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Lessons Learned from Nick McNutt's Near-death Avalanche Burial

Nick McNutt is a pretty big name in the ski game, but if you aren't familiar then allow us to give you the quick and dirty intro: Nick hails from the mountain town Squamish, BC and is a professional skier riding for companies such as Atomic Ski and The North Face, appearing frequently in ski films with Teton Gravity Research (TGR). 

Nick has been featured throughout his career for his style on skis and big line choices in the backcountry, but more recently he has been even more prominent in the outdoor news cycle as he shares more about his recent harrowing experience of being caught in an avalanche in British Columbia while filming with TGR. You may or may not have heard about the issues around the PIEPS DSP Transceiver, as people are flocking to social media to share their concerns, stories, and frustration about both the locking mechanism on the beacon and the companies response (or lack thereof) to the arising movement. But there's more to the story than that...

Let's start from the beginning.

On March 9th of last Spring, Nick and a crew of fellow skiers were out filming for TGR's new film. What began as an idyllic day in the backcountry turned tragic when Nick dropped into his line and triggered an avalanche in which he was caught, hurdled through trees, and eventually came to be buried approximately 1.5 meters below debris. Nick shared his experience on Instagram soon after the incident from his bed at Lions Gate Hospital in Vancouver, where he spent nearly a week recovering from serious injuries. 

His ski crew from the day - including Christina Lustenberger, Sam Smoothy, Ian McIntosh, TGR and more - shared the story across their channels as well, including footage of the avalanche and photos of the debris, where Nick was found and rescued, and his injuries once repaired during multiple surgeries. There were brief mentions of Nick's beacon being "smashed into the 'off' position" and the fact that with no signal, it was very lucky that he was found with a probe strike and rescued. 

But it wasn't until this Summer and Fall that more and more information around Nick's experience came to light by him, his fellow skiers and media crew from that traumatic day on snow, and many other from within the ski and snowboard industry. And as the conversation gained a larger audience, it has become clear that this incident with Nick's PIEPS DSP beacon was not a one-time fluke but instead something that has happened to countless folks before him; unfortunately, not everyone has fared as well as Nick, with at least a couple of avalanche deaths being attributed to the same locking mechanism issue.

The ongoing discussion about PIEPS DSP Sport and Pro beacons

In a sport where so much is at stake and every day in the backcountry can be a matter of life and death, there is no room for error. Our own opinions aside, it has been an interesting time to watch PIEPS (and Black Diamond) in their reaction to the public movement around their DSP Sport/Pro design. Many are calling for PIEPS to stop selling and place a recall on the models in question - to which PIEPS has yet to give in, saying "these beacons have undergone vigorous testing and exceed all certification standards."

To be perfectly clear here, the locking issue - or flaw, as some are calling it - in question is only present on the DSP Sport and Pro models. This conversation is not scrutinizing or questioning any other products from either PIEPS or Black Diamond. Although what began as an issue with just two products has gradually blossomed into something bigger, with the community as a whole is unhappy and far from satisfied with both brand's lack of action on the matter.

We can't say what will eventually come from the communal pressures, but you can be sure that we'll be keeping tabs on this story as things continue to unfold. 

The full story, as told by Nick

Nick recently shared a six-part series on his Instagram, breaking down his experience into the (1) the accident (2) the burial (3) the rescue (4) the extraction (5) the injuries and (6) the transceiver failure.

If you take anything away from coming to this page, I hope that you will at least take a moment to watch and read his posts, as they are incredibly insightful and as real as you can get. We may have teared up at multiple times while going through this series, and wouldn't be surprised if you also felt a tickle in your throat. In our opinion, Nick (and many of who were with him on this day) has only strengthened our respect and admiration we feel towards him with the way they he has been sharing his story and raising awareness around the transceiver failure (6). 

(1) the accident

 

(2) the burial

 

(3) the rescue

 

(4) the extraction

 

(5) the injuries

 

(6) the transceiver failure

 

So, what can we learn from this experience?

Learning from other's experiences is extremely important. This is even more true for us as backcountry travelers, where many of us are trained and educated to deal with avalanches and burials, but most have not experienced an avalanche situation themselves.

There are many lessons to be learned from Nick's March 2020 incident, but here are four of our most prominent learnings...

