Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Winter Travels Part II: The Avalanche

As many of you may know I was caught in a deadly avalanche at Stevens Pass on February 19th that took 3 of our friends' lives. The event was surreal really, and the few weeks that followed the traumatic event were filled with an onslaught of media inquiries, grieving, consoling, body aches, sickening flashbacks, and constant discussions with the group that was involved with what exactly happened.  I figured it was time to share my personal account from that day.

A view from the top of Cowboy Ridge/Tunnel Creek

February 19, 2012

A small group of us first started the day off skiing inbounds at the resort of Stevens Pass, whereupon we met up with more people around 11 am with the idea that we would head out of bounds of Stevens Pass to an area known as Tunnel Creek. From our assessment we decided that it would be okay to ski this area with caution and choose a specific less avalanche-prone route. The avalanche forecast in the morning was at considerable for the aspect (SSW) that we would be skiing. At the top we went through the typical backcountry skiing protocol of decision making. For instance, we used the buddy system and paired up, we divided into smaller groups of people since there were 13 of us in total, and we would ski one by one working our way down the mountain in small sections stopping only in safe zones. It’s akin to ping-ponging your way down the hill.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get very far. The first skier went the first 500 or so feet and stopped in a safe zone of old growth trees. I was the second skier to go. Several more skiers went and when the seventh skier descended the avalanche was triggered. Because our safe zone was in a heavily treed area with large, old-growth trees we were unable to see the people descending above us more than a few turns as they approached. I didn’t hear the avalanche coming but rather only became aware of it by seeing it come at us from the skier's left through the trees. Within a split second my partner to the skier’s right of me started screaming “Elyse, avalanche! Elyse, avalanche!” and immediately I was being swept in. At that time I thought I may be the only person being taken by the avalanche, and my partner's shouting helped trigger my brain as to what was really happening. It was a little confusing, I wasn’t really sure who else could possibly be caught at this moment because it happened so quickly. As I was being caught by the avalanche it took me only a second or two to realize the gravity of the situation and I decided to pull my airbag. The avalanche was approximately 2650’ in length, was 200 feet wide, and 32 inches deep at the crown. It was a nasty avalanche as we were swept through heavily treed terrain and into a tight creek bed that finally spewed us out at the bottom.

The avalanche felt very much like being in a washing machine, as I was tossed and turned this way and that way, having at times no idea what way was up or down. There was a lot of weight pushing me around, and I reminded myself not to fight it. I felt my body hit a few trees on the ride, but none of the encounters were blunt, it also felt like I was going over the tops of trees. The avalanche sped up and slowed down at times, and I would guess the avalanche lasted approximately 45 seconds in all. That gives you a lot of time to think, and even though I had some negative ideas run through my head of what my fate could be I ultimately tried to remain calm as to not waste energy or oxygen. Plus, you need to keep your senses alert. The avalanche is so much more powerful than you there is no sense in fighting it.

When the avalanche finally came to rest I was completely buried except for my face and my arms. Avalanches compact the snow greatly, and as the elevation dropped and it being coastal snow the snowpack became so wet and heavy it was akin to being stuck in cement. Even though my arms were free, the only thing I could really do was scrape the few inches of snow off my face. I wasn’t even able to lift my head up as it was packed in the snow so tightly. All I could do was lay there and try to remain calm while I waited for my friends to come and rescue me. I realized while I was laying there that others may be buried as well, and I felt that I needed to keep myself together in case I had to assist with the search and rescue.

It took about 10 minutes for the first person to show up to the scene and unbury me. Once I was unburied others in our party started to show up in the rescue search. It took us no more than a couple of minutes to find the other victims. It was very shocking to discover that one of the victims that we found was literally three feet to my left and buried several feet down. Another victim was found completely buried about 30 feet above me. The third victim, the one who triggered the avalanche, was found about 300 feet below us at the tow of the avalanche, he had experienced severe trauma. It was really unsettling to come to and realize that as I laid there partially buried in the penetrating silence my friends were completely buried not far from where I was. They were not wearing avalanche airbag backpacks.

I fully believe that I survived this fatal avalanche because I deployed my ABS avalanche safety backpack.

Every day I think about Chris, JJ, and Johnny. To say these men were positive influences not only on myself but also in our worldy ski community is an understatement. Moving beyond this tragedy I take only inspiration from their well-led, fun-filled lives and hope to carry on their spirit of their love for the mountains and the people who play in them. My heart goes out to their families, friends, and all the other people who were touched by these awesome men. RIP.

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This is the ABS avalanche backpack I was wearing that fateful day. Click on the backpack to find it on Backcountry.com.

3 comments:

  1. Way to think on your feet E!! It's easy for me to say this, but did anyone discuss digging a snowpit before going OB, or had anyone dug one within the last 24 hours? I know your snow's alot denser than our SW Colorado stuff...we constantly got alot of Tepmperature Gradient(TG) layers from the constant freeze/refreeze, combined with evaporation/low humidity...this gave us alot of mid-season unstability in the layers of the snowpack, and was almost always visible in a carefully dug snowpit. Those TG layers are flat crystals with very little bonding ability, and a HIGH potential for collapse & deadly shearing, especially when loaded up with heavier top layers & wind loading. Your instinct to pull your cord was spot on, and combined with your calm undoubtedly saved your life! Thank you for this story...it was riveting! Again, I admire you so much for going on television the morning after the event...I was truely stunned. Last November I was in Durango when the director of the Wolf Creel Pro Patrol, Scott Kay died in bounds doing control work. It shook me up bad...I lost three patroller friends in Aspen Highlands Bowl in the mid-eighties, and when I was on patrol exchange in Taos, NM, I narrowly escaped a big slide that took my co-worker for the ride of his life. He lived to tell the tale! God Bless you, your friends,& the mountain!!! Never Stop Elyse!!
    With Respect & Admiration!
    ~jim scheide~
    Purgatory Pro Ski Patrol

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  2. Thanks for sharing your story. As a PNW (mostly Crystal) skier, I followed this in the news and saw you on TV. Kudos to you for managing your panic and reacting quickly, which will likely save other lives by example.

    Safe travels,
    jill i/Pacific Northwest Seasons

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  3. Love the snowy tree photo, and great blog. thanks

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