Reflections After the Avalanche

An interview with author Ken Wylie about his new book "Buried," surviving a fatal avalanche, and the human factors that led him there

In November of 2002, a storm rained right to ridgetop in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. Two months later, on January 20, 2003, the ice layer that formed sat beneath seven feet of snow—a perfect sliding surface.

By the end of the day, that layer would awaken, burying 13 people and killing seven in an avalanche at Selkirk Mountain Experience, a ski touring lodge north of Revelstoke owned and run by Ruedi Beglinger, a crusty Swiss mountain guide.

One of the survivors was Ken Wylie. The 38-year-old was into his third week working as Belinger’s assistant guide. He was miserable and wanted to quit, but decided to finish out the last week of his contract—one of the final hurdles in his 18-year quest to become a fully certified international mountain guide.

There isn’t a day that goes by that Wylie, now 49, doesn’t think about his roll in the tragedy. Haunted by it, he spent the last five years writing a book about the human factors that he believes led to the death of the seven clients, including legendary snowboarder Craig Kelly. A week after the release of the book, Buried, we chatted with Wylie about what he’s learned.

Find "Buried," a book about the human factors that lure us into avalanche terrain, written by Ken Wylie, at Rocky Mountain Books.
Find “Buried,” a book about the human factors that lure us into avalanche terrain, written by Ken Wylie, at Rocky Mountain Books.

POWDER: What is Buried about?
Ken Wylie: It’s about the dynamic between myself and head guide Ruedi and how it directly led to the accident. It was not a healthy one. The relationship didn’t nurture communication or collaboration. Even though I was the assistant guide, I believe we played equal roles in the tragedy.

The first two chapters are about what I experienced while working at SME leading to the avalanche. The second half of the book is seven lessons I learned from the experience. I wanted seven lessons because there were seven fatalities. The lessons come from stories of other adventures I have had over the years. Throughout my life of adventure, I kept missing lessons that directly led to tragedy.

A lot of people expected an exposé. It’s not. I don’t think that would have solved or remedied anything. I wanted to look at the tragedy from a different perspective. We have to take responsibility for our actions. I believe I always have a choice no matter what situation I’m in.

One minute the world was solid and the next it was a liquid mess. I was caught up in it and buried for 35 minutes. One of my clients eventually dug me out and woke me up with a slap across the face.

Can you take us back to January 20, 2003?
I woke up that morning wanting to quit. Ruedi had been verbally abusive to me from the beginning. It was a Monday and I decided to stick it out to the end of the trip.

We set out that day in two groups. Ruedi was leading with his group and I was following. We started skinning and then Ruedi changed his mind about where we would go. He radioed for me to follow him up La Traviata. It’s all rock studded and about 35 degrees. I was feeling sick about the situation. Every cell in my body said this was a bad situation. But I perceived I didn’t have a choice. When I was halfway up, Ruedi crested a ridge—a shallow spot in the snowpack. I heard and felt a sickening whoomph. There was a pause, and then everything slid.

One minute the world was solid and the next it was a liquid mess. I was caught up in it and buried for 35 minutes. One of my clients eventually dug me out and woke me up with a slap across the face.

Beglinger has always said he was surprised by the avalanche. Were you?
I knew the snowpack conditions. I wasn’t surprised in the least. It makes it more tragic. Because of the social structure of my relationship with Ruedi, I abandoned my better judgement.

Why didn’t you speak up?
A lot of reasons. I didn’t feel like I could question Ruedi. One of the lessons I talk about in the book is acceptance. I share a story from when I was in grade two and a friend dared me to pull the fire alarm at school. I did it because I wanted my friend to accept me. At 8, I chose acceptance from others. At 38, I did it as well. I wanted to be accepted by Ruedi and the guiding club. I was willing to do whatever it took to get the [full guide] certification. Ironically, to get it, I had to make bad decisions in the mountains.

It’s a symptom of the guiding culture. The guiding community has an element of hubris. The more bold guides are more likely to pass apprenticeship exams because they show confidence. A guide who shows prudence to turn around because conditions are not right seems nervous and unsure. They’re more likely to fail exams. When I’ve talked to people who own guiding business that seems to be a truth. The guides they worry about the most are the ones who pass the exams.

Jeremy Cox assesses the crown fracture left behind the January 2003 avalanche at La Traviata. PHOTO: B.C. Coroner
An investigator points out two significant snowpack layers during a crown fracture snow profile at La Traviata, January 21, 2003. PHOTO: B.C. Coroner

How did the accident effect you?
It deepened my understanding of the ways I need to develop as a person. Before and shortly after the accident, I was a victim. As the assistant guide it was easy to deepen that part of myself. It was too easy to point the finger. Writing helped me stand in my own truth. To take responsibility for my own roll in the tragedy. It helped me develop as a man and a human with deeper humanity. Ultimately, the only way for me to free myself from the event was to take responsibility for the roll I played.

What are the seven lessons in the book?
Acceptance. Learning to be peaceful with ones inner voice. Social courage. Self knowledge—being aware of yourself and knowing your biases and patterns in decision making. Truth of voice. Listening to your intuition. And connecting with people and humanity.

The last one is really important. As a guide on that day, I viewed the seven people in my group as inanimate objects. I might have made a different choice if I had not thought of them as things but as people with friends and family.

Read more about the decisions skiers make in avalanche terrain in the multimedia five-part series, The Human Factor.

What do you hope people take away from the book?
To think more about all the factors that go into making decisions in the field. All our faults as human beings play out in our decision making process. In my estimation, we spend a lot of time hoping technology will help in hazardous environments. But knowing my fatal flaws is way better than any probe that senses snow or beacon that saves me one minute. As a humble human being, I bring better decision making to the snow.

The next frontier in backcountry skiing safety is going to be more awareness of how human dynamics play out and how they play into making decisions. We would all make better decisions if we regularly did something that we’re really short of in our modern lives—reflection.

How did the avalanche and writing the book change you as a guide.
I think it changed how I gather information. I’m more open to input from my clients. A good leader should take information from anyone. But in guide training, they tried to dissuade us from gathering information from our clients. Sometimes it carries a heavy price. When we were at the bottom of La Traviata, one of my clients, Vern Lunsford, said he didn’t like the situation. He’s no longer with us.

What advice would you give any backcountry skier?
The next frontier in backcountry skiing safety is going to be more awareness of how human dynamics play out and how they play into making decisions. We would all make better decisions if we regularly did something that we’re really short of in our modern lives—reflection.

I linked one adventure to the next, to the next, to the next. For me, the different lessons kept repeating themselves, but I never learned from them. I never took the time to reflect on them. I’ve found we need to counter-balance our active life with quite and solitude. It can be terrifying. But it’s important. It’s how we gather who we are as a person, and the better we know ourselves, the better decisions we’ll make.

If you could go back to that day, what would you say to yourself?
When the little voice wells up—whether it’s little or loud—you need to listen. Our intellect can usurp the little voice and can convince us anything is okay.

To pick up your own copy of Wylie’s book, Buried, visit RockyMountainBooks.com.