Behind The Line: An Oral History of Callum Pettit’s Brush with Death

words :: Ben Osborne. 

It’s hard to imagine, but there was once a time when Callum Pettit was an up-and-coming skier making a name for himself.  The Whistler-raised skier has long been a standout in the big mountain scene, but, it’s true—he was once a grom too.

And, as groms do, they make mistakes. They get overzealous around their role models, and they send it big—such is life in the world of freeskiing.

In the spring of 2009,  Callum Pettit was starting to make waves in the world of big mountain skiing. Turning heads at his home mountain alongside his brother Sean, he got the opportunity to ski and film with TGR.

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Like most professional skiers, the end of his season was consumed by filming snowmobile—accessed lines in the Pemberton Backcountry. For a seasoned vet like Pettit, most of those days tend to blend together—But there’s one that stands out among the rest.

On this particular spring day, along with a crew of Ian McIntosh, Dana Flahr, and filmer Rik Johnston, Pettit headed up to the Pemberton Backcountry on a day that McIntosh recalls as “good enough to get some shots”—especially for a fresh-legged up and comer.

Follow along as Pettit, McIntosh, filmer Rik Johnston, and local legend/bystander Paddy Kaye recount what went down on that day. —ML

Callum Pettit working hard on the set of Sherpas Cinema’s Into The Mind, where he won ‘Line Of The Year’.

Callum Pettit: I woke up that morning and just like any other, I had an egg in a hole.

Ian McIntosh: We were filming most of the season around Pemberton/Whistler using sleds for access. Any day stability looked good enough, we were out there. This was just another day in our minds.

Rik Johnston (Filmer): After shooting with Callum that season for a couple of months, I realized pretty quickly that his risk assessment was on point.  Plenty of times filming you have athletes that push their limits too far and want to attempt to try things that are beyond their capabilities. Cal was never like that.

Callum: I had just got back from a TGR trip to Italy with Dana Flahr and Dash Longe. Steve Jones was there, he’s one of the founding brothers of TGR. We drank a lot of Genepi and ate great food. The nights usually ended with us singing/screaming Elton John into a mini speaker led by Steve (T-Rex arms) Jones.

Part of a separate crew, Whistler local legend and Joyride Founder Paddy Kaye was enjoying a day out on his snowmobile in the same zone.

Paddy Kaye: For me, it was just another day—I was out there sledding with some buddies.  I’ve known Callum since he was a wee little shredder who just moved to Whistler with his mom and little brother Sean.

Ian: On that day, snow conditions weren’t perfect but they were good enough to be out getting shots. We had been on a roll, getting lots of great stuff in the days/weeks prior.

Callum: (The feature) is right beside the gas drop up on the Rutherford Ice Cap near Pemberton, BC—a spot where everyone stops that goes up there basically. There is a classic step down jump that has been hit hundreds of times next to the cliff line I tee’d up. I’m not sure if anyone has hit the line I attempted before.

Pettit lines up the air. Photo :: Rik Johnston

Ian: I was thinking about hitting it, but I wasn’t keen because it was a very precise landing with a blind takeoff. Combined with the hole below, I just wasn’t feeling it.

Callum: I was just focused on the line, and to be honest the hole kind of blended into the slope or something.

Ian: I was confident in his ability to pull it off. Of course there were nerves but that’s normal when you’re watching your good buddy step up to anything high risk.

If Ian Macintosh is telling you to step up to a line, you’re in good hands—you don’t make a long career out of doing this without a good head on your shoulders. Photo :: Blake Jorgensen

Callum: I was definitely confident at the bottom of the line which is usually the case. And I was young and trying to prove myself to the older guys. I also didn’t take a picture, which always helps when you are at the top. So I was just having to have faith that I knew what I was doing. For sure had some morning jitters before dropping in though!

Ian: When he hit the cliff I could tell he was slightly off line— so my first concern was that he might land on the rocks.

At the bottom of the line, Paddy Kaye had stopped when he saw Pettit lining up the drop in the well-travelled zone.

