Parker’s photograph captures the moment the snow mound that buried McNutt broke off (Eric Parker)

Parker’s photograph captures the moment the snow mound that buried McNutt broke off (Eric Parker)

Saved from a snowy tomb

A B.C. skiing star is alive thanks to six friends—and no thanks to his avalanche beacon

Nick McNutt made it look so effortless, even for a pro skier. He bounded, glided, swished and soared down a powdery bit of terrain overlooking an alpine lake in coastal British Columbia, while his fellow skiers chilled in the midday sun. Their action-sport moviemaking was finished for the day—but Nick, the group’s freestyle specialist, wanted to trick out a bit more. “I love to watch you do your McNutt thing,” Ian McIntosh encouraged him. As his friend nailed one last aerial, McIntosh called out: “What a ninja!”

Neither ninja nor spectators anticipated what followed a second later. Large chunks of snow and ice, broken loose from a small ledge McNutt had landed on moments earlier, tumbled into him. He crashed against a tree and then disappeared in a soup of hurtling, white debris. The other skiers and film crew a few dozen metres away snowmobiled to the scene, unable to see him when the avalanche cloud settled. They switched their avalanche beacons to “search”—as safety training had taught them—to pick up a signal from McNutt’s. There was none. He was buried somewhere, and the fail-safe way to find him had failed. “No way, no way, no way!” McIntosh yelled, each time getting louder.

Through a mixture of know-how and blind luck, they’d rescue one of pro skiing’s best-known athletes that day, their group emerging intact to tell a story that is the stuff of backcountry nightmares. It is a cautionary tale during a year when Canadians are flocking to remote mountains, to escape COVID restrictions in their communities and at many ski resorts, where avalanche risk is better monitored. Adventuring is about risk, of course, and skiers like McNutt’s group do their best to manage it through wits, training and—increasingly—technology. But there, too, a reality check may be in order. Since McNutt’s close call, the rescuers and the rescued have spent months on another anxious search: for accountability from the manufacturer whose safety gear they say didn’t work, and to ensure others don’t face the same calamity. Or worse.

***

Nick McNutt was on the hills before he could use skis himself, as a toddler in his dad’s touring backpack. He’d briefly follow his dad again, doing carpentry work for the family renovation business around Kimberley, B.C.—a perfect trade for someone who wants winters off—until he moved to Whistler, B.C., at age 17 to work construction in the off-season and hone his acrobatic backcountry skills in the Coast Range’s long winters.

He began making money off his habit about a decade ago, starting with small ski films in his early 20s. His spins, flips and buttery touch landed him a 2014 starring role with a major action-sport film producer, Wyoming-based Teton Gravity Research (TGR). The performance won him industry awards, led to bigger gear sponsorships and established him as a celebrity in the freeskiing world. To fellow pro skiers, he’s a “silent shredder,” keenly adventurous and calculated enough to execute big aerials anywhere. Humble despite his immense talents, he’s a scraggly haired, goateed dude with a gentle smile.

McNutt’s ski shoots have taken him to summits in Alaska and Albania, but for TGR’s 2020 film, he would shred near his own backyard: the wild mountains around Pemberton, B.C., 180 km north of Vancouver and far removed from tourist-friendly Whistler. For this shoot, he was joined by Christina Lustenberger, a mountain guide and former alpine Olympian; Sam Smoothy, a New Zealand adrenalin junkie who was, like the others, on the North Face’s sponsor team; and McIntosh, who’d been scoping out the sharp angle of little-known Mount Howard near Pemberton, but had never skied it. For McNutt, this was a team of veterans and friends. McIntosh was a frequent backcountry pal and his teenage ski instructor when McNutt was 10, and the three-member camera crew included Ben Dann, who’d spent months staying in McNutt’s garage a couple of winters earlier. Familiarity helped on a three-week shoot like this, full of cloudy down days spent waiting for the bright, blue skies filmmakers love.

At 4:30 a.m. on March 9, they started their day in the dark, anticipating the ideal combination of fine weather and late-morning light. It was a one-hour drive to the side of a forestry road; a 45-minute snowmobile ride to the base of Mount Howard; and a two-hour scramble on foot to their launch point, Smoothy and McIntosh on one side of the mountain face, McNutt and Lustenberger on the other. “Hey, McNutt, how small do you feel right now?” Lustenberger asked, as Dann’s camera drone whirled above them. “Like an ant on the picnic table,” he replied. The other three skiers were the technical, big-mountain experts. McNutt playfully attacked his line. “It had a natural wave to it, where he popped a few airs, just ripped it super-fast,” recalls Aaron Whitley, the other cinematographer. His pals manoeuvred down in action-star style, too, all high-fives at the bottom. The stressful part of the day, they figured, was over.

