| Snow Lessons Learned: Part II - I Shouldn‘t Be Alive
I wrote this report shortly after my brush with death. It is a very personal account of what happened. Although I wrote it mostly for myself at the time to help me cope with things, I hope that sharing it with a wider audience prevents a similar mishap in the future. WARNING: You may find the contents disturbing.
Plans for this outing started out in the familiar fashion. It was a three day weekend for me, and Dwight and I were itching to get out. Our intended destination wasn't chosen until the evening before. We settled on Lenawee Mountain's south ridge route after avalanche concerns made other options we'd been considering look unattractive. The ridge route would avoid any avalanche prone slopes.
Dwight and I met in one of our usual places and carpooled to the Peru Creek Trailhead. After making last minute preparations and clothing adjustments we set off up the well-packed road. It was a rather chilly but calm morning and nothing was out of the ordinary. I had previously embarked on about 60 hikes to summits above treeline in what I will call Colorado's "snow season", defined roughly as November through April. On those hikes I had reached the top of about 120 13ers & 14ers without incident. Getting to today's summit, Lenawee Mountain, wasn't going to be notably difficult. In fact, we were looking forward to a fairly easy and relatively short day.
After a short while we encountered two trucks that had foolishly been driven up the snow-packed road. The owners had attempted the common tree branch traction method to get out, but to no avail. Just a bit past the trucks, we found a fire pit in the middle of the road along with the debris from a teenage party. There was garbage and papers everywhere, including a note from Eric's mom explaining that he was no longer in school but did indeed have his GED. It was rather amusing, and we spent a minute or two investigating the crime scene.
After 1.7 miles of easy walking we came to the sign marking the Lenawee Trail. On went our snowshoes, and we attempted to follow the untracked, snow covered trail. Soon it became obvious that trying to follow the trail wasn't helping us any and climbing more directly toward Lenawee's south ridge was the logical thing to do. The bushwhacking wasn't bad and there was little postholing. As we neared treeline, we could tell that the fresh snow wasn't bonding at all to the old snow. Even though we were on safe, low angle, heavily treed slopes, the top layer made for slippery going. We agreed that it was no day to be setting foot on steeper slopes.
Treeline came without any ado and we took a break to enjoy the fantastic views of Cooper, Ruby, Grays & Torreys. We could see a little bit of the slopes below the ridge ahead and noted that there had been a natural slide recently. After our break we continued along the partially windblown ridge and soon decided to ditch our snowshoes. Although there were plenty of shallow, snowy patches, snowshoes seemed like an unnecessary burden. We continued north along the broad, mellow ridge crest, the edge of the cornice perhaps 20 feet to our right and bare grass just a few feet to our left. At no point did I stop to consider the fact there may have been nothing but air beneath that snow I was walking on. The idea of the cornice extending that far back just didn't seem reasonable. In the past I thought I'd had a healthy respect for cornices. As a matter of fact, I know I've hiked with others who have gotten closer to the edge than I felt comfortable with myself.
We continued casually strolling along the gentle ridge more or less side by side when the ground between us cracked and my portion crumbled and gave way. In the split second after the cracking and before the giving way I realized damn well what was happening and thought to myself "Well, this is it I guess". I hadn't ever seriously thought about dying, and I felt so unprepared. Dwight was only a few feet away and I remember seeing a look on his face that seemed to mirror my thoughts. That's the last thing I saw until the avalanche stopped.
At the start of my fall I can remember feeling my face getting bashed around, but strangely it didn't hurt – I could just feel pressure. I was more concerned with the snow that was falling around me. At first I could breathe without too much trouble, and as a natural reaction I began flailing my arms and legs in a crude swimming kind of motion. I have of course heard the claims that "swimming" may help you stay near the top of an avalanche, but I don't think I had time to process information like that at the moment – it really seemed more like a natural reaction. After the initial freefall, I didn't have a strong sensation that I was dropping, just that I was in some kind of complicated, tumultuous flow.
As I fell further I knew I was getting tossed around, but I sensed no physical pain. I also heard nothing at all. My world was centered around my ability to breath – my brain focused on only this, refusing to process less important sensory information. I could sense the snow moving around me. It was getting denser and there were now periods where my face was completely buried and I couldn't breathe at all. I of course knew that my chances of surviving this thing were approximately zero and unfortunately it seemed like I had plenty of time to think about that. I was certain that I was just minutes away from suffocating to death. Confronting that situation was every bit as horrifying as we all imagine it to be.
Finally, the wave of snow came to a stop and I realized it had miraculously ended at one of those waning instances when I could actually breathe! I opened my watery eyes and realized I was staring straight at the slope I had just fallen down. A split second later, I watched as a second massive avalanche came charging down the slope just a short distance from mine. I thrashed around trying to get away, but quickly discovered I wasn't going anywhere. I was sure it was going to flow over my head and bury me, but it missed. I've often thought it would be cool to see an avalanche firsthand, but this wasn't exactly what I had in mind.