1. It might be time for a new beacon

This one's pretty low hanging fruit, but we'd feel remiss if we didn't touch on this. With so much on the line with backcountry safety, we highly suggest looking into buying a beacon from another company if you currently use a PIEPS DSP Sport or Pro. Even just swapping up to one of PIEPS or BDs newer models will help mitigate any issues related to the locking mechanism, but it is understandable that many people have lost their trust and/or respect in PIEPS and are shopping elsewhere because of it. 

Recommended: the BCA Tacker series and the Mammut Barryvox

In tandem with this thought, make sure to practice, practice, practice (and then practice some more) with whichever beacon you have. Make sure to follow the manual, carry the beacon as the company advises (screen facing your body), and be careful with it - both while on and off snow. Do frequent checks to make sure that nothing is defective or broken, and treat it with care. Oh, and never leave home without a spare set of batteries. You can never be too prepared.

2. Your touring partners are everything

When heading out into the backcountry, you can feel confident in your own avalanche safety skills and knowledge - but what about the people you're bringing with you? After all, if you are the one who is buried in an avalanche, your rescue skills will not make a difference. Instead, it's up to your partners to make the rescue - and you better hope that they have their shit together. Better yet, make sure they do before you embark on a tour with them...and we're not just talking about a beacon check at the car. 

Nick's experience brings up an even bigger question, though: what happens when something goes wrong and you have to make split-second decisions on the go? With no signal to be found despite Nick's entire crew being in search mode around the debris, the group had to improvise and react to the situation at hand. They had to revert to their basic training and rely on probe strikes rather than the helpful guidance that transceivers provide. 

Not only did Nick have a very experienced team of individuals with him that day, but they were all able to keep their heads under pressure and make decisions as a group that ended up being life-saving. Despite not having a beacon signal, they were able to find him with a probe strike within 5 minutes of burial - and they had him dug out of over 1.5 meters of snow within another minute. Now that's impressive.

And so while we know that you likely aren't heading out on tours with professionals like Lusti and Ian McIntosh, it's crucial to be just as diligent about your own partners' training and skills as you are your own. You are putting your life in their hands, just as they are with you, and that should be something you think about before leaving the parking lot every damn day. 

Recommended ideas: take an AIARE course with your partners, run practice drills with them before heading into avalanche terrain, talk through different situations and 'what ifs" on the morning car ride.

3. Shit can happen, no matter how experienced and diligent you are

Stemming from (2) above, you should always be ready for the worst. It doesn't matter if you've logged hundreds of hours in the backcountry, have your Level 1 and 2, are a guide or practicum, have skied out of avalanches before, or even survived a burial of your own. 

A common fact in the backcountry world is that the more avalanche education you have, the more likely you are to be in an avalanche. Which just reiterates the fact that those with more education need to be just as, if not more, diligent about keeping their skills and mental game strong. 

4. We need to share more and keep the dialogue open around risk

In an industry like backcountry skiing and splitboarding, where so much risk is inherent to the sport, it is even more important to maintain an open conversation about those dangers, how we can mitigate them as best as possible, and what happens when a situation takes a turn for the worst. 

Nick and his peers are far from the first to speak up online and share the behind-the-scenes information from a backcountry day gone awry. But in a unique time of global pandemic, civil unrest, wide-spread economic struggle, and a lot of free time stuck at home, Nick's incident has gone (and remains) viral and has brought the backcountry community together for a rare chance to talk gear and see those same professional athletes we look up to break down with emotion and thought after an incredibly scary - and real - situation. 

On this note, it's important to have public figures and icons share their experiences in a real and authentic way. It leads the community as a whole towards having a more approachable and comfortable conversation around risk, danger, life and death. We hope that more and more professionals will use their platforms to share similar stories and sentiments, as it creates a safe place where feelings and fear itself can be addressed - whether in small group settings with your touring partner(s) or as a backcountry industry as a whole. 

The conclusion

To put it bluntly, what we do as backcountry skiers and splitboarders is scary as hell. It can sometimes be easy to get comfortable and forget the risks surrounding you, but traveling into the backcountry is never 100% safe. That's why it's imperative to take the necessary precautions, get proper education, practice your skills, and hold yourself and others accountable to safe backcountry practices. Every day in the backcountry should be approached in a serious manner, as there is never a guarantee that you'll make it back home when so much is out of your control. 

As we approach a new Winter season here in North America, one in which we will likely see record numbers venturing into the backcountry with social distancing and resort capacities in place, this is a blunt reminder of what can happen out there and the importance of having the right gear and the right people with you. Be careful, take your education and practice seriously, and be smart out there! 

More suggested reading on this topic:

Feature photo by Zoya Lynch.

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