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.

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

Monday, March 19, 2012

Winter Travels Part I: Stevens Pass

Amie Engerbretson experiencing Steven's pow for the first time.

This winter, as most of you have experienced, has been an interesting if not down right frustrating journey in search of snow. The lack of it the first few months was dismal in the Lower 48, and the only place that seemed to be getting any was Alaska. Lucky for me I was able to bypass the slow start and in December headed right up to visit my home resort, Alyeska, to satiate my need for powder. They had received about 300" since the 1st of October by the middle of the December. It was so good I didn't bother to pull out my camera to catch the smiles and tired legs that Cody Townsend and I were experiencing but rather we just lapped pow runs to our hearts content.
Once January hit the snow was still something to be desired in the US. After a few conversations with this amazing guy in the marketing department at Stevens, the infamous Chris Rudolph, it seemed inevitable that I would make my way to Stevens to visit his rad little resort. And once I came across a storm that had potential to turn into something substantial in the Pacific Northwest I pulled the trigger and made my way up to Stevens Pass. There is nothing more exciting than getting on the road in search of pow! It's infectious enough that my girlfriend, Amie Engerbretson, flew into town to join in on my journey.
We met up with Tyler Ceccanti, a ripping rad skier from Crystal, and Ian Coble, the maestro photographer of the area. The storm came in bigger than what was forecasted. Posted up at the little cabin hillside to the ski area (thanks to our gracious host, Mr. Rudolph), we took nothing but advantage of the unending deep, deep snow. Part of the Arcade crew, Tristan Queen and David Bronkie, got sidetracked on their PNW marketing tour for Arcade and found themselves unable to leave Stevens, choosing instead to do nothing but chock on pow and get the A+ treatment Rudolph and the Stevens team always bestow on their guests.
After a week or so of good snow, I headed to Denver for SIA and them immediately to Sicily for a Salomon Freeski TV trip. But I'll get to that in a following post...

Tyler Ceccanti blazing trails in the woods.

The Fun Crew! We're about to drop in to Tunnel Creek for a road lap. Rudolph, Tristan, Bones, Amie, and Ian.

Me playing around in Hollywood Bowl.

Amie finding the light.

Amie and I taking in the wonderful views of Cowboy Ridge. Well, maybe not at this particular moment as we're hamming it up for the camera but yeah, it's really beautiful up there.