I was on my stomach, face down in the snow. My left arm was extended far down below me. My right arm wasn't buried quite so deep. My legs were at a slight downward angle. My head was the only part of my body that was exposed. Although I was lying on my face, I could lift my head a few inches and turn it to one side to breathe. Because of my position and the surrounding snow, I couldn't turn it the other way and was forced to stare the entire time at the lingering cornices atop the steep slope I had just fallen down. It was a terrifying sight.
After the second avalanche I started screaming Dwight's name at the top of my lungs but got no response. I was gasping and panting like crazy so I put my head down to try to rest and recover a little. The snow around me was constricting my breathing and I couldn't get enough air to breathe as deeply as I wanted to. I tried to stay calm and thought I was doing a reasonable job at that but it seemed like I just couldn't get my breathing under control. After a few minutes it reached an acceptable level, but I still wasn't too pleased with it.
After wasting my breath screaming for Dwight a few more times I assumed he had triggered the second avalanche trying to get a look at me and was buried and dying himself. I figured I'd join him later in the evening as I froze to death. We were supposed to meet Dominic later that evening but other than that nobody else would realize something was wrong. By then, it would most likely be too late and poor Dominic would get a horrible birthday surprise.
There was blood all over the snow where my head was and I could tell my mouth was badly cut and bleeding. I usually have serious problems dealing with the sight of blood, especially when its my own, but this time it didn't seem to bother me at all. I began carefully calculated sessions of trying to wiggle my hands and feet and interspersed them with periods of resting and recovering my breath. The snow around me was incredibly hard, but it seemed like the constriction eventually lessened enough for me to breathe more deeply.
I don't know how good my sense of time was during this burial period, but it seemed like 20 or 30 minutes had gone by when I heard a helicopter and it sounded like it was approaching. It flew directly over me without a pause before disappearing out of earshot. At the time I found it to be quite a maddening coincidence that a helicopter would fly so close to me like that in my time of extreme need. Honestly, I never even hoped that it was actually looking for me though – sounds really stupid now, I know! First of all, I was nearly convinced that Dwight was dead and couldn't have called for help. Second, I thought that even if he had escaped harms way and called for help, there was no way it could have arrived so soon. I figured that at best somebody in the area had noticed an avalanche and they were just checking it out. They hadn't seen me, that was for sure.
After that excitement I noticed that the snow on my right shoulder was now moving a little when I thrashed around. It seemed that the best thing to focus my energy on was trying to free that shoulder and then possibly that arm. I methodically did my rest and thrash with everything-you-got technique for a while. I didn't want to start imagining things and get too hopeful, but it finally seemed like I might be getting somewhere. The snow on my shoulder was moving more now. If only I could get my arm out, I might get to live.
After a while I thought I heard the helicopter in the distance again. Dreams of it coming back started racing through my mind but I tried not to get too hopeful. If by some chance it was coming back, I didn't want it to miss me again. I started working furiously at freeing my arm and after much effort I was shocked when it finally broke free. I started trying to dig around my face but it was almost futile. The snow was so hard that I was getting nowhere with my gloved hand. I kept resting and trying though. The thrashing also served to warm me up. I was getting pretty darn cold at this point. My hands were a little numb during rests and I was starting to shake.
After a few more minutes I could hear the helicopter getting closer. I couldn't look around to see where it was, but I stuck my hand up in the air and started waving it around like crazy. I kept at it for quite a while and eventually sensed that the helicopter was pretty directly above me. As it hovered I wondered if it could land. It was obvious they'd seen me, but I was worried that the area may be too unsafe to chance a landing. The snow started blowing around and I put my face down into its nook. For a moment I panicked and worried that the blowing snow would fill in my breathing space. It felt like the helicopter was landing almost on top of me. I speculated that they may be trying to land in my slide path as it had already avalanched and may have been the safest option. I had no idea what the terrain on the other side of me looked like. The helicopter seemed to be on the ground for quite a while before I heard any voices, and I was really wishing I could see what was going on.
Finally, there was somebody standing over me asking how I felt, how my back felt, how this and that felt. I think I finally mumbled something to the effect that I'd been thrashing around for quite some time already and that things seemed to be working well enough. Really I just wanted to beg him to dig me the hell out of that icy tomb before another second passed, but I contained my impatience. After the questioning he shoveled most of the snow off me, but even with small bits remaining I couldn't push myself up out of my hole. I was in an uncomfortable position, my other arm was still buried deep, and my muscles were exhausted from trying to free myself. A little more shoveling and I could finally move! I felt a little stiff and sore when I rolled over, but not too bad. My pack was still on, my camera was still over my shoulder, and my trekking poles had somehow managed to come off my wrists but stayed right next to me. One was actually sticking straight down and I could see the tip of it poking out near where my stomach had been. My sunglasses were the only missing item.
There were a total of four people and one search dog in the helicopter. After I was freed, my rescuer introduced himself as Mike, gave me his jacket, and told me not to worry because he knew firsthand what I was going through. After hearing I had not been hiking alone, a different Mike and Dexter the dog started probing for Dwight. I told them that I was skeptical that Dwight had been caught in my avalanche and that it was more likely he had set off and was buried in the second one so they focused their efforts there.
