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Backcountry avalanche partially buries Okanagan snowmobiler

Sledder Sam Johnson pictured on a less eventful ride. Johnson  was partially buried by an avalanche on Saturday. .
Sledder Sam Johnson pictured on a less eventful ride. Johnson was partially buried by an avalanche on Saturday. . Courtesy: Sam Johnson

A Summerland man is warning others to use “extreme caution” in the backcountry after he was partially buried in an avalanche while sledding Saturday morning.

Sam Johnson said he was sledding in the Powder 8 area, southwest of Penticton, with a group of snowmobilers when it happened.

“I grew up riding this area and have never seen an event like this,” Johnson posted online.

The area has seen an unusually large snowfall over the past week.

Multiple slides

Johnson told Global News the group was descending into a gully between two mountains when several slides came down, including one behind Johnson and another in front of him.

He deployed an inflatable airbag he wears as a backpack and tried to sled away from the avalanches.

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READ MORE: Death toll from pair of avalanches in eastern Turkey climbs to 41

However, the rushing snow swept his sled out from under him as he jumped towards a tree in an effort to save himself.

He believes the airbag device, which aims to help users float atop an avalanche, is the main reason he survived the ordeal.

Dozens of rescuers killed as second avalanche hits eastern Turkey
Dozens of rescuers killed as second avalanche hits eastern Turkey

“I could feel like small branches and stuff going by me and stuff in the snow when it was sliding,” Johnson said, of the seconds he was caught in the slide.

“If I hadn’t floated on top, I probably would have been in a minimum of four feet of snow.”

When it was over, his lower body was buried but Johnson said the airbag kept his shoulders above the snow.

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He was able to get himself out and called to his group to let them know he was okay.

READ MORE: ‘Most incredible woman’: Remembering Alberta doctor who died after avalanche in Banff National Park​

They were ultimately able to dig out his snowmobile and ride out of the area.

Johnson was remarkably uninjured but feels the incident could have easily turned tragic.

“If I had descended 30 seconds earlier, I don’t feel like I would have been here [because of] the sheer size of it,” he said.
Avalanche awareness safety tips
Avalanche awareness safety tips

Johnson said it was hard riding out thinking about the potential for another slide.

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A day later he is still a bit shaken-up, but happy to be alive.

He’s hoping to warn others of the potentially dangerous conditions.

“This is kind of like a once in a lifetime event here. We might never get a snow event like this again,” Johnson said.

“There’s tons of people there. I just want people to be aware there is still potential [for more slides].”

READ MORE: ‘Worst case scenario’: Alberta doctor buried in avalanche dies in hospital

Reports posted to the Avalanche Canada website suggest there have been multiple backcountry avalanches witnessed in the general area of Apex Mountain since Thursday morning, including the slides that Johnson was swept up in.

Another backcountry user witnessed the slides that swept Sam Johnson away and took this picture.
Another backcountry user witnessed the slides that swept Sam Johnson away and took this picture. Kyle Kliss

More than 150 cm of snow

Apex Mountain Resort is warning customers that there is a “very high avalanche risk” right now outside of the ski area boundary. It’s advising people not to venture into the backcountry.

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Inbounds, the resort is doing its own blasting with dynamite in the mornings after heavy snowfalls to ensure conditions are safe before skiers hit the slopes.

Video released by Ministry of Transportation shows avalanche control work near Revelstoke
Video released by Ministry of Transportation shows avalanche control work near Revelstoke

Apex said the province has also done blasting with a helicopter to ensure a slide doesn’t release onto a road.

“We’ve had an incredible amount of snow here in the last six days — about 150 cm plus,” said James Shalman, the resort’s general manager.

“What that means when you have such a heavy snowpack like that, all of a sudden, is there is huge instability in the snowpack layers, which is what we are seeing in our out-of-bounds area.”

Shalman said a recent backcountry avalanche was triggered by an experienced rider who went out-of-bounds at the resort.

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READ MORE: Snowmobiler killed after getting trapped in avalanche in B.C.’s Nicola Valley

However, he said, in that case, the person was testing the snowpack to see if it was stable when they triggered the slide and no one was caught-up in that avalanche.

Shalman described the ski conditions within bounds as “very safe” and “phenomenal.”

“When there is this kind of instability and this type of risk it’s not worth the risk [to go out-of-bounds],” he said.