A Queenstown heliskier who survived being buried and then passing out in an avalanche feels he’s cheated death.
Guy Pope-Mayell, speaking about his terrifying ordeal for the first time, spent 15 minutes under more than two metres of compacted snow during a heliski trip last Thursday. The 47-year-old says he’d just had a mindblowing morning with Queenstown’s Alpine Heliski in the Eyre Mountains near Kingston when the avalanche struck.
“Then the whole valley above and below just turned to liquid. I thought I could ski out of it – a second or two later I must have just got enveloped,” he recalls.
Guy, a major shareholder in Cookie Time, says he slid hundreds of metres before stopping and a torrent of snow compressed around him like cement.
“I went from being as free as a bird to feeling like I was stuck in concrete. I said to myself ‘There’s no air down here – I’m stuffed’.
“It became phenomenally apparent that I was going to die. That’s when I blacked out,” Guy says.
His 19-year-old son Elijah and three Queenstown companions Tim Ceci, Steve Jarvis and Steve Mullan plus their guides began a frantic search.
Elijah, using his transceiver, zeroed in on his father’s location. When neither he nor Jarvis could get a closer reading than two metres, they started digging.
With the guides searching at the bottom of the valley, the foursome used their bare hands and snowboards, which Jarvis says was like digging with tables.
Once the hole was more than a metre deep they used a ski pole as a probe and eventually struck an unconscious Guy.
Mullan, in the hole at this stage, finally uncovered Guy’s head but he was blue and didn’t seem to be breathing.
Jarvis led Elijah away because they thought his father was dead.
The guides arrived with shovels and soon they were able to lift Guy out.
Guy: “Just as they lifted me up is when I remember regaining consciousness. The guides said ‘How are you?’ and I said ‘I’m okay’. But really what I’m meaning is ‘I’m not dead’.”
Guy and his companions were immediately choppered back to the hangar at Queenstown Airport where they all had a cup of tea and a beer.
Guy later passed a medical check at Lakes District Hospital, except for a wrenched knee that’s getting physio.
“The docs felt that being buried at two metres, I should have had crush injuries. They were amazed I didn’t have any broken limbs.
“You’re always aware an avalanche can happen but you don’t think it can happen to you,” Guy adds.
“I’ve literally walked away from death.”
Alpine Heliski boss Tim O’Leary says he and his staff went back to the site later to look at why it slid and tests showed it was hard to trigger an avalanche: “There were a couple of rocks poking up … we suspect that created a weak point.”
O’Leary says he had five trips out that day and no one on similar terrain had any problems.
“It was quite a shock for [the guide]. It’s his job to choose terrain and keep the client safe. He’s highly disappointed that he failed.
“Guides aren’t infallible,” O’Leary says.