Kevin Fogolin has been an avalanche consultant in British Columbia, Canada for over 15 years.
Every season, he drops up to 100 charges (or bombs) out of helicopters to set off avalanches in zones that need clearing to reduce the hazard.
On 25 March 2009, Kevin was working for a construction company that was building a hydro-electric facility in the Toba Inlet, a fjord 130 miles north of Whistler, British Columbia.
He was set to drop his 200th bomb when disaster struck…
“It was a beautiful sunny day in March. We’d been called in to do some avalanche control above one of the road that leads to the hydro-electric power plant, so we decided to do some heli-bombing.
The helicopter company I always work with wasn’t there that day. So I was using a different company, but the heli wasn’t available for me to use until the afternoon.
By midday, the wind had picked up. You could see it pluming the snow off the peaks. As we set off at around 2pm, I remember thinking, oh boy, let’s see if we can get this done or not. If it was no good, we’d pull the pin on it and forget about it for the day.
“It was like something out of a hollywood action movie, where all this stuff should kill you but you walk away unscathed…”
There were three people in the helicopter – myself, the pilot and the recorder, the person who records the time the charges (or bombs) go out the door and where they dropped.
We had six bombs on board, that’s about 300lb worth of explosives. We worked our way progressively up the mountain side. The vertical relief on this mountain is over 2,000m from top to bottom. The weather can be immensely different from the summit to the base.
As we climbed, I threw the first charge out. We got a small avalanche. Things were going good, so we moved our way up the hill and put out the next shot. Again, another small avalanche.
Then we came to this big alpine slope near the top of the mountain. We decided to throw out the third shot.
We approached this almost completely white slope. Something that white has very reference points, making it hard to tell how far away the slope is.
I remember pointing out to the pilot the partially shadowed part of the slope – because you want to put it in the right spot to get a good avalanche.
We hovered above the slop. I lit the fuse, leaned out and threw the bag of explosives out on to the slope. One thing that struck me was how quickly the bag hit the slope. I realised at that point we were pretty close, maybe 20ft from the side.
“The cabin filled with snow. I couldn’t breathe. We were sliding towards a 7,000ft drop…”
As soon as I leaned back in the helicopter, it became engulfed with blowing snow. Everything went white in an instant. The pilot completely lost all visual reference to the slope.
We believe now that we were hit by a big gust of wind at the same time. It had gone from being totally calm to really gusty.
The rear rotor struck the slope in front of us and the rotor blades just ripped off the helicopter, causing the helicopter to hit the slope.
When you’re in a helicopter doing avalanche control, you don’t have the side doors on. I sit behind the pilot and you’re harnessed in, so you can throw the bombs out.
When the helicopter hit, it landed on my side and just started sliding down the mountain.
It was literally like being in an avalanche. The cabin filled with snow. It filled my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. We were just sliding really fast. In my mind, I knew what we were sliding towards – an 7,000ft drop.
I thought that was the end of it for me. I was essentially waiting to die.
All of a sudden, the sliding stopped. If you talk to people that have been in traumatic accidents, they often say that time doesn’t mean anything while it’s happening – and it’s true. When the sliding stopped, I remember thinking wow, I’m alive!
Then in an instant, it was all happening again. The snow was coming back in the through the door. I had no idea at the time, but we’d actually gone off a cliff.
As we carried on sliding, I thought this is it, the helicopter is going to explode. I had 150lb of explosives lying on top of me.
Eventually, we stopped again. I could hear the pilot and the recorder scrambling to get out of the heli. I started to panic. I was covered in explosives. I had no idea where we were. I’m buried in snow and harnessed into my seat. I could barely move.
“I’m buried in snow and harnessed to my seat… and there’s a bomb with a fuse burning somewhere”
I knew I had a knife on me for safety procedures, so I was trying to find it but couldn’t. I remember screaming at the guys not to leave me. One of them handed me a knife.
