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Beacon Turned Off, Trip Report from Serious Avalanche Accident

Pro Canadian skier shares her story from a nearly fatal day in B.C.'s backcountry this past spring

Revelstoke ski guide Christina Lusti reached out to us to share her trip report and story about an avalanche this spring in B.C. that left Nick McNutt severely injured. His avalanche beacon accidentally turned off during his run.

Lusti is one of Canada’s most experienced backcountry skiers. In February, she and Andrew McNab made the first ski descent of the famous Mount Macdonald in Rogers Pass. Read that story here.

McNutt was caught in an avalanche in Pemberton while filming with a Teton Gravity Research production crew. The filming day turned into a nightmare when McNutt broke off a pillow on a steep line. The snow fell into the gully and caught him while he was finishing his line. The debris carried him through trees and to the lake below where he was buried under 1.2 metres of snow.

The film crew and team of athletes, including Lusti, dug him out quickly and kept him stabilized until a helicopter was able to transport him to a hospital in Vancouver. McNutt suffered multiple forearm breaks, bruising on his heart, and some minor internal bleeding in his lungs.

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Lusti Trip Report

Notable Part 1: Our crew consisted of McNutt, Ian McIntosh, Sam Smoothy, Ben Dann, Ae Ron and Eric Parker. We had been filming for Teton Gravity in the Pemberton area for almost three weeks.

On this particular morning we departed Pemby with an alpine start to beat the solar and catch good light on our east-facing objectives. Driving one-hour up a Forest service road, we unloaded our sleds and geared up for the day. Ron walked around, checking that each of our transceivers was in send mode. Checking everyone’s transceiver was in send before entering the backcountry was ingrained into our morning routine. After double-checking the rest of our gear, we started up the dark valley on sleds.

Our main objective consisted of four different alpine lines in a remote valley east of Pemberton. Racing the sun, we skinned and climbed to the top. Each athlete skied down their chosen line while the film crew hustled to capture us from across the valley. Our morning was successful; we all skied big fun lines, and I felt a sense of relief after regrouping with the film crew.

McNutt had taken a liking to a feature above a lake, and it seemed like a good opportunity to film while in the area. Our crew sledded down the valley and parked up in the sun below his lines.

A spine pillow stack with minimal slough, no overhead hazard, and steady temperatures keeping the snow dry and cold, he sent his first line making it look easy.  Eyeing up the next line, he started skinning up for another lap.

Nothing about this line caught my eye as a hazard, but what happened next would prove me wrong.

Notable Part 3: My mind quickly raced into rescue mode. Judging by the size of the avalanche, I was initially confident we would be able to dig Nick out.

Ian and Sam were first to arrive on the avalanche debris; they split up and naturally started a hasty search.

While I’d rate the avalanche as a size one, the slope’s transition to lake acted as a terrain trap burdening us with a relatively deep pile of debris.

My confidence in quickly rescuing Nick was smashed when I heard Ian yell, “I don’t have a signal,” followed by “how is his beacon off?!”

My mind went to the worst-case scenario. Fuck!!! How did we not have a signal?

By now, everyone had arrived on scene, the inReach SOS was sent, and we still had no transceiver signal.

All rescue gear was out. Searching from Nick’s last seen point was initiated by Ian and Sam.

I yelled to the crew: “We need to do a probe line.” Dann got a lucky probe strike and yelled out, “I got him.”

We immediately started shovelling as the crew moved down and into efficient shovelling technique. Ian double-checked the probe strike. We didn’t have time to make a mistake. Without the signal to reassure us, we needed to be confident it was Nick we hit with the probe.

With all hands-on deck, the crew powered chopping blocks and excavating the snow as quickly as we could. Nick was 1.2 metres deep horizontal and facing upslope. We arrived at Nick’s airway, clearing away any snow around his face.

Nick was buried for just over five minutes.

We continued to excavate the remaining snow around him.

Sitting him up and off the snow, we started a full body check. Ian checked his transceiver and confirmed it was in off mode (Pieps DSP pro model worn properly in its harness around his chest).

His arm was visibly broken, and he was in about a ‪7/10 pain, spitting up blood and complaining of chest pain. Shivering from cold & shock, we lifted him onto the snowmobile. Covering him with our extra jackets, we were able to keep him relatively warm. We waited for about 1.5 hours for SAR to arrive.

He was airlifted to the Pemberton medical clinic and transferred into the hands of great medical staff.

Nick spent four days in the Vancouver hospital, receiving reconstructive surgery to his arm and monitoring his chest injuries.

This week, a class action lawsuit against the beacon manufacturers was commenced. Read more about it here.

McNutt Post-Avi

In a post reflecting on the incident, McNutt said, “I can’t thank the TGR crew enough who was there that day: Ian McIntosh, Christina Lusti, Ben Dann, Sam Smoothy, Aaron Whitley, and Eric Parker. I owe you my life.

“I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Pemberton Search and Rescue for the swift ride to the hospital, thinking about making my way out under my own power and adding many painful hours to my ordeal makes me feel ill.”

He has since recovered, visit his Instagram for some B.C. ski and climbing content.

Read about a Rockies skier saved from a four-metre avalanche burial