Colin D. Watt says he's lucky to be alive after an avalanche in Whistler swept him into a tree well and buried him in snow Saturday.

The experienced snowboarder and two friends ventured into the area under Whistler's Peak to Peak Gondola, which had pristine powder that morning. It was also out of bounds.

Watt was caught in an avalanche and pushed 150 feet down the slope and into a tree well. He says it was the worst thing he had ever experienced in his life.

"Basically, I was a present under a Christmas tree, and snow just kept funneling in and did not stop until I was completely buried."

From bad to worse

Watt had one hand free and managed to sweep away some of the snow above him so he could see.  His friends carefully made their way toward him.

He began to call out to his friends.

"Boys, boys!"

Then, more snow came crashing from above.

"All of a sudden, snow just enters my airway ... I couldn't breathe. I had snow all the way down my throat."

His friends accidentally triggered another avalanche on their way down.

Now, Watt was completely buried and his friends could not see him. He says they took a guess and just started digging.

"It went from pitch black and it went a shade lighter with every scoop of snow he peeled off. Next thing you know I've got a leather glove sweeping snow off my face," Watt said. "I look him in the eyes and he doesn't hesitate. [He] shoves two fingers down my throat and rips all the snow out of my airway."

Colin Watt

Colin Watt was buried in an avalanche Saturday and says he would have suffocated if his friends had not been able to dig him out. (Wanyee Li / CBC)

Tree well safety

People often don't see trees as hazards on the mountain, but ski patrol professionals say that needs to change.

"Just because you think you're an intermediate skier, and you're off just in the trees on kind of a mellow run where no avalanches exist, that doesn't mean deep snow and tree well hazards don't exist in those places," said Gwyn Howat , vice president of operations at Mount Baker Ski Area and the co-author of deepsnowsafety.org.

Howat says staying in the line of sight with friends at all times is critical. The time it takes to find a friend again in the trees can be the difference between life and death.

It's so imperative that when people go into treed areas, and deep snowed areas, that you actually remain in sight with your partner," she said. "People can suffocate in a tree well in deep snow immersion as quickly as someone can drown."

Watt says people should always bring their avalanche gear if they plan to go into the backcountry. One out of three people in his group on Saturday brought that gear, which included a shovel.

It almost certainly saved his life.


To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Snowboarder survives Whistler avalanche.