WARNING: This story contains graphic video of injuries at an arena ski event.
For more than three decades, thrill seekers in Prince George, BC have hit the summer slope of the banks of the Nechako River.
First on downhill skis and then on snowboards and mountain bikes, they dared to challenge Prince George’s most visible geographic feature: a 60-degree sand and gravel bar formed thousands of years ago by melting ice sheets. glacier that filled the Nechako and Fraser rivers.
The event was called Sandblast, and it was a harrowing exercise in fastest wins all the way to the bottom.
But on August 16, 2003, in its thirty-second year of madness and chaos, everything stopped.
On that sunny Saturday, a bulky old couch raised on bicycle wheels, but with no steering or brakes to control its three riders, skidded off the east side of the track and crashed at increasing speed into two seated spectators. on the floor. hill.
That year was the second of a Sandblast “furniture category”, and the incident was scary and serious enough to mark the end of the event entirely. Sandblast became too expensive to insure and hasn’t happened since.
Neal Hagreen organized the last Sandblast. Twenty years later, he says that he regrets letting the sofa collapse.
“In hindsight, yes, it was missing some components,” Hagreen told Breaking: from his home in Kelowna. “It was a great day up to that point.”
Eric Leach, Jonathan Dyrblom and Shawn Burleigh were the jockeys on the couch. In video footage that still survives on the internet, the 1970s-style sofa begins to angle almost immediately, instead of going straight down the hill. As it approaches the finish line, located about 20 meters from the bottom, it turns more dramatically and is put on a collision course with three people sitting to one side at the finish line.
Without a protective fence in place, one person escapes at the last second, but two others, five-year-old Meara Morse and 20-year-old Julie Middleton, cannot get out of the way in time. Middleton lunges at Morse in an effort to protect her, but the sofa hits them with all her force, and she lunges forward and flips over. When she flips, she sends Leach, Dyrblom, and Burleigh cartwheeling through the air, all the way to the protective bales of hay at the bottom. The sofa, now falling from one side to the other, hits them a moment later with a terrifying impact.
In the video, a person at the bottom can be heard saying “Oh my gosh” repeatedly as the incident occurs.
WARNING: This video contains graphic images.
According to coverage in the August 18, 2003 edition of the Prince George Citizen newspaper, Leach ended up with a back injury and a broken nose, while Dyrblom suffered a suspected concussion. Burleigh had undetermined injuries, as did Morse and Middleton, the latter of whom was volunteering as a medical assistant at Sandblast.
The Citizen reported that all five people ended up in the hospital but were released the next day.
Efforts to reach some of those involved in the accident were unsuccessful.
But, former Sandblast competitor Lori Nelson, who witnessed the accident and knows Middleton and Morse, told CBC that Morse suffered a serious concussion.
A heart-pounding experience
Sandblast dates back to 1972. In a wintry city like Prince George, it was a way for downhill skiers to get their summer adrenaline fix. The event was held in the third week of August and saw competitors go head-to-head for cuts.
Casey Johnson, a Prince George resident, has skied Sandblast for 18 years and told CBC it was always an exhilarating experience.
“It’s not like normal skiing,” he said. “It’s a combination of sand on top, which then turns into coarse gravel…and once you get to the gravel, your speed really picks up, and then within seconds you’re in the trench. [at the bottom] and you have to find a way to stop quickly.”
Johnson said his heart was always pounding when he was about to do a race with Sandblast, and “that race at the starting gate was great and it kept you coming back.”
Viewers kept coming back too. At its peak, Sandblast was known to draw up to 5000 people.
The event gained such notoriety that Warren Miller, the world’s most famous ski and snowboard filmmaker, came to Prince George in the late 1990s to document the action and spectacular spills.
Sandblast changed with the times, and that meant adding snowboarding and mountain biking categories as those activities became popular.
According to a 2001 story in the Prince George Free Press, that year’s Sandblast marked the appearance of a sofa on the hill. The newspaper reported that contestants Steve Bartkowski, Jerid Letchford and Ken Smith rode skis into the back of a sofa and lowered it down.
That led the organizers to officially add a furniture category in 2002, and it remained a part of Sandblast in 2003.
The cost of insurance has skyrocketed
Hagreen, who has also participated in Sandblast a dozen times, told CBC that he was not concerned about the event’s future in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 couch accident. Instead, he said he was focused on the well-being of the five people involved in it. the accident.
But it turned out that a steep increase in insurance coverage for a 2004 Sandblast prevented that from happening. Hagreen said the out-of-pocket cost would have been around $8,000, up from $1,700 in 2003.
“Obviously that was out of reach at the time,” he said.
a preventable accident
Hagreen said a speed gun on the couch that day in 2003 indicated it was moving “more than 50 miles an hour” when it hit the hay bales in the background.
“Realistically, a wheeled unit like that should never have been allowed to go down the hill,” he said, recalling the incident.
Nelson, meanwhile, is still reeling from what she saw, even 20 years later.
“Meara and Julie…it’s emotional…they really took a hit with that couch,” she said shakily.
Nelson said the accident could have been prevented if people scattered along the sides of the track had been instructed to get off the hill before the furniture category began.
Sandblast is likely to remain buried
Sandblast has been silent for two decades. In Hagreen’s opinion, it won’t happen again, and not just because of the cost of insurance.
He told CBC that finding enough volunteers to keep it going, especially people to take leadership roles, was already becoming difficult in the early 2000s, and that the problem persisted in the years after 2003.
Hagreen said that for nearly a dozen years after 2003, people would contact him to relive the event, and he would offer to help. But, with no one willing to take the lead, he said the discussions never got anywhere.
When asked if the incident at Sandblast 2003 stuck with his name for some time afterwards, Hagreen said, “People expected that kind of crazy from me… I was definitely at the top of the crazy bunch.”
Hagreen has been in Kelowna for about 10 years and works as a security coordinator.
Given his background, he realizes the irony of his current occupation.
“You can learn in two ways: you can learn on the ground or you can learn from the book,” he said.
“I never learned by the book.”