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Avalanche!

Avalanche!

Features
By Doug Sabanosh
posted: 03/14/2003

The day was perfect. It was sunny and cold as we paused on the saddle of a steep pitch in Alaska's Chugach Range. A fresh 18 inches had fallen in the previous 48 hours, and the clouds had given way to bright sun. Beneath a thin layer of crust, the snow was deep and sugary. We had 14 hours of heli time to burn and, as always-save for the lone figure skiing toward us from far above-Alaska's Chugach Range was empty and untracked.

But, like all good things, the perfection was fleeting. Instead of planning our next turns, we suddenly found ourselves facing a life-or-death decision. As we looked up in horror, the snow fractured 10 feet above where the fifth and final member of our party was skiing. Over the radio, our guide yelled for him to ski to his right, away from the slide. But it was too late. The fracture line grew; then a wall of snow broke loose and headed straight at us. Our options: stay put and see if the avalanche would spread far enough to take us out or try to outrun it. There was no time to think, and I was about to go on the ride of my life.

For most skiers, Valdez, Alaska, is the ultimate test. For me, it was no different. The Chugach Range offers the steepest pitches, gnarliest chutes and most challenging terrain in the world. I've been skiing for 27 years, and for as long as I can remember I've wanted to tackle Alaska's terrain to see if I could measure up. When I had the opportunity to go last April, I was so excited I couldn't sleep for weeks.

The trip was with Valdez Heli-Ski Guides (VHSG), an outfit based in Girdwood. My partners were Tim Petrick, who runs the K2 ski company; Marc Lee, a K2 sales rep; and Carl Cocchiarella, a Vail local. Our guide would be Dave Swanwick, a veteran at VHSG, the 1994 World Extreme Skiing Champion and an old acquaintance of mine from our high school racing days in the Berkshire league back East. The others had been to VHSG before and were experienced big-mountain skiers; I was the rookie.

On our first day at camp, we were issued radios and split into groups of five (including our guide), as dictated by the capacity of our A-Star helicopter. We didn't fly that day because a storm socked in the mountains, so we hung around the lodge and worked on our avalanche safety and transceiver use, which would end up coming in handy.

The next morning we awoke to bluebird skies and fresh snow, and headed out immediately. Our first five runs were incredible. The terrain was every bit as steep and treacherous as I had imagined. I concentrated on the fundamentals: hands forward, balance and edge-control. Falling in this sort of terrain isn't an option. When you go down on a 50-degree face, there's no telling how far you'll tumble.

After our fifth run, we met up with another group for lunch. We stopped for about an hour and then the chopper shuttled the other group to its next line. While we waited for its return, we discussed our game plan. Dave asked us if we wanted to step it up a notch and ski steeper pitches. We all agreed that our first run after lunch should be mellow; then we would hit the steeper terrain.

We chose run No. 253 in an area called Drama Queen. It looked ideal: plenty of powder and a relatively tame pitch for the Chugach-about 45 degrees. North-facing and shaded most of the day, the powder was not as crusty as it had been on some of our previous runs, but it still had a thin, icy skin. Dave went first and stopped on a low-angle bench, approximately 300 vertical feet below, in a designated "safety zone." In standard Valdez protocol, he called us one by one and told us on the radio (we were all connected by radio with earpieces) where to ski, mostly skier's right of the previous skiers' tracks. Tim went second, I went third, and Marc went fourth.

As the four of us waited below for Carl to ski his line, Dave had second thoughts about the safety zone. But with only one skier left, he thought we would be OK. So we held our ground. But as Carl made his thi turn, suddenly the snow cracked about 10 feet above him and started to slide toward us. As we watched the slide travel out from under Carl, we started to call out (as we had been trained) "last seen point" in preparation to search for him if he became buried.

The snow headed toward us, and we instantly went from potential rescuers to potential victims. "We gotta move!" Dave shouted. We furiously poled and skated, trying to straight-run across the slope and away from the approaching wall of snow. It was hard to gain any speed on the relatively flat saddle.

With Tim ahead of me, I was no more than 20 feet behind Dave, who alone made it out of the slide path. I tried to gain as much speed as I could in a quick burst-but to no avail. I looked over my left shoulder to see where the slide was and WHOOOSH, it hit me like a white freight train, instantly blowing me out of my skis.

I was engulfed by a huge, violent sea of white. My mouth, ears and nose were instantly packed with snow. I was tossed and turned and bashed and thrown, seeing only shades of gray, dark gray and white. I instinctively swam and covered my mouth-everything I had been taught to do to stay alive in an avalanche. Seconds later, I felt weightless as I spun uncontrollably through the air off what was later estimated to be anything from a 25- to 75-foot glacier cliff. (It was impossible to locate exactly where anyone went airborne.)

I landed and continued to roll down the hill, spinning "through the washer" as the slide carried me and some 100 tons of snow down the mountain at approximately 45 miles per hour. I remember different shades of light. When it grew dark, I assumed I was getting sucked deeper into the avalanche, so I desperately swam to where I thought the top was.

Finally, it stopped. I came to rest on my belly, atop the debris. Dazed and disoriented, with my ears, mouth and nose packed with snow, I tried to figure out where I was and what condition I was in. My goggles had been blown off my helmet; my eyes were burning from the crystals of snow that had scratched them. As I was clearing my head and trying to get my bearings, Dave called us on the radio in a calm but urgent tone, asking us all to check in. I tried to call out, but I was exhausted and in shock. My calls were mere whimpers.

I turned over and sat in the snow on my backside, unable to move. I could feel my legs, but I couldn't move them. There's nothing scarier than not being able to move your legs. But I guessed that I didn't have any serious spinal injuries because I could feel my lower body.

