Kevin "Fog" Fogolin confronts the door of doubt with a handful of explosives.
PHOTO: Jordan Manley
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the September 2013 edition of POWDER (Volume 42, Issue 1).
ON A SUNNY, WINDY DAY in late March 2009, Kevin “Fog” Fogolin headed out to do aerial avalanche control above a power project at the head of Toba Inlet on British Columbia’s rugged coast. The mission started well enough, and after dropping a few explosives, Fog had just thrown another when the heli was engulfed in a powder cloud created by rotor wash. As the pilot suddenly lost visual, the main rotor clipped the 40-degree slope, shearing off a couple of blades. The next moments are forever etched in Fog’s mind.
“I remember hearing the heli ripping apart,” says Fog, 44. “Then we flop on to the open-door side and start sliding. I’m harnessed in with 75 kilos of explosives thinking, I’m going to die.”
When the snow that filled the chopper and Fog’s mouth suddenly abated, it seemed a miracle. In reality, the aircraft had gone off a cliff. They hit the slope again and kept sliding. Convinced this was the way it would end, Fog could barely believe it when they stopped. In seconds, the chopper had slid 800 feet onto a small bench, beyond which the mountain fell off 6,000 feet.
“I can hear the guys up front scrambling out and I scream to them,” says Fog. “One guy passes me a knife. I cut myself out and the three of us are outside and I think, Shit, that bomb only has a two-and-a-half-minute fuse! So I yell, ‘Run!’ And we’re postholing in deep snow across a glacier toward a ridge. All of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ Pretty much directly up slope. All I can think is, holy fuck what next? The avalanche misses us but we get dusted by the powder, and I’m still yelling, ‘Run!’ because there’s a crashed heli full of explosives, and at this point I’m ready to believe anything can happen.”
Fortunately, that was it. Because they couldn’t go near the heli, they had no radio. But their location was known and they were eventually rescued. Other than a small gash to the pilot’s head, the only real damage was psychological.
“That night in camp I thought, I’m done,” recalls the soft-spoken Fog, in a way that suggests he hasn’t quite sorted it out. “It was the only time I’ve thought that this passion for the mountains I’ve had since I was a kid was gone. That it wasn’t worth it.”
But a beautiful alpenglow that evening helped vanquish the thought, and within 24 hours Fog had flown back to the wreckage to finish the job.
Slopes like this both haunt and interest avalanche specialists like Fogolin.
PHOTO: Jordan Manley
FOG KNOWS HOW WILD HIS STORY IS and he knows he’s lucky to be alive. But that’s not where the narrative ends. Dig deeper and you’ll see an ongoing struggle to get past the accident and not give up on a hard-won path; deeper still and you find a skier’s journey, as well as a tale of two friends with diverging ambitions, a drifting apart and eventual reuniting. It’s a story about which Mike Douglas’ Switchback Entertainment is making a film, called Snowman. Douglas knows an interesting arc when he sees one and is well acquainted with this one—he’s the friend.
Although Fog’s business card reads “avalanche specialist”—a saccharine euphemism for the hazard and risk-assessment (i.e., planning) and operational work (i.e., forecasting and control) that sees him traversing the globe to safeguard everything from roads to large-scale industrial projects—he and ski superstar Douglas share the same humble beginnings. The pair first met in fifth grade in Campbell River, B.C., and by eighth grade were almost inseparable. “What tied us together was a love of skiing,” says Fog. “Either I’d grab a ride [to Mount Washington] with his folks or vice versa, or we’d both just be up there with our families.”
“We were the two most snow-, mountain-, and weather-obsessed kids in our school,” says Douglas. “We were pissed if our parents made us a minute late for first lift, and we were always the ones begging for last ride at the end of the day.”
Douglas, the stronger skier, led the youthful charge with a “Let’s jump off that!” ethos that Fog was sworn to follow. As both recall, the leitmotif of Douglas dropping cliffs perfectly, then coaxing Fog over only to see him ragdoll, cycled endlessly. Though always together, the two were already on different tracks. While Douglas obsessed over performance, style, Warren Miller, and Greg Stump, Fog’s fascination lay in measuring, safety, and the science of weather and mountains.
“The reason I started skiing was because I wanted to be in the snow,” says Fog. “Even before I skied I’d listen to the ski report. When they talked snowfall I wanted to see it. I also remember making trains with Lego bricks; I’d have them go through mountains and then smoke them with avalanches.”
As high school ended, so did the adventure, and the tracks that had always threatened to diverge braided with uncertainty. Douglas went to college, Fog to Whistler. He worked as a liftie and though he loved the skiing, the scene wasn’t for him. The following year, Fog went back to school and Douglas went to Whistler.
En route to work, where Fogolin looks to keep destructive avalanches at bay.
PHOTO: Jordan Manley
“We only saw each other a few times in my Whistler years, more near the end of my mogul career,” says Douglas. “I was about to leave the national team and he was my connection to real life. So I went and spent a week with him at UBC, going to classes in big theaters to see if that’s what I wanted.”
In a now well-documented scenario, Douglas stuck it out in Whistler, reinventing himself as a ski revolutionary, team leader, and film star. Fog stuck it out in school. And while he would graduate and work in forestry, his plan involved bringing the snow world back in. He acquired first-level certifications for both the Canadian Avalanche Association and Canadian Ski Guides Association, and started working as a part-time ski patroller at Mount Washington. In 2001, he took time off work to do a CAA course in advanced avalanche hazard-mapping, a good fit with his forest industry background. By January 2004, he had enough experience to do CAA Level 2, after which he began the consulting work along the coast that would bring him to Toba Inlet.
“Snowman follows these paths, but the bigger picture is a journey where the main character is conflicted over what he feels life should be and what he wanted it to be,” offers Douglas. “We were taught you go to school, you get a job, you buy a house. There was no room in the narrative for a pro skier or an avalanche guy. Fog’s passion and dream was to be out in the mountains and snow, but he wants that other life we were raised to want—house, family, boat, yard.”
The film, then, is about trying to achieve balance, which was how it was working for Fog until the door of doubt opened.
“As a kid, I used to climb up on my parents garage with binoculars and just stare at the Coast Mountains and think to myself how amazing it would be to fly over them,” says Fog, who ultimately saw all the cards for both lives fall into place. “Some days I’d be sitting by the ocean at home in Campbell River, then hop in a helicopter and an hour later be staring at Mount Waddington on my skis, then be back in Campbell River for dinner with the kids looking out at the ocean.”
And though he still enjoys the feeling and the beauty of looking at snow crystals and formations while skiing, there’s a different background to it all.
“Because shit can happen even when chances are really low, you have to be diligent you’ve done all you can do to make sure things don’t go wrong,” says Fog, who recently moved his family to Whistler, where he sees a whole lot more of his childhood friend. “[The accident] makes me appreciate everything more. Every day that I’m skiing with my kids, I’m reminded how lucky I am to be having this experience.”
To purchase and watch Snowman, visit SnowmanFilm.com.