(Ed’s note: This is the fourth post in a series featuring The North Face’s ‘Know Boundaries’ avalanche safety webisodes produced by Teton Gravity Research. See earlier posts: No. 3 with related interview with Sage Cattabriga-Alosa HERE »; No. 2 with Ingrid Backstrom HERE »; and No. 1 with Griffin Post HERE ».)
By John Clary Davies
This fall, in conjunction with The North Face’s Know Boundaries webisode series, TGR athlete Ian McIntosh is on a 14-city tour to promote snow safety. “It gives people insight into my experiences, of being in avalanches and the decisions that led to that, and what I’ve learned from those experiences,” says McIntosh. “It gets people fired up about being in the backcountry and to get more education.”
Here, in a recent interview with Powder.com, McIntosh discusses those insights that he’s gained from his years on the edge of his boundaries.
I’ve been lucky. With most of them I’ve been able to ski out or found my island of safety.
With one in Terrace, B.C., I was filming with the Tanner Hall movie, The Massive, and me and Dana Flahr found ourselves in a situation in Terrace where we were spending a ton of money on this trip and we had been completely shut down by weather. We hadn’t had a single day at all, and we were down to our last possible day. We went out that day with new guides that I had never worked with before, and I believe those guides had never worked with pro skiers before, which was a huge red flag.
I should have been like, OK, they are here, but not really here to have our back. We flew out that morning and the guides let us hop on this big face. How about we test the snow on this little face first and see what we are dealing with since it’s been snowing for a week? So we went over there and we’re standing on top and it seemed like a pretty Mickey Mouse face, a couple turns to a ten foot cliff, pretty mellow from there on out. I got a little complacent, the guides weren’t really doing anything to help us, they weren’t digging a pit, weren’t being proactive. I’m thinking I should probably do a ski cut, but kind of got a false sense of security from these guides being so nonchalant. I didn’t do a ski cut. I just dropped in and the first turn everything ripped.
From there I started straight-lining and went off a cliff and as I was going off the cliff I can see everything below ripping deep and it swallowed me up. It was probably an 800-foot ride, full washing machine, in the dark, inhaling snow, fighting for my life and right as things started slowing down I was thinking to grab my Avalung and I saw light, so I grabbed for the light and I was coughing for ten minutes because I inhaled so much snow.
Always voice your opinion, and if you feel uneasy about something never just sit back and keep those things to yourself. Always voice those feelings. When I’m out with my buddies skiing day-to-day, we’re making decisions in the backcountry and we’re basically putting our lives in our hands, making important decisions. If I feel uneasy, if I feel something, I’m not going to feel like a big wimp—I say something and we talk it through with the guys that I’m with. And from there we make a decision. What I’d say for anyone in that situation, no matter who you are with or how experienced you are, if you feel uneasy, or if you just have something you want to say, you want to voice it to the group always, and never stand by quietly with what you are thinking.
It’s great to be out there with good skiers, but I look for people that know what they are doing, that are practiced with their gear and know how to use their transceiver and probe and shovel technique—that’s an underestimated one that people don’t really think about. You want someone who has practiced with their gear a lot, who is always willing to back down if conditions aren’t right. I don’t like travelling around the mountains with people who are going to push it no matter what the conditions are.
Once you have a probe strike, leaving that probe there, that’s a valuable piece of information. Your probe is telling you how deep your buddy is in the snow. With that information, you can basically back down the slope until you’re at about that depth of where your partner is and dig into them, rather than digging down to them.
So when you get to the victim, not only do you have this nice big wide platform, if you’re just digging straight down the snow is going to be caving in on you. Maybe you get down to them and you have found their leg, you have no way of getting to their head without re-digging the hole, but if you didn’t (dig straight down) it’s an easy adjustment to dig over to their face or mouth, so it’s a lot more efficient.
I don’t believe that there’s such thing as being too knowledgeable or too practiced, especially with something that could save a life. The TGR crew starts the season off with the [Pro Riders Workshop] and do everything from first aid to rescue technique, going through those techniques.
I like to practice with multiple burials. If you can find two beacons, then finding one is a walk in the park. I try to practice in all situations and stay on point and practice lots of times throughout the year. Why not? It could save a life and it’s probably going to be a loved one or a good friend, because that’s probably who you are going to be in the backcountry with.
We were 30 miles away from Juneau when I broke my leg. That’s like a 20-minute helicopter flight. I was on a steep section, by no means where a heli could pick me up. The crew had to load me up in a skid and take me 300 yards down slope and I was in the ER in 45 minutes. That’s a testament to how well the TGR crew works and how professional they are in those situations.
A lot people think we just go out there and huck ourselves. [But] there’s just so much emphasis on safety on the front end, and it shows on the back end. I just would love to reiterate that people can’t practice enough, can’t go through different scenarios enough. Hopefully you’ll always make the right decisions and never have to deal with an emergency situation, but mountains are unpredictable and Mother Nature can always throw you a curveball. Being ready for those situations is key. I still see tons of people in the backcountry with no backpacks, no gear, following, following where the masses are going.
We’re making sure people realize what they are doing when they go out those gates and the risks involved with going out those gates. You can tour and ski pow everyday all season long, but if you don’t know your sh*t, it’s going to catch up with you sooner or later.