Sometimes the line between a bluebird day and utter catastrophe is as thin as a simple turn.
It's a lesson Colin D. Watt learned the hard way on Sunday, Dec. 20 after setting off a slide that left him trapped in a tree well gasping for air. The local snowboarder was eager to take advantage of the bounty of fresh powder that had fallen on Whistler overnight and decided to head out of bounds with a couple friends for a lap on L'Avanger, the common name for a drainage left of the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. It was something he'd done "a million times before," but on this day, fate intervened.
"I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to ski-cut this slope, but it was the resort, so we (thought we) probably didn't need to," recalled Watt, commonly known as D. Watt. "But we needed to."
His plan was to drop in and make a frontside turn back to the left to break loose any sluff before heading down the run. "Except that turn got everything moving on the slope, and that's when I knew I was heading downhill and not under my own control."
The rushing snow swept D. Watt 50 metres down the slope, jamming him into a tree well. There, panicked and frantic, he became enveloped in what he called "a white room with black curtains." With his beacon still at home, D. Watt's mind began racing.
"One moment I'm looking at the best view in the world, looking from Whistler over to Blackcomb — trees and snow and blue skies and the red gondola going back and forth — and then it was pitch black," he said.
But the experienced rider had enough wits about him to know he was still upright — the saliva dribbling down his chin told him he was still at least partially vertical — and he quickly managed to dig an opening with his free hand. "That was the most relieving moment of my life," D. Watt recounted. "That's when I went from thinking I was about to die to knowing I would survive."
But that sense of relief would turn to dread in an instant. "As (my friend) came down to rescue me, all the snow came down and buried me 10 times worse," said D. Watt. "I was yelling, 'Boys! Boys!' and on the third yell snow entered my throat. That was the most disheartening thing you could ever experience."
Trapped in complete darkness, D. Watt's mind began to flip through a series of morbid scenarios: Could anyone hear his muffled cries for help? Would he choke on the snow now lodged deep in his throat? Or would the lack of oxygen get him first?
"These are the thoughts in my head, these are the last things I'm thinking before I die," D. Watt said. "I think, 'Wow, I don't want to figure these things out,' and then all of sudden: swish, swish, swish."
A gloved hand begins brushing snow off of D. Watt's face. Shades of jet black begin to soften into greys, then whites, then brilliant sunshine — he's safe, albeit shaken.
The brush with death proved to be a bit of a wake-up call for the backcountry snowboarder of 15 years.
"I've dug people out, I've seen snowmobiles, I've seen skiers, I've seen snowboarders, I've seen rabbits in avalanches," said D. Watt. "It doesn't set in how serious it is until you are under the snowpack and you have no control over the situation. Then, to make things worse, you remember that you don't have your beacon on you because you're just riding the resort, and the resort is safe in your mind."
The 28-year-old believes it was his experience and familiarity with the terrain that made him complacent and leave his safety gear at home. It's a mistake many in Whistler have made before, but one D. Watt doesn't plan on repeating.
"I feel like I am so damn lucky to be alive to tell my friends and the people out there that sometimes you need to take a step back and think about things before you jump into them," he said. "Everyone wants to be the first guy down that run, or the fastest or the gnarliest. We all thrive on adventure and being extreme, doing crazy things and one-upping our friends, but there comes a time when you need to draw the line and realize that your life is at risk."