Paddy: I didn’t know who was dropping but our group was just hanging out in the glacier watching the show…

Callum:  I just remember taking off the cliff and being like oh shit, this is a lil’ bigger than I thought—I might hit a rock in the landing! So I was fighting in the air to push past the rock that I ended up grazing the tails of my skis on.

As if missing the rocks wasn’t enough of a feat, Pettit had a few more obstacles to dodge.

Paddy:  It was a while ago, but I remember a skier dropping off a cornice blowing up pretty much the instant he hit the snow then straight into a classic stretched body tomahawk.

Ian: When he cleared the rocks I was initially relieved because I didn’t think he’d go in the hole. We watched anxiously as he tumbled still thinking he’d miss the hole.

Rik: I think when he landed I remember him initially stomping but then suddenly getting tossed into a ragdoll.  When the dust settled, honestly my initial thought was confusion.  He just wasn’t there.

The hole. Photo :: Rik Johnson

Paddy: I didn’t see the hole in the glacier at the time. Then as Callum was cartwheeling down the mountain he seemed to veer skiers left then just disappear, vanished from the face of the earth.

Ian: He turned on his last couple tumbles as the hole sucked him in— I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Callum: So here’s where things got interesting. Because you can’t tell in the shot what went down in the hole.

Rik: There was no talking—the 4 of us immediately hopped on our sleds and rallied over to our last visual. I remember thinking the sluff didn’t seem large enough to cover him, but as we approached I noticed the hole.

Ian: Of course I was worried I just watched my friend die right in front of me. There was no time to think but only react. I fired up my snowmobile and took off towards the hole. Once I got as close as I felt was safe I tied off my rope to my snowmobile bumper and approached the hole with caution.

Callum: I ended up getting wedged butt down, folded hands to feet. And the sluff came into the hole and filled it up and started suffocating me. I was like a plug. So as I couldn’t breath I actually had flashings of my life in my head. But started to wiggle and plopped though into the crevasse. Fell about 12 feet onto this soft pyramid of snow. I had no clue what was happening. Because I didn’t know there was a hole. It was actually a relief. But on either side of me on the inside went deep into darkness and I just was standing still in shock I guess.

Paddy: I think it was my buddy Gray that said he slipped into a hole in the glacier… I remember making a plan with our crew to ride our sleds towards the scene.

Life line. Photo :: Rik Johnston

Ian: When I peered down into the hole I was extremely relieved to see Callum standing there on a giant pillar of snow only about 15ft down from the entrance. At that point others who had also been watching were arriving on scene.

Rik: Mac took charge,  calming him and letting him know we’d have him out right away. That guys mountain sense and professionalism are on another level and letting him take the lead was a no brainer.  we got the ropes ready to pull him out.    There were 3 of us hauling and it all seemed to go smoothly.

Callum: The boys rode the sleds over and I was just there waving back—they threw me down a rope and hauled me out of that scary place!

Pettit, on the up and up, literally and figuratively. Photo :: Rik Johnston

Paddy: When we saw that he was OK we all couldn’t believe what we just saw, I remember someone yelling “a hole in one” which was followed by lots of laughter. We headed over on our sleds and slapped a bunch of high 5’s—the rest of our day was pretty mellow.

Ian: That was definitely the end of the day for us. We were basically celebrating and just stoked it all worked out.

Ian: Callum and I have always been and remain great friends. We don’t ski together as much these days but that’s only because we film with different companies now and we don’t share any of the same sponsors anymore. We will always be friends and as we get older I’m sure we will get many more days in the mountains together. I have nothing but respect for Callum and I think he is one of the great talents in our sport still to this day.

Rik Johnston: I had filmed in that zone probably for ten years before that day and it was just another reminder that you never know what the mountain is holding for you.   Very fucking grateful that it worked out the way it did.  Anyone who knows Cal, knows what a solid guy he is and that he’s always stoked and always has a smile on his face.

Callum:  I was just guilty of being a little too sendy, and not scoping the hazards. I think I’m good (on going back for redemption). But I would love to take some young shredder who is frothing and see them step up to the plate!

To see it happen in real-time, watch the “Behind The Line” Video below: