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Backcountry skiers survive White Pass avalanche

Paul Goulet recalls how he slid over 200 metres down Log Cabin mountain in a giant river of ice and snow, after being hit by two successive avalanches. "It felt like you were coming over the top of a rollercoaster," he said.

Paul Goulet recalls how he slid over 200 metres down Log Cabin mountain in a giant river of ice and snow, after being hit by two successive avalanches.

“It felt like you were coming over the top of a rollercoaster,” he said. “I just tried to keep my hands in front of me and swim up to the surface.”

Back at home in Ottawa with a broken fibula and a bruised back, Goulet was in good spirits.

He and his friend Gaetan Martel survived an avalanche that was rated 2.5 out of 5 by Avalanche Canada. That’s somewhere between potentially burying, injuring or killing a person, and burying a car or a small building.

Goulet was in the Whitehorse area last week to take part in a few backcountry ski trips with some close friends.

Last weekend, they skied at the Haines Pass for a few days before heading to the White Pass area on Tuesday evening.

But that day, Avalanche Canada sent out a news release warning recreational backcountry skiers to be ready for increased avalanche hazard.

“Given that many slopes have yet to see a full-blown warm up we are predicting a widespread and varied array of avalanche problems this week including cornice failures, surface-layer avalanches, and failure on deeper persistent weak layers,” it said.

Seven of them left at about 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Heading up the mountain, Goulet said there were a few times when he felt vulnerable.

“At one point Gaetan and I felt like we were a bit too far left of the mountain,” he said. “And we were about 15 feet too far to the left when the first avalanche hit.”

It was 9:16 a.m. when that happened. One of Goulet’s friends had a watch and looked at it right away, knowing there is a limited amount of time to find a person buried in an avalanche.

Goulet had just taken a picture of his friend a few seconds earlier, and was facing downhill to enjoy the view when the avalanche hit.

“I almost get a chill thinking about it, because I just heard my friend yell “avalanche” and my friend Gaetan went sweeping by me,” Goulet said.

“I didn’t hear it, it was silent. I dove on top, pointing downhill, and tried swimming on top of it.”

When it stopped, Goulet was sitting up in the snow but his legs were trapped. Then, he saw the second wall of snow come down.

“It was a pretty intense experience,” he said.

Someone with Avalanche Canada estimated the second avalanche at about 200 to 250 metres wide, and about 450 metres long, Goulet said.

Because Martel’s GPS was turned on, they know exactly how far down they tumbled.

They slid about 150 metres at an average of 46 kilometres per hour.

“I have a feeling that for the first 30 seconds, we were going about 20 kilometres per hour, but for about 10 seconds we were going about 90 kilometres per hour,” he said.

Goulet’s ski got caught a rock and it twisted his leg around, breaking his fibula near his ankle. He also suffered a serious knee sprain.

He said he got scared when he was sitting in the snow at the end of the second avalanche, anticipating a third one.

“I was facing uphill and had a moment of deja vu,” he said.

“We were waiting for another one to come around the corner and we couldn’t see our friends.”

But a few of his friends, one an avid skydiver and another an experienced river guide, were soon on site and helped both Goulet and Martel out of the snow.

As soon as Goulet was out, he fell backwards and exhaled, he said.

“I was exhausted from digging myself out.”

Not being able to walk, he went down the mountain on his stomach, a technique his kids once showed him, he said.

That evening, after a visit to the Whitehorse General Hospital and dinner, Goulet and his friends celebrated by singing karaoke at the 202 Motor Inn until 2 a.m.

Goulet was wearing a Superman T-shirt and someone at the bar asked him what had happened to his leg.

“I was caught in an avalanche today and broke it,” he told the person.

He says he heard the response: “Dude, that’s crazy that you survived. Good on you guys. But you know, if you had been wearing a Batman shirt, you wouldn’t have broken your leg.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at