The crew at work in the mountains around Pemberton, B.C, a few days before the avalanche; their film, Make Believe, came out last September. (Eric Parker)

The crew at work in the mountains around Pemberton, B.C, a few days before the avalanche; their film, Make Believe, came out last September. (Eric Parker)

McNutt wasn’t done. On an earlier scouting trip, he’d noticed some powdery, tree-lined terrain above the frozen lake—a short stack of natural snow-sculpted jumps, or “spine pillows” in ski lingo. The rest called themselves “big game hunters” for the massive downhill lines they craved; McNutt was into “mini golf”—that is, short-order sequences of trick-friendly drops. While others started lunch, he asked if he could climb up and ski them quickly before daylight faded. Cameras set, he raced up and executed the first stack perfectly. It looked, Lustenberger recalls, like his second run was going just as smoothly.

Skiers expect their descent to trigger small bits of disturbed snow rolling downhill when they carve fresh terrain. So McNutt wasn’t surprised some white dust greeted him as he reached a gully on the final approach to the lake. He hadn’t noticed the sedan-sized mound break off one pillow, then tumble into the gully behind him. Still photographer Eric Parker saw it, and set down his camera. He wondered later if he might have alerted McNutt, but it all happened in an instant.

Blocks of snow and ice thudded into the skier, propelling him toward an evergreen. He reached up to protect his face, so his arm hit the 15-cm-wide tree trunk first, followed by the rest of him. The avalanche carried him further, and buried him in nearly a metre and a half of packed snow and ice.

He was encased head-down, and it was pitch-dark. As though trapped in cement, he couldn’t even wiggle a finger; all he could move was his tongue inside his mouth. He tried not to panic, because that made it harder to breathe. He was, McNutt realized, at the mercy of his six colleagues.

They raced to the avalanche site, alarmed yet optimistic. None of the skiers or shooters had dealt with a full snow burial, but they’d trained extensively for such scenarios. The debris area was relatively small, and McNutt was wearing his avalanche beacon, or transceiver. When Whitley had put on their film microphones that morning, he’d also checked that all athletes’ transceivers were functioning in send mode before they left the roadside—a ritual. Other skiers could use their devices to search McNutt’s, and his electromagnetic beacon signal would tell them how far away and deep down he was.

That only works if the beacon works.

“You got eyes on him?” asked Smoothy, first on the scene.

“No,” McIntosh replied.

“You got a signal?”

“Get a probe and shovel. Everyone on search? . . . I don’t have a signal.”

“I don’t have a signal either. Is his transceiver not on?”

“We need all hands on deck now!”

Their confidence was crushed. The most essential avalanche rescue tool, fundamental to their training scenarios, was suddenly useless. They’d have to find him using other means: pole-like probes and shovels. If they didn’t find him in 15 or 20 minutes, he likely wouldn’t survive. They were approaching the two-minute mark.

No way, McIntosh said to himself. This can’t be how Nick McNutt dies.

They thrust their probes into the snow, guessing at which bit of debris he lay beneath. Lustenberger, the mountain guide, suggested they begin a probe line—a methodical search of the whole avalanche area, top to bottom. “Now we’re relying on techniques used for body recovery, not rescue,” she says. McNutt, meanwhile, had no idea what was happening above. His snow tomb was soundproof. He realized he could pull in air through the porous snow, but only if he breathed slowly. So he instructed himself to stay calm and preserve his dwindling energy.

Most of the skiers and crew trudged to the top of the roughly 15-m-long debris field to begin their probe line. But by the edge of the lake, Dann had a hunch. The cinematographer was behind the others, having had to land his camera drone. Scanning the scene, he reckoned the bulk of the avalanche fell to the lake, so he probed there. On his third or maybe fifth jab, he recalls, he got something. Not soft like snow, not hard like tree or rock. Squishy and humanlike. “I got him right here!” the shooter hollered. He asked McIntosh to double-check. He twisted and pushed Dann’s probe—“that’s a human,” McIntosh said. They’d found Nick. Four and a half minutes had elapsed.

