle was being rapidly erased by the speed of the avalanche, propelled by the exact same gravity I was trying to overcome. Although the snowmobile was wide open with all of the available track speed at my disposal, I began to feel like I wasn’t getting much closer to the top.

At about that point, I hit a two to three foot tall ridge of snow.

This sharp wall had been created by the shifting slab, which quickly and harshly shot me to the left. With all of my years of experience and skill being called upon to get me out of this situation, the speed and power of the avalanche had become much more than I could even begin to control. So now instead of heading straight up the hill, I was pointing more to the 10 o’clock position. That slight shift in direction again allowed me to gain some forward momentum with my machine, which in case you hadn’t guessed, was still pinned wide open. Afterwards, those who witnessed the incident would tell me that I likely reached 40 to 50 miles per hour in this new angled direction under the power of my machine. However, at the same time the avalanche was still carrying me and the snow I was on, straight down the hill at about 50-60 miles per hour.

The regained forward speed of my sled on this river of snow, even against the overall descent of the avalanche, had now taken me to within 20 feet of the edge of the slide in this 10 o’clock direction, and I really thought I had been able to succeed in my plan to climb off the edge of it to safety. However the final barrier to this goal was about the strike me from out of nowhere. As the avalanche continued to take everything, including myself, downhill at a very rapid rate, my machine struck a large boulder on the downhill, or left side of my sled. Although it felt like I was making progress relative to the edge of the broken slab, the flow of the avalanche was still moving everything down the side of the mountain, moving overtop of everything underneath it, including this large protruding piece of rock.

The avalanche’s impact with the rock violently catapulted me off my snowmobile and into the air about 30 feet.

As soon as I landed and hit the snow, I felt myself being completely buried while still being carried down the hill. As quickly as I had became covered by the force of the rushing snow around me, I all of a sudden felt myself pop up on top of the avalanche, being carried head first down the hill. At that point my machine, which had been launched in the same direction as myself after striking the boulder, caught up with me and struck the back of my legs. That impact drove my feet and legs deeper down into the snow causing my body to slow just enough to immediately and completely be buried again. Just as the avalanche appeared to come to a complete stop, my head again emerged out of the snow, and the words rang in my mind, “Thank God, I’ve survived”.

But seconds later, one last rush of snow from above hit the back of my helmet like a ton of bricks and buried me completely one last time. 

My final resting spot was face down on my stomach, with my body inclined towards the bottom of the hill. The snow that had entombed me was very wet and heavy, and I remember checking to see if I had space to breathe in and out, which I did. Looking up through the opening in my helmet, I could see daylight penetrating through the layers of snow on top of me, which made me think that I wasn’t buried very deeply. My first instinctive reaction was to try and simply push myself up. I remember feeling shocked when I couldn’t move even just a little, so I tried again, and nothing. I thought, “This is crazy, why can’t I just stand up and get myself out of here”, so I concentrated and put all of my strength into trying to dislodge myself, and again, nothing.

The reality started to sink in that I wasn’t going to get myself out.

There was no snow inside my helmet so I told myself that I should have enough oxygen to breath, and then started thinking of what else I had going for me. I had my beacon on, I had air, I didn’t feel badly injured, and I estimated that I must be fairly close to the bottom of the hill and near the surface of the snowpack. I also thought that the other three people in my own party would have witnessed what had happened, and that they would quickly be using their own beacons to find me and dig me out. Who knows, maybe my sled of part of my body may even be visible on the surface of the snow to help mark my location. Although I knew my situation was not great, I felt confident that within a few minutes I would hear people overhead with probes and shovels moving the solid mass of snow around me. So, I relaxed and calmed myself the best that I could to try and save my air and my energy. As far as I can remember, I believe I lost consciousness within a couple of minutes after that. The condensation and heat from my breath and body, likely sealed the small space around my helmet into an airtight seal. Being in this calm and relaxed frame of mind was the last thing I remember until I heard people trying to revive me some time later. 

Other snowmobilers saw the avalanche and helped with the rescue

As all of these events were unfolding, there were two snowmobilers sitting on top of a nearby ridge that witnessed the avalanche and who were able to keep an eye on me and my sled in order to have a approximate idea of where I ended up. There were also six other sledders about three quarters of a mile away who had been riding out of the area for the day, when the slide began. Luckily for me, one of these riders happened to see the avalanche and the green outline of my sled as well, and stopped the rest of his group to come back and provide assistance. As luck would have it, all the snowmobilers that were there to respond to this incident were experienced riders who carried beacons, probes and shovels and had some knowledge of what to do. As with most other incidents and responses, there are always some learning’s to share, and this one was no different. We found out later that one of the responders had not switched their beacon from Transmit to Search mode, which resulted in a trench being dug in the wrong area while trying to locate me. Looking back, the time spent on this could have had serious consequences given the very limited amount of time I had been given to survive after being buried alive. However once all beacons were in Search mode, they were able to zero in on my signal and locate my approximate location, and within a short period of time, had hit my helmet with their shovels.

