Loweprotection is our promise that everything you carry—for work, travel and adventure—will be safe and secure in one of our bags. We think this story is an incredible example of this promise.
Nineteen years ago this month, renowned ski photographer Paul Morrison was on an assignment in the northwestern corner of British Columbia, Canada for a Japanese ski publication, BravoSki Magazine. He carried two Canon bodies, four lenses and his avalanche gear in a circa 1997 Mini Trekker from Lowepro. Here’s how the story goes…
“I had been to this heli-skiing location many times before February 1997 and had become good friends with the Austrian owners. BravoSki is a monthly magazine that I had worked with previously. Klondike Heli-skiing (now under new owners and with a new name) was located in Atlin, a exceptionally scenic and historic little outpost that was popular with tourists as far back as the 1920s when it was promoted as the ’Switzerland of the North’. I was travelling with the magazine’s editor, Hiroshi Owada, a good friend and long time associate. My two skiers on this trip, were two of the very best, legendary ‘extreme skier’, Eric Pehota and Japanese free skier Hideo Yoshizawa.
Our first day in Atlin, we had one run that was excellent for powder skiing, but poor for photography. We asked the guide if we could ski another run. He said yes, and directed us to the run where the avalanche occurred.
As it was a convex slope, we couldn’t actually see where were going to be skiing. We asked him to scout the run for us by traversing around the perimeter of the bowl and confirming by radio. He declared the run ‘good to go’. The skiers and I decided that I would ski first to where the run rolled over out of our sight lines. I would stop and shoot them as they skied by me.”
“Eric and Hideo stood at a rocky outcrop and I set off. After a very few turns, I heard Eric yelling. Eric Pehota is a quiet man and amongst the most ‘in control’ people on earth. When I heard him yell, I knew something was very wrong. I turned to stop, but the snow around me had turned from a smooth evenness into a now-moving sea of ripples, with small puffs of snow sprouting into the air from the newly formed cracks in the surface all around me.
I immediately had my feet swept out from under me as I tried to dig my ski poles into the snow to arrest my impending slide. The once seemingly stable snow was now more like the consistency of fast-flowing water.
Off I went, quickly accelerating over the unseen edge of the horizon, maybe a hundred feet away. Immediately I hit rocks and remember thinking that there hadn’t been any visible rocks downslope of my starting position. I quickly found out that the snow had slid down to the rocks below the snowpack. I hurtled through a totally bright white space, spinning violent through the cold mountain air only interrupted by flashes of red as my body hit the unseen rocky slope below.
I hit both shoulders and hips, and my ski boots, but not my head, which likely would have ended my life. I broke my right leg inside my ski boot just above the ankle and had a gash in my left hip big enough to put my hand inside.
Turns out I was deposited in what is known as a ‘terrain trap’, a spot on the side of the mountain where it’s flat enough for the snow to build up and is often where victims will be found.”
“The guide started his search below where I was deposited. The two-way radio in my jacket kept me informed of his futile efforts to find me, high above his search on the mountainside below. The slide path was said to be nearly one kilometre from the point where I had started to ski to the tree line far below.
The only reason I’m here to tell the story is because my two friends who had been in safe zone (that rocky outcrop now far above). Had they come down with me, likely we’d all have perished that day. Instead, they quickly made their way down and found me in minutes. My face was under about a foot of snow, but my one hand was free. I could not breathe when I first stopped moving, but after discovering I could move the one hand, I scratched at the snow.
Like sticking a pin a balloon, the air hit my face like a breeze and then for the first time since the ordeal began (probably less than a minute or so earlier), I felt the odds of survival were in my favour.
Eventually seeing my hand, Eric and Hideo moved quickly and uncovered my face in very little time.”
Paul suffered from a broken leg, many bone bruises and deep vein thrombosis. It took him a full two years to recover. At the end of the heli-skiing season that year, Kirstie Simpson and Johnny Slam from Whitehorse, Yukon went to the site to see if they could find any of his gear. Kirstie is a skier, mountaineer and avalanche-dog trainer. The hope was the dogs could sniff at a piece of Paul’s clothing and recognize a similar scent at the site.
The snow on top of Paul’s skis and camera pack was up to 40 feet deep. Recovery would be impossible until after a melt. The dogs barked and dug at the snow and Kristy placed a long, collapsible avalanche probe at the spot to mark it.
Flash forward to July 1997, and Paul picks up his story…
“Kirstie called me that summer to say that the snow likely would have melted off the slope and that she and Johnny would be willing to make the effort to recover my lost skis and camera gear if I’d cover the cost of their float plane flight into the site (there’s a lake at the foot of the mountain). A small price to pay for the $10,000+ worth of camera and ski gear left behind! But would any of it work after four months beneath so much snow and then being left out in the sun and the rain for however long it would have been on the surface?”
“Amazingly, Johnny found the pack front-side down, atop a large boulder. He opened the pack to see all the equipment looking like new. He picked up the first camera and tried to take a photo, but the battery was dead. I’d left it turned on four months previously. Then he pulled out the back up camera body, put a lens on it and it worked perfectly.
The only damage done to the cameras was tiny bit of rust on the small screw heads on some of the lenses and kink in the 300mm lens that wouldn’t allow manual focus. The AF still worked perfectly.”
“The Mini Trekker was a basic bag. Not near the bag that the Whistler is today. But it protected my gear as few other bags could ever hope to do.
I have used Lowepro for almost the entire 37+ years of shooting in the mountains. The various packs have served me well throughout that time.”
In 2014, our friend and Loweprofessional Paul Morrison worked with our design and product team to talk about how the industry was changing and how to make bags more specific in design for what he does on skis. Paul played a key role in the design of our Whistler backpacks (introduced in August of 2015)…and he’s still out there skiing, shooting and inspiring photographers and adventurers. Thank you Paul. We’re glad you’re here to tell the tale.
Captions from top to bottom:
Paul’s Mini Trekker, as found after thaw
Topo map of Atlin, BC
Site of avalanche
Topo map, avalanche site
Kirstie Simpson looking for gear after thaw
Paul’s recovered skis and Mini Trekker pack
Johnny Slam with Paul’s recovered gear
Paul’s camera kit
Foreground of frozen Nelson Lake