Their friend was still buried under a suffocating mantle of snow. Shovel time, a part of the rescue training they knew well: work as a team, move the snow away, conveyer-belt-style, and create a wide rescue cone. It was chunky and icy right through. The probe had struck Nick in the back, a welcome poke from above. “It could have hit me straight in the face and I wouldn’t have been too upset,” he told Maclean’s. He’d be freed shortly—but anticipation made him anxious, and breathing became a struggle. He was fading from consciousness. “We’re coming for you, Nick. Hang on!” Lustenberger shouted. The shovels found his back first, then cleared his airway and head. McNutt was silent at first, unnerving some of them. Then he moaned. His team kept digging, then gently pulled him out, his arm limp and shattered beneath him. When he finally spoke, after coughing up blood, his first words were about the pain, his shattered arm.

They’d rescued McNutt in five minutes and 20 seconds—remarkably fast for a full burial, let alone one conducted without the help of a beacon. A textbook rescue, with one chapter of the book torn out.

Colleagues ripped open McNutt’s green ski jacket. They checked the severity of his arm fracture, and his transceiver. In “send” mode earlier when Whitley checked, it had somehow switched to “off.” Everyone had brought extra jackets, and they mummified McNutt in eight of them. They sat him up on a snowmobile. Whitley bear-hugged him, to prop him up and transfer body heat. As the sun loped across the sky, they moved him around the lake to keep him in light while waiting about two hours for a rescue helicopter. The mood was intense, but they were elated McNutt was alive—that they were not, as Whitley later put it, “waiting for the helicopter to take his body away.”

McNutt remembers the relief of the laughing gas he received in the ambulance that took him from the chopper pad to the Pemberton clinic; his arm getting wrapped; texting his parents and girlfriend that he had been in a crash but survived; his ski companions visiting once the intravenous painkiller set in. He spent four days in a North Vancouver hospital with a bruised heart, a swollen jaw and an arm that needed two plates and 11 screws to fix. He was discharged in mid-March before it began filling up with the first coronavirus patients. Injury had ended McNutt’s ski season. The pandemic curtailed everyone else’s.

McNutt made his return to backcountry skiing last December, with McIntosh at his side (Photograph by Felicia Chang)

McNutt made his return to backcountry skiing last December, with McIntosh at his side (Photograph by Felicia Chang)

The day after the rescue, McIntosh inspected his friend’s failing transceiver. The device, a DSP Pro from safety gear manufacturer Pieps, seemed to be in mountain-ready shape. Collision with a tree or tumbling ice hadn’t damaged the $400 device, but may have jostled it from send mode to off. There is a push-button lock feature on the side of the device that is supposed to keep the switch in send, off or search mode. Had it failed? Lustenberger got on a Canada-wide web forum for mountain guides, and asked for feedback about the DSP. She got several replies about switches mysteriously shifting to “off” while in skiers’ pockets or chest harnesses. There were also accounts of hairline cracks forming that weakened the lock buttons. Parker, the photographer, said he had returned two DSP Pros with cracked lock buttons under warranty, before choosing a beacon from a different manufacturer for the 2020 season. Someone else who wrote to Lustenberger mentioned Brianne Howard, whose husband died in an avalanche in 2017.

***

His name was Corey Lynam, and he had been skiing with friends in a valley near Whistler. He was third in a group of six doing the same downhill run, but for whatever reason his turns triggered an avalanche. He was swept through trees and further down. Companions raced uphill and down to search, but their beacons turned up no signal. A rescue dog would find Lynam’s body after four hours of searching. The declared cause of death was chest trauma, but Howard will always wonder whether medics might have saved him; after so long under the snow, she says, “he wasn’t given a fighting chance.” This was also a more conventional avalanche scenario than McNutt’s, Howard notes—a bigger snowslide with a wider debris field, and there weren’t pro-trained skiers watching from snowmobiles a few dozen metres away.

Howard was widowed with a 17-month-old son. When she was pregnant, her husband had upgraded his ski safety equipment, including a Pieps DSP Sport beacon. His colleagues had ensured it was set on “send” the morning they skied. But when Lynam was dug up, the beacon in his pocket was in search mode.

The B.C. coroner’s office sent the transceiver to a German firm; its inspection concluded the device and its lock were fully operational. Howard wrote to Black Diamond, the Utah-based outdoor equipment company that owns Pieps, urging it to recall and redesign the DSP beacons. Rick Vance, its vice-president of quality, expressed condolences in a reply letter, but said the company hadn’t yet reviewed Lynam’s transceiver or any reports on it. Howard says that was all the correspondence she got from the company.