I cut myself out of the harness and seatbelt and climbed out of the helicopter. This was all in a matter of seconds because I knew there was a bomb with a fuse burning somewhere.
We were in a really bad spot where we could easily get pummelled by an avalanche. I knew there was a safer spot a few hundred metres away.
So we started to run. I was in front, the recorder was about 30m behind me and the pilot behind him.
We didn’t get very far when all of a sudden… BOOM! The shot goes off directly above us, about 250m upslope.
It kicked out the avalanche and started coming straight towards us. There was nowhere we could run to. I braced for the hit.
When the avalanche hit, it dusted me with powder but knocked the recorder and pilot over.
All of a sudden, it cleared. I could see the recorder. I yell out and he’s OK. But I couldn’t see the pilot. Oh my god, I thought, he’s gone. The avalanche has swept him down the mountainside.
I yelled at the recorder. “Can you see him? Can you see him?” A few seconds later, he yells back. “Yeah I can! He’s OK!” “Oh my god. OK, run!”
We had no idea what was going to happen next. Was the helicopter going to blow up? We were running across the slope with snow up to our waist. Eventually, we made it to a ridge where we were relatively safe.
It was like something out of a Hollywood action movie, where all this stuff should kill you but you walk away unscathed. I had a minor bruise on my arm. The pilot had a small gash on his forehead but nothing major. Relatively speaking, we were all physically unharmed.
“OH MY GOD, I THOUGHT, HE’S GONE. THE AVALANCHE HAS SWEPT HIM DOWN THE MOUNTAINSIDE.”
As we waited on this ledge, all we felt was a sense of relief. It’s over. We’re going to make it. We stood there, waiting and waiting. No one came.
All our radio communications were in the helicopter. It started to get cold and darkness was coming soon. I started to think, holy cow, maybe it’s not over. Are we going to end up spending the night?
I started digging for something to do to keep warm, thinking if we were going to get stuck here, we would want a snow cave to spend the night.
Back at the base construction camp, they knew something was wrong because we missed our regular radio check ins.
Two hours later, they found us because the helicopter has a satellite tracking unit in it which recorded the last known position, which was on the mountainside.
I know from speaking to one of the guys in the helicopter that as they assumed the worst. Our helicopter wasn’t moving and it was wedged at 2,300ft. They flew over the wreckage, they couldn’t see anyone moving. They thought we were still inside.
Suddenly they glanced over and saw us three guys waving at them from a ridge. So they flew in, picked us up and flew us off the mountain.
It was pretty crazy to be down in the construction camp just a few hours later, drinking a cup of coffee, thinking, did that really just happen? It’s amazing that we all survived.
I was back flying again the next day, which people think is crazy. It was the best thing for me. If I hadn’t gone back the next day, it would have been much tougher to recover from.
I actually went with the avalanche company to recover to wreckage the next afternoon. All these feelings started coming back, like guilt. But it also felt good to be part of the recovery process.
“If I hadn’t gone back the next day, it would have been much tougher to recover from”
The wreckage was sat on a small ledge, it’s unbelievable it stopped because it’s so small. The recovery crew set off a charge above the wreckage to check it was safe to put people on the ground.
The first shot created such a large avalanche that it overran the site and took the wreckage 2,000ft to the bottom of the mountain and smashed it into tiny pieces.
If the third charge I’d thrown out of the helicopter had blown up like that one, I wouldn’t be here today.
Later on, I found out that the recorder quit his job and never flew again but the pilot is still flying today.
It’s been a huge learning experience for me. It’s human nature to think things like that won’t happen to me. I realised that day that things can go wrong. There was nothing reckless about it, it was just an accident.
When you work in the mountains, there’s always an inherent risk. You just need to try and mitigate that risk as much as possible. I’m just glad this story had a happy ending.”
There’s a Kickstarter project running right now to make Kevin’s story into a full-length film, Snowman. They’ve already raised a huge amount of money, but they need your help to make it a reality. Find out more here and watch the trailer below.
*as told by Nina Zietman