I asked Mike what organization he was with and was a little surprised to hear Loveland Ski Patrol. I asked how they knew to come and he said they had gotten a call. At first I was elated because I was sure it must have been Dwight – who else would have known! But when I asked Mike if it was my climbing partner he didn't seem to think so. In fact, everyone was trying to work as efficiently as possible to get me out of there and to continue the search for Dwight. The situation looked very bleak.
The rescuers wanted to get me to the hospital as soon as possible so they could use the helicopter to pick up another crew to help in the search for Dwight. While the Mikes and Dexter continued their work, a third man helped me into the helicopter, shoved a helmet on my head, buckled me in, and the pilot took off. This was all happening very fast, and when I finally got a chance to look ahead out of front window I thought we were about to crash into a rocky ridge. I flinched but we pulled up over it and I realized everything was fine. I had never been in a helicopter before. I don't know how long we were in the air - I was mostly just concentrating on the rescuer sitting next to me who occasionally asked questions or gave me instructions.
As soon as we landed the rescuer hopped out, helped me down, and quickly walked me to the hospital door where nurses were waiting. Once in a room I was immediately ordered to take off all of my wet clothes and to get into a gown. I hadn't realized how soaked I was. They brought a bunch of warm blankets and a heat lamp to warm me up. I was shaking but I couldn't tell if I was really that cold or whether I was just totally freaked out. The shaking continued for a long time so I think it had little to do with the cold. The initial check by the doctor revealed a large gash inside my lower lip and a possible broken nose. It felt fine but after they said that I felt it and could tell it was badly swollen.
They left me alone to warm up and gave me warm, wet rags to start cleaning up my bloody face. All I could think about was Dwight. I kept hoping they'd tell me he was OK, but honestly I was expecting the worst. I called Dominic to tell him that I was in the hospital and that they couldn't find Dwight. He hit the road immediately. Members of the rescue team dropped in or called from time to time with questions about Dwight as they continued their search. The Chaplin came to see me and that really freaked me out because I thought he was going to tell me Dwight was dead. No, he had just come to talk and to see if I needed his help contacting anybody. He wanted to know how to reach Dwight's wife.
They took x-rays of my nose and chest. The procedure was a little disturbing in that when I rolled over onto my stomach on the table as required, thick blood started draining out of my nose. Even though I'm a wimp when it comes to injuries, blood, hospitals and the like I had been fine up to this point. I was now getting a bit queasy. Thankfully the chest x-rays looked OK and the nasal x-rays just showed a small fracture. I would be needing stitches in my mouth though. My lifelong stitch-free, hospital-visit-free streak had ended.
Only having been at the hospital for a short time, I was already getting phone calls. Both Jamie and Teresa knew where we were hiking that day and got disturbed when they saw the initial news about an avalanche in that area. I sat there staring at the walls, waiting to hear something about Dwight. Finally, one of the hospital workers came in with a big smile and told me they'd just found Dwight – he was fine and on his way! A heavy weight lifted off my chest when I heard that. Even though things were totally screwed up at the moment, at least everyone was going to be OK!
It seemed to take Dwight a long time to get there, but he finally showed up and needless to say we were very happy to see each other. He had in fact started that second avalanche trying to get to a rocky outcropping to look down at me, and managed to grab onto the rocks as the snow gave way. It was kind of ironic how we were both OK but were almost sure the other was dead. Within a matter of minutes Dominic arrived too after having some trouble finding the right hospital, no thanks to me. I actually had no idea where I was – I assumed I was in Silverthorne but in fact I was in Frisco. I had already been released at that point so the three of us were ready to get out of there.
It wasn't over quite yet though. I was shocked to learn that there were reporters waiting for me outside. News travels way too fast these days. Dwight had already talked to them. One of the Flight For Life guys explained that I didn't have to do an interview but said that the reporter from Channel 4 was very friendly, had good intentions, and had taken the time to work with them in the past, doing stories to promote the rescue program. He seemed to want me to do the interview, and I sure wasn't about to tell him no after all they'd done for me. I didn't want to get in front of the camera looking like hell, ashamed and embarrassed that I needed to be rescued, a mental wreck. The thought of being on TV was actually rather appalling but I just went with the flow, happy to be alive. The interview wasn't all that bad, and I'm impressed with the job News 4 did. Their report was very accurate.
Finally, we were free to leave. Dominic drove us back to Peru Creek to get my car and the three of us tried to relax at Old Chicago in Silverthorne. It was a surreal feeling sitting there having a beer when just hours before I fully expected to never do such a thing again.
I felt like a million bucks until the following day. When I awoke even the slightest movements hurt. My lip was swollen and stingingly painful for days. When my body started to recover, it became apparent that something bad had happened to one side of my chest – the pain there was excruciating and it wasn't going away like the rest. Apparently the cartilage that attaches one or more of my upper ribs to the sternum was bruised and damaged. It turned out to be the worst of my injuries and kept me out of the mountains for weeks.
Dwight already posted some pictures from the rescue, but here are a few I took before I fell as well as my GPS track... yes it stayed on the entire time.
pictures & map: