A photographer who survived the accident that killed heli-skiing guide Christian Cabanilla on March 3 said his group’s plunge hundreds of feet off a nearly vertical cliff was “like a washing machine.”
Cedric Bernardini of Chamonix, France, gave his account of the day’s events to the Chilkat Valley News this week. Bernardini was a client on the tour with Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA). A self-described extreme skier since 2003, the 40-year-old freelance photographer has skied in Alaska, Colorado, Utah, California, Greenland, Canada, and Europe.
Bernardini came to Haines Feb. 26 to ski with Cabanilla, a friend he’d met through mutual friends in France in December.
On the morning of March 3, Cabanilla and Bernardini joined a group of skiers that included clients Bryan Hinderberger of Juneau and Tom Konop of Anchorage. Their trip was led by SEABA guide Tom Wayes of Tahoe City, Calif.
Cabanilla and Bernardini didn’t pay for the tour. They were offered two open seats in the helicopter, which can carry five passengers. Bernardini agreed to take photos for SEABA in exchange for his runs.
Cabanilla and Konop were snowboarding; the other three were on skis.
The group skied three runs without incident before being dropped by the helicopter on a ridge near Garrison Glacier in the Kicking Horse drainage. On the previous three runs, Wayes dug test pits to assess snow conditions, but the snow “wasn’t moving too much,” Bernardini said.
As the helicopter flew away, the five men stood single-file on the ridge Bernardini estimated at 10 feet wide. “The ridge was so solid. It was the last thing that I was thinking about,” he said.
As the group chatted and donned their gear, guide Wayes moved along the ridge toward the top of the run, slightly away from the group. The beginning of the run was a narrow chute, about the width of three pairs of skis.
“We were on the ridge. (Wayes) was starting to go toward where we had to go down, and I was taking pictures and we were just talking – (Wayes) was assessing the run we were going to do – and then the whole ridge collapsed,” Bernardini said. “There was a big ‘whomp’ just before it happened. We heard a big fracture, and then ‘boom.’”
A block of snow about 40 feet long and as wide as the ridge collapsed from under everyone except Wayes, sending the four skiers tumbling down a sheer cliff off the northern side of the mountain. “I remember struggling, trying to stay on, to not fall. And I think that made it worse at some point,” Bernardini said.
The initial scrambling paid off very briefly, as Bernardini’s skis, still attached to his feet, caught on something and slowed his fall. However, a wave of snow dislodged him and he went tumbling head over heels “like a washing machine.”
Bernardini estimated the cliff, composed of rock and snow, sloped at a 70 to 80 degree angle; only 10 to 20 degrees shy of vertical. He fell about 600 to 900 feet, remaining above the snow the entire time.
SHOCK, CONFUSION AFTER FALL
When he came to rest at the bottom of the cliff, Bernardini was bleeding heavily from his nose and forehead. The first thing he saw was Konop, about 10 feet away. Konop was conscious, but his leg was mangled in the fall.
“I can only remember me being up and going around and trying to help (Konop) with his leg, because his leg was badly hurt. So I was trying to help him a lot with his leg, but I couldn’t. Plus I was pissing blood and I was very weak myself and I was in shock...So I was trying to help him, but I was being completely useless,” Bernardini said.
Bernardini doesn’t remember seeing Hinderberger and Cabanilla, although he later learned they were nearby. Hinderberger, who apparently set off an inflatable “flotation pack” as the slab gave way, was largely unscathed; Cabanilla was unconscious.
“Even though it was happening right in front of me, I was so in shock I wasn’t really seeing what was happening. So when I came back to the airport, that’s when I heard that Christian was dead. And I didn’t even know he fell,” Bernardini said.
Wayes, who was still on top of the ridge, radioed the helicopter when the snow collapsed. The helicopter, which had picked up another nearby SEABA group in the interim, returned to the scene, where guides began performing CPR and loading Cabanilla into the helicopter.
“I think the case with (Cabanilla) is he just took a bad hit at some point, probably on his back... His back was completely broken, and his neck,” Bernardini said.
The helicopter transported Cabanilla to the airport. He was met by emergency personnel and taken to the Haines clinic, where he was pronounced dead. The helicopter returned to the accident scene to retrieve Bernardini and Konop, who were also taken to the clinic and later medevaced to hospitals in Juneau and Seattle.
On Tuesday, Konop was a patient at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. He had suffered “multiple femur fractures,” according to SEABA.
Bernardini was sent to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau. He returned to Haines on crutches, with a hairline fracture in his left hip, a broken nose, and a three-inch laceration in his forehead. His right eye is filled with blood.
Bernardini said he carried a beacon, shovel and snow probe but was not wearing a helmet. To Bernardini’s understanding, Hinderberger walked away with nothing more than a few scratches.
The disparity in the extent of injuries among the four skiers was likely due to happenstance, Bernardini said. Konop’s leg may have been mangled because a snowboard doesn’t detach as easily from its user as skis do, but everything else was just a matter of who fell where and on what, Bernardini said.
Though SEABA issued a press release reporting the accident “preliminarily appears to have been caused by a massive cornice failure,” Bernardini said he didn’t believe the group was on a cornice, but on a solid ridge.
The group, including guide Wayes, studied the ridge from the air, and the word “cornice” never came up, which it likely would have, as Wayes had warned Bernardini earlier to stay close to the group while taking photos so as to not wander onto an unstable or unseen cornice.
“Maybe it was a cornice that we couldn’t see, but from my point of view, I think we were on the snow ridge and the ridge collapsed. That’s what I saw. I don’t believe I was on a cornice,” Bernardini said.
SEABA co-owner Scott Sundberg said this week there were “no glaring red flags” that the cornice was unstable. He said the group was not standing close to the edge of the cornice when the collapse occurred. “The best thing is just to give them a wide berth, which felt like it was being done. And when it broke, it broke a long ways back,” Sundberg said.
Bernardini said he was more than satisfied with SEABA’s safety precautions during his experiences with them (he had also skied about six runs the Saturday prior to the accident, taking photos for another private group). If anything, the company seemed slightly overly-careful in his eyes.
“I think they’re very, very cautious. To me, it’s almost too much. It’s almost annoying. They’re cautious about everything. But they have to do it, because they’re very responsible for the client... They’re very safe, I think. I’m from Chamonix and you’ll never see anyone digging any pit over there,” Bernardini said.
Wayes did not dig a pit on the run the group was about to ski before the accident, although he might have been intending to do so. Because of the slope and structure of the narrow run, though, Bernardini said a pit would likely yield little information and that he personally wouldn’t have elected to dig one.
“We were just waiting for (Wayes) to go in the run and assess it and then ski it first. The guide always goes first, and then we follow him one by one. So we were just waiting our turn to go... Maybe he was going to dig a pit, but I doubt it. I seriously doubt it,” he said.
Though the run was rated “expert” by SEABA, Bernardini classified it as a 4 on a scale of 10 for danger.
“What they do here with the tourists, I don’t think it’s dangerous at all. And as I said, on the level I’m skiing, 1-10, it’s probably a 3 or 4, everything they do with the tourists. When the pro riders (with media contracts) come, it’s a whole different story. Then we’re talking 7, 8, 9. Then it’s becoming very dangerous, because the runs they do are huge: they’re very steep, they’re very exposed, there are cliffs everywhere, rocks everywhere, you have to go very fast. It’s a completely different story; it’s a completely different kind of heli-skiing. But that’s not the heli-skiing we’re talking here,” Bernardini said.
Bernardini said he would return to Chamonix March 13 due to his injuries. He had intended to stay in Haines another month.
Sundberg said he talked to the clients and survivors of the accident and said they all “felt everything was on the up-and-up” in terms of safety precautions.
Sundberg said the north-facing run has an average pitch of 55 degrees and is considered “expert” level, and as such is only skied a few times a year. SEABA had not yet skied the run this season, Sundberg said. Ryan Schubert, a representative from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), traveled to Haines after the accident to conduct an investigation. Schubert said an investigation into the employer is required whenever a fatality occurs on the job, but he would not discuss the matter further.