New Zealand’s best woman big-mountain skier Janina Kuzma knows first-hand the dangers of backcountry
She helped save friend Todd Weselake’s life after he was dragged 350 metres by a class 2.5 avalanche – and buried under two metres of snow – on Canada’s Mount Proctor in January 2008.
Kuzma, who this week is defending her title at the NZ Free Ski Open, joins calls for increased safety in the backcountry – after the avalanche death of Ryan Campbell at Coronet Peak on August 2.
“If you think it’s not going to happen to you, you’re wrong. It can happen to anyone at any time,” she warns.
Kuzma, 23, was filming on Mount Proctor with Weselake and another friend when they were caught in the slab avalanche.
“It broke right under my feet and I grabbed an alder tree …then I had to jump off the hang fire [remaining unsupported snow above the fracture line],” she recalls.
“It was like a huge wave watching it go down. My other friend grabbed on to a tree and he was bear-hugging it and [the snow] was hitting his back.”
They watched in horror as Weselake was engulfed.
Immediately switching transceivers on, they carefully skied down the volatile snow 350m till they got a signal from Weselake’s device.
“The second probe in, I hit something. I yelled ‘I have him, I have him’ and my friend was like, ‘Are you sure? You better have him!’ So I took the probe out and hit it again. Luckily it was his helmet.
“We got to his head in 20 minutes – he was bright blue. We took his camera off his chest and you could see that he started breathing again.
He was unconscious and then suddenly he came through.”
They carried Weselake to a sled, got him to a truck and rushed him to hospital.
“It was pretty full-on. It didn’t sink in till a couple of days after.”
Kuzma’s urging people to beware of the dangers with this season’s high avalanche risk. “You are pretty stupid to be going out backcountry without any gear.”
“I won’t go out backcountry with someone that doesn’t know their stuff.
“I used to,” says Wanaka-based Kuzma. “But not now.”
The NZ Free Ski Open big-mountain finals are at Treble Cone tomorrow. Halfpipe and slopestyle events are at Cardrona next Tuesday and Wednesday respectively