The spring avalanche snow was wet and heavy

Difficult to dig snowmobile out of avalanchePeople had to take turns shoveling as they tired very quickly. They first cleared the area around my helmet and noticed that my face was purple and that I was not breathing. They continued to dig down to my waist, and five fairly large men tried to pull me out to the surface but amazingly, could not budge me. The snow, warmed even further by the friction of the slide, had set up as hard as cement, so they dug down deeper to my knees and this time were able to remove me and place me on the surface of the slide. They laid me on my back and one of the responders performed CPR. From the heroic efforts of these brave men, I fortunately started breathing on my own, although I did not become fully conscious for another 8-10 minutes. When I finally came to, I experienced the worst headache I have ever had in my life, was sick to my stomach and my mouth was extremely dry.

The potential was there for a second avalanche

My rescuers of course were conscious of the hazards that still existed in this area of the slide during the entire time that they were digging me out. After all, it was a small remnant of the larger slide that had buried me completely that final time, and there was no telling how stable the three foot thick slab of snow was that remained perched above the area of the original fissure. However, in my recuperative state, I was unable (or perhaps just unwilling) to move from my recovery position, so I was carried over to a nearby machine where I sat to help gain my composure. Soon after, it would be my cousin who I leaned against on his sled while he drove me a short distance to a flatter and safer area. However these brave souls were not done yet, and preceded to locate and dig out my machine, taking yet another hour of their tireless effort. Incredibly enough, my machine was in running condition and although I still felt very sick, I concluded that I would be better off riding my own machine out where I could control my own pace, rather than riding behind someone else.

The ride to recovery

That trip back to the trucks felt like it was the longest ride of my life, but two and a half hours later, I made it back out, very thankful to be alive. By the time we got back into Radium, it had been six or seven hours since it all began. Surprisingly, with every hour that passed, I felt better and better, to the point that we decided just to drive directly home to Innisfail from Radium.

I arrived home at about midnight and although my plan was just to go to bed and rest, my wife ended up taking me into the Emergency Centre at our hospital to be examined. More tests were to follow over the next couple of days, while severe headaches and discomfort almost everywhere on my body, were constant reminders of what I had been through. I feel very lucky that now, a couple of weeks later, I feel totally recovered from this incident.

Looking back now I am amazed how vulnerable and powerless I felt

Everything happened so quickly and the wall of snow tossed me around like a rag doll. I also find it hard to believe just how quickly and easily I lost consciousness. I can assure you that many of my own personal paradigms shifted that day. You can also understand my gratitude to this group of individuals who unselfishly risked their own safety to come and rescue me. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. Yet as their own worst critics, they were reminded afterwards of how important time is in these situations. Of how important it is for someone to assume control and start directing work and taking the leadership responsibilities. Of how important it is for people to work together in a unified fashion to search and rescue effectively. For me however, they will always be true heroes, and will always be the ones that accepted responsibility to act once I found myself in a situation where I was unable to.

So what did I learn and what can I try and share with others, besides that life is fragile?

Well for one thing, become educated on the risks you face in this sport. Take an avalanche safety course and become very familiar with recognizing and responding to hazards, including those less obvious. Know what to look for, and how to determine potentially high-risk conditions. Check the snow and weather conditions on the days preceding your trip. NEVER ride alone. Learn and practice CPR. Make sure that EVERY person that rides with you carries a beacon, shovel and probe and knows how to use them. Take your beacons out into your yard and practice with them BEFORE you venture into mountainous areas. Have someone in your group carry a satellite phone.  At least, that’s a start.

An avalanche airbag might not have made a difference

I always felt that I was usually very conscious of avalanches. I even purchased avalanche bags that blow up with the pull of a handle for my two sons to help keep them safe, although looking back I don’t think I would have had time to activate the airbag on the avalanche pack even if I had been wearing it. I have been snowmobiling for nearly all of my life but I definitely misjudged this hill and the huge hazards that it silently held. As a member of the Montana snowmobile club, I ironically received their newsletter in the mail the day after this incident and in it was an article talking about watching out for the smaller bowls in the springtime. It said that because they are not as steep, the snow does not slide down during the winter, but in the spring when the snow starts melting and the water starts running down the hill under the snow, the whole slab of snow has a higher probability of coming down. That can become compounded when spring rain percolates through the upper layers in the days prior to a slide, just like it had in this area before we arrived on that particular Sunday. Had I been aware of these tips a couple of days before my incident, perhaps I would have avoided that bowl and came home unscathed, just like any other normal snowmobile trip. My hope is that others can learn from my experience and help ensure that they never have to go through what I did.

I would really like to thank everyone that risked their own lives to save mine.

Thank You

Alan Harder & Duane Hildebrand of Strathmore AB
Dan Fox of Nanton AB
Dwayne Howatt of Calgary
Todd Amlin & Reece Webster of High River AB
Jon Creason & Kirt Laing of Airdrie AB
Greg & Aron Quesseth of Innisfail AB
And My Dad Mel Tams also from Innisfail AB


Zac’s Note: Rick mentioned that he had recently read an article about maintaining an air space rather than swimming.   Things happened quickly but he does remember holding his hands on the top of his helmet with his elbows in front of his face.  He was wearing an open faced (motorcross style) helmet with goggles and there was no snow in front of his face once the avalanche stopped.  He was rather surprised at how quickly (2 min) he felt that he passed out.  He believes that he had held his breath during the motion.

The rescuers really strained Rick’s shoulders as they attempted to pull him out of the snow before he was fully uncovered.  He was quite sore for a number of weeks following.  Rescuers did pull him right out of his boots (insulated rubber boots with no laces) in their final attempts to free him to begin CPR.

Rick hosted an well attended avalanche course for his community early the next season following this experience.


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