SNOQUALMIE PASS, Wash — More snow means more fun. But it can also mean more danger.
"People would always ask me if I got caught in an avalanche. I always was quite proud of saying no. I'll ski 80 or 100 days a year in the backcountry and I've never gotten caught in an avalanche," he used to say.
But three years ago that all changed. He was, ironically, observing for the NWAC when it happened.
"I just mentioned to my friends like oh the snow is pretty unstable here. And I think we should go around. But I still kind of continued to poke in the snow just to gather some information right before turning around when in reality I should've gotten right off it. Got swept off my feet. We started going downhill pretty quickly. Bounced off a few trees."
He rode the river of snow and says he's probably alive today thanks to the blowup airbag he was wearing and remembered to activate.
"I ended up not being buried. I think highly likely because I had an airbag pack on."
He says many forget to pull the trigger. But if you do, you have a good chance to make it through.
"The University of British Columbia did a big study on them. And they think they'd likely save approximately 50% of people who died. You still have a 50% chance of dying. But a 50% decrease of dying is pretty good."
But he says the best idea is to stay OUT of a slide in the first place.
"Anyone going to the backcountry, whether they are a professional or a first-time snowshoer, should check the avalanche forecast."
That's step one, he says. NWAC offers daily updates anywhere in the Northwest.
Then, once there, Nicholson says assess the terrain.
"if you're ever traveling and all the sudden you get like big open slopes? You have to think it probably wasn't a clear-cut. There's probably no trees there because avalanches come down with enough regularity that it actually kills all the trees."
He says there's safety in darkness, what they call "dark timber." If there's a canopy overhead of old-growth forest, a significant avalanche has not been through in a while.
But if your worst nightmare still happens?
"You should yell. Because you want your friends to look at you. Time is so important. If they can see you go down a long ways, all the sudden there's a bunch of debris they don't have to search, hopefully increasing your chance of survival."
Then go for the swim of your life.
"But swimming is less of like a backstroke kind of thing. Swimming is more like battling on the surface, fighting to stay on top."
And if you DO go under, be the ball.
"You should just tuck into a ball. Grab your knees. And just kinda hope for the best because it's going to be super violent. You're going to have no control of your body."
When the slide stops, spread out.
"One, what if your foot or hand breaks the surface. Hopefully, your odds of survival go way up because your friends can hopefully see you. Two, it actually gives you a bigger air pocket...so you might be able to survive a little bit longer before they get to you."
That's where your buddy comes to the rescue with three must-haves.
"And that's an avalanche beacon, a shovel, and a probe. And just having two of the three isn't OK because each one serves a critical purpose. The beacon helps us get pretty close to finding where our friend is underneath the snow. The probe finds out exactly where they are. And the shovel is obviously how we dig them out."
He says it's all about speed.
"If you find them in the first 15 minutes, their chance of survival is actually about 93%. That's pretty darn good. However, it drops off pretty steeply."
Mountain Madness offers avalanche and backcountry skiing programs throughout the winter.
You can also check the current avalanche report at NWAC here.