Three years later, McNutt and his fellow pro skiers pressed their own case with Black Diamond and Pieps. They resisted the urge to alert their large social media followings, opting instead to deal quietly with the companies before TGR’s film came out in autumn. McNutt shipped his device to the company, but both sides say the shipper lost it in Salt Lake City early in the pandemic. The company tested the mode switches and locks on other DSP beacons McNutt and friends sent in, along with several more from its warranty department: Black Diamond has stated that lab tests on those beacons showed no problem with the switch, but acknowledged that small cracks in the lock button on the DSP Pro and Sport can greatly weaken its resistance. The device also met international standards, which require beacons to have “a safety feature against involuntary or accidental leaving of the transmit mode.” But the standards don’t specify how durable that feature must be. Pieps wouldn’t issue a recall. The last time the company recalled a beacon—the Vector model, which had battery problems—was in 2013, shortly after Pieps was acquired by Black Diamond. A recall form shows device owners were offered money and a new beacon—the DSP Pro. The recall cost Black Diamond roughly US$1.5 million, a sum it more than recouped in a later arbitration claim against Pieps’s former corporate owner, according to financial disclosures.

TGR’s film, Make Believe, came out in September, devoting a lengthy scene to McNutt’s crash and rescue, depicted in darkness with his companions’ voices. (McNutt’s microphone picked up his breathing, panicked then progressively slower, but it was kept out of the film.) On Oct. 10, frustrated at Pieps’s muted response to date, Lustenberger posted to Instagram concerns about the DSP beacon’s reliability. This issue rippled through the ski community and industry media. McNutt, McIntosh and other popular skiers posted additional warnings. Brianne Howard went public about her husband’s death.

Within days, Pieps replied with a video on its Instagram page, urging users to check DSPs for lock button fractures or other signs of wear. It triggered a torrent of concerned and furious user comments. A week later, the company announced DSP owners could send in beacons for inspection and upgrade. Some people got beacons with an updated lock feature for free, while others were charged US$100 or more for such replacements.

McNutt, McIntosh and Lustenberger were irked by how little the company did to broadcast its announcements about the problematic beacons, only posting to Pieps’s 5,000-follower Instagram account and not, say, Black Diamond’s, with 869,000 followers. They’re also disappointed that the wide backlash hasn’t prompted a full recall. “The design is not faulty,” Vance, the Black Diamond vice-president, told a ski website called SnowBrains in October. “This beacon is comparable or equivalent to other designs on the market in terms of its mechanical security.” About 150,000 DSPs have been sold, Black Diamond has said.

The company declined to comment for this story after receiving a set of questions from Maclean’s, directing us instead to remarks executives had made to other media, mostly winter sports publications. “We’ve tested the life cycle of the lock button multiple times and found that in a lab environment that lock button survives more cycles than the crustiest ski patroller could put on it,” Vance said in an article on TGR’s website.

McNutt holds a DSP Pro, the same model that failed him (Photograph by Felicia Chang)

McNutt holds a DSP Pro, the same model that failed him (Photograph by Felicia Chang)

But others, it seems, have picked up the urgent signal from McNutt and his rescuers. The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides said students in its ski guide program won’t be allowed to use DSP Sport or Pro. Nor will people on trips or courses with Alpine Guides Ltd. in England. Some retailers have pulled DSPs off their websites. A proposed class action lawsuit was launched this fall in Vancouver against Black Diamond on behalf of purchasers, though McNutt says he wants no part of it and Howard hasn’t joined yet.

But while the beacon issue is widely known among ski enthusiasts, Lustenberger worries for weekend warriors, or those buying DSPs second-hand, during a backcountry season expected to be busier than ever because the pandemic has shuttered many ski resorts. McNutt doesn’t mince words: “With that device, I don’t think you should be out there.”

Another development came in late November. The B.C. coroner’s report into Lynam’s death was finally completed. It deemed as “improbable” that he had mistakenly left his beacon in search mode, and suggested that Lyman’s movements or the impact of the avalanche “somehow defeated the locking mechanism.” The report, a copy of which was sent to Black Diamond, urged the European standards agency to revisit its safety rules for avalanche beacons “to reasonably reflect the demands of the complex avalanche environment.”

In December, a fully healed McNutt hit the backcountry again for some fun riding with McIntosh. Saving a friend’s life brings a special kind of closeness, McIntosh says. “He’ll forever be thankful for that, and we’ll forever be thankful we were able to.” As for McNutt, the stretch from last March to this winter was the longest he’d been off skis since he was a little kid. He’ll return to making action films in 2021, with a different beacon he can trust beneath his coat, pressed up near his heart.


This article appears in print in the February 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Saved from a snowy tomb.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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