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Close call in Flute cornice collapse

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Witnesses dig out snowboarder after cornice drops, triggers avalanche

Jesse Hawk is a lucky guy, and he knows it.

On Sunday afternoon (Feb. 22), Hawk was with two friends taking pictures on the top of Flute. The two friends made it down, with one snowboarder dropping an estimated 50 feet from the edge of the cornice to the slope below.

Then the cornice broke off, taking Hawk with it. He managed to stay on top of the rubble slid all the way to the flat section at the bottom of Flute, a distance between 70 metres and 100 metres according to eye witnesses. He was still visible, and a group of skiers and boarders came to his rescue.

The Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol was contacted immediately afterwards, who called in Blackcomb Helicopters to aid with the rescue. Pilot Dave Brolin picked up three patrollers and an avalanche dog and headed to the site, dropping off one patroller where Hawk was being extricated and two patrollers on the ridge to secure the area.

"I was pretty quick. We were up there in no time," said Brolin.

"It was amazing that the guy lived. If you could have seen this thing. They called in a Class 2 (avalanche) but from what I and a few other guys have seen they figured it had to at least be a Class 3. It was huge, huge chunks, bigger than cars. The crown that was left on the cornice was at least 20 feet. Pretty scary. It went really wide, too. It was a pretty wide chunk that broke off."

Hawk suffered cuts and bruises as he was carried along by the debris, but was able to walk to the helicopter with only minor injuries. From there he was transported to the top of Whistler Mountain where he was checked over again for injuries.

According to an e-mail by Chuck Leighton, one of Hawk’s rescuers, only two of the four people who participated in the rescue had avalanche tranceivers, and only one member of the party was equipped with a shovel, which is considered standard backcountry gear.

"The victim didn’t even have a beacon," wrote Leighton. "If he’d been completely buried I think it would have been a recovery instead of a rescue."

Whistler-Blackcomb billed Hawk $820 for the cost of the helicopter, and Hawk said he was happy to pay it. In an interview with Rick Cluff on CBC Radio, Hawk said: "I’m happy to pay it. If it wasn’t for them I couldn’t have gotten out. I just barely made it down to the helicopter area."

Whistler Mountain safety manager Brian Leighton, no relation to Chuck, said it’s not unusual to see cornices break off of Flute.

"It forms a pretty big cornice up there, and it doesn’t get controlled like the edges within the ski area boundaries of Whistler-Blakcomb," said Leighton.

"It’s got a lot of opportunity to get as big as it can until it drops off."

Although Leighton was concerned that the victim and many of the rescuers didn’t have the proper safety gear for the backcountry, he was more concerned by the group’s decision to hike out onto the cornice.

"Whether they had gear or not, there are lots of places you can go to have a good time, have a safe time, and there are places you should just avoid generally, and cornices are one of those that should be avoided.

"My concern is that people start to think they can ski on steep slopes in the area and stand on cornices in the area, they think it’s safe everywhere. Flute’s close enough that people forget that it’s out of the boundary and uncontrolled."

For Blackcomb Helicopters, it was the second rescue in three days. On Friday they helped Blackcomb Ski Patrol perform a long-line rescue on a 15-year-old who spent the night with ski patrollers below the 7 th Heaven area.

While backcountry rescues are common for the company, Brolin says things have been getting better around the ski area.

"We do quite a few backcountry rescues, snowmobilers or whatever, but not so many off the ski hill anymore. We used to do a lot more but I think with the public awareness and signage nowadays it doesn’t happen nearly as much."

When someone is lost outside the ski area boundary Whistler-Blackcomb pays the rescue costs, then bills the individual or group who was rescued. In the backcountry, the province picks up the tab before passing the costs along.

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