Bow Hut avalanche survivor recounts being swept over a cliff, buried and rescued

Todd Wyatt was ski touring with a group of seven friends, all outdoor enthusiasts, who had spread out to more safely ascend the penultimate and steepest slope of the eight-kilometre route to Bow Hut. That’s when he heard the avalanche.

'It just snapped my leg like a toothpick,' Todd Wyatt recalls of massive slide that buried 2 other people

Bow Hut in Banff National Park is the largest of the backcountry huts operated by the Alpine Club of Canada, but Todd Wyatt's group didn't make it to the heated shelter. They were forced to sleep in the snow about 100 metres below. (The Alpine Club of Canada)

Todd Wyatt was already imagining the warm meal he would enjoy at Bow Hut as he approached the rustic refuge perched high above the treeline in Banff National Park.

The 44-year-old Alberta resident from Lacombe was ski touring with a group of seven friends, all outdoor enthusiasts, who had spread out to more safely ascend the penultimate and steepest slope of the eight-kilometre route to the backcountry shelter.

That's when he heard the avalanche.

"It just sounded like a crack — it was like a gunshot — and it was like time stopped," Wyatt said.

An X-ray of Todd Wyatt's injured leg depicts the screws required to mend it. (Todd Wyatt)

"I looked up and I saw the fracture line … and it was incredible the amount of pressure that came out from underneath that slab. It just blasted snow into the air," he said.

In an instant, thoughts of drying out by the hut's fire were replaced by a mad mental scramble to find a way out of the way of the oncoming avalanche. But there was no escape.

"I made about two or three or little mini-steps and it dropped underneath me — a second release — as that top stuff started coming down and piling up," Wyatt said.

Caught between snow sliding at two different velocities, Wyatt's body was twisted, with his right leg forced downhill faster than the rest of him.

"It just snapped my leg like a toothpick. It was insane," he said. "I thought it was going to twist my leg right out of the boot. I knew it was broken instantly."

Mouth full of snow

With the pain from his broken leg "excruciating," Wyatt instinctively screamed, only to have his mouth and throat filled with snow.

He coughed and spit out as much as he could as he continued to be carried by the slide and over a cliff.

He figures he fell about 15 metres. He remembers landing and then the weight of the avalanche coming down on top of him and continuing to carry him downward.

"I remember getting totally swallowed up by the avalanche at that point, and it was dark," he said. "I was down quite deep."

As he was tossed beneath the surface of the slide, Wyatt recalls feeling fortunate to be flipped over so he was facing upward, his 30-kilogram pack below him. At least, he figured, it was better than being face-down.

All around him was black as he felt the slide start to slow, and then he described something he believes was nothing short of a "divine intervention moment."

"I got lifted from the bottom. It was dark, dark, dark and I got pushed up toward the light," he said. "It wasn't my time to go."

A helping hand

As the snow came to a stop, Wyatt punched his left arm toward the daylight and his hand just crested the surface, his face still partially buried.

After what he figures was about two minutes, a friend came to his aid, digging just enough snow away from his face so he could breathe more easily before going off to find another member of the party who had been completely buried.

That person was found using avalanche beacons and probes and dug out while still conscious. A third person who had been partially buried was also rescued. The worst injury among the group was Wyatt's.

It took his friends more than an hour to fully dig him out of the snow, being mindful not to aggravate his broken lower leg.

"I knew it was bad because every time I would even make just a small movement I could feel the bones grinding and grating and digging in," Wyatt said, adding he then faced a 75-metre crawl over the uneven run-out debris in a makeshift splint to reach safety.

Nowhere to hide

"Safety" is a relative term at this particular spot, however, with potential avalanche slopes on three sides and a glacial overhang to the south.

The only way out is to the north, but the route is far too long for Wyatt to have travelled in his condition. It was dark, and a satellite phone call to Parks Canada revealed no rescue would come until the next morning. Radio contact with people already in the hut also determined they had no toboggan or other means of reasonably carrying Wyatt the seven kilometres back down to the Icefields Parkway below.

They would have to spend the night.

The team spread out farther down the valley to hunker down and wait for dawn, but Wyatt had little choice but to stay where he was with the group's leader.

Some lukewarm tea and chemical toe-warmers were their only source of heat as they bundled up in their most insulated clothing and sleeping bags. Wyatt said he didn't sleep a wink as the minutes ticked by "very slowly and painfully."

Helicopter rescue

He finally heard the helicopter at about 8:30 a.m.

"They said as soon as it lands, you're going in," he said. "It was pretty wild."

Wyatt and the two other people who had been buried were taken to waiting ambulances at the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge parking lot below, on the shores of Bow Lake. From there, Wyatt was taken to hospital in Banff, where he underwent surgery and had several screws inserted into this lower leg.

Forever changed

He's back at home in Lacombe now, his ski season over, and while he plans to be back out in the backcountry once he's able, he said his risk tolerance will likely be forever changed.

"It may be the end of me going into challenging terrain, even if the (avalanche) conditions are low," he said.

Avalanche Canada described the slide as about 100 metres wide, 40-80 centimetres deep and running for 350 metres. It was initially classified as a size-two avalanche, meaning it's capable of injuring or killing a person, but upon further inspection of the aftermath Wyatt said it was likely a size-three slide — one capable of breaking trees and destroying a timber-frame house.

In his 20 years of backcountry travel, Wyatt had never before seen an incident this severe, and he hopes others will learn from it.

"All the skiing in the world isn't worth sitting at home for the next six months with a broken leg, trying to heal" — he said — "let alone being dead."