I heard screams from Tim, who had landed atop the avalanche about 200 feet above me. He had just woken up and vomited, after initially passing out from the pain. He had dislocated his elbow, torn muscles in his groin and abdomen, and ripped his MCL (it "hurt like a bastard," he later told me). I saw Marc in a heap about 1,000 feet below Tim. He had broken eight ribs.

The three of us had been dragged 1,200 vertical feet over the cliff. It was a Class II avalanche (on a scale of 1 to 5, where Class I could not completely bury a person and a Class V could destroy a town), the first of that magnitude in the 10-year history of VHSG. The snow slab itself was approximately 230 to 300 feet wide and averaged 18 inches in depth.

Dave immediately skied over to me to evaluate my condition, as he did for each of us who were caught by the slide. Luckily, no one was buried or missing. He methodically accessed my injuries, first checking my neck, back and spine. Finally, he took off my snow-packed helmet and gave me his hat and goggles to keep me warm while I waited to be evacuated. I didn't really feel too much pain until I moved. Then it was excruciating.

I sat in the snow shivering, hoping that I would only be off the slopes for a day or two, while Dave and the others dug helicopter-landing zones for the injured. While they dug and I waited, we heard an immense roar. A gigantic serac had broken off a glacier and started another slide about 800 yards to our right. All I could think was, "Great, I survive an avalanche, only to be killed by another one while I sit here helpless."

The helicopter finally arrived to transport us to the emergency room in Valdez. Tim and I needed help to board, while Marc and Carl were able to load themselves. Dave and Peter Nestor (from our second group) carried me to the helicopter like I was a chair. I didn't know it at the time, but my pelvis was fractured, so when they jostled me, my hips made sickening grinding and popping sounds. The pain was unbelievable. My pelvis was unstable (think of a doughnut with a bite taken out of it), so it was difficult for them to lift me all the way up to the first seat in the helicopter. I had to crawl up there myself.

Exhausted and in tremendous pain, I now had to slide over three seats to the far side of the helicopter to make room for Dave, Tim and Carl, while Marc climbed into the front seat. The pain and grinding noises made me realize how badly I was hurt, and that I wasn't going to be skiing for a long time.

I placed my hands under my butt and lifted myself with my arms across the seats. Each time I moved, my legs and pelvis spread apart making nauseating noises. Once I made it to my seat, I leaned my head against the window and stared at the vastness of the Chugach, hoping my ski career was not over.

The helicopter ride to the hospital was quiet. Each one of us silently recounted what had happened in our heads and thanked our stars it didn't turn out worse. Only Dave talked, asking questions of the three of us to make sure we were all right.

When we arrived at the hospital in Valdez, I was put on a stretcher and wheeled into the ER. Doctors moved me from the stretcher to a cold stainless steel table and cut off all my clothes. As they stripped me, they removed chunks of snow from inside my long underwear. Snow was packed inside every layer of clothing I was wearing.

As I lay naked on the table, the doctors tried to hook me up to an IV. With a body temperature of 93 degrees, my veins were in hiding, preventing the doctors from easily accessing them. While I shivered uncontrollably, doctors covered me with hot blankets in an attempt to get my body temperature back to normal and expose a vein to tap.

The ER doctors kept jabbing me with needle after needle, searching for a single raised vein. All the while, I stared at the lights on the ceiling and hoped they would find one quickly and end the pain.

I heard Tim on the table next to me moan in relief as the morphine drip kicked in. As he sighed, the doctors continued to stab my arms and hands. After about 15 minutes under the hot blankets, a vein surfaced and the doctors moved in. We were then loaded onto a Bell 412 helicopter for the one-hour flight from Valdez to Anchorage.

At the Providence Medical Center in Anchorage, I was checked into the Intensive Care Unit, where they X-rayed me. The diagnosis was a fractured pelvis and a fractured left kidney. According to the doctors, I had "shredded" all the muscles in my pelvic girdle, including my stomach muscles, which had torn from the pelvic bone. I had also ruptured my bladder, and torn my right glutes, groin, right hamstring, and all the ligaments and cartilage attached to my pelvis through the sacroiliac joint, located in my lower back above my right glutes.

The doctors hoped my pelvis would remain stable and heal on its own. For four days they had me get lots of bed rest and use a walker once or twice a day to prevent blood clots in my legs. The pain was excruciating as I tried to walk with a broken pelvis. I guess the doctors didn't believe me when I said it didn't feel right.

X-rays taken on the fifth day, however, showed that the 2 to 3 inch separation in the pubis area of my pelvis was causing it to torque and move in a way that threatened to break the fracture in the sacroiliac joint. The only solution wroken off a glacier and started another slide about 800 yards to our right. All I could think was, "Great, I survive an avalanche, only to be killed by another one while I sit here helpless."

The helicopter finally arrived to transport us to the emergency room in Valdez. Tim and I needed help to board, while Marc and Carl were able to load themselves. Dave and Peter Nestor (from our second group) carried me to the helicopter like I was a chair. I didn't know it at the time, but my pelvis was fractured, so when they jostled me, my hips made sickening grinding and popping sounds. The pain was unbelievable. My pelvis was unstable (think of a doughnut with a bite taken out of it), so it was difficult for them to lift me all the way up to the first seat in the helicopter. I had to crawl up there myself.

Exhausted and in tremendous pain, I now had to slide over three seats to the far side of the helicopter to make room for Dave, Tim and Carl, while Marc climbed into the front seat. The pain and grinding noises made me realize how badly I was hurt, and that I wasn't going to be skiing for a long time.

I placed my hands under my butt and lifted myself with my arms across the seats. Each time I moved, my legs and pelvis spread apart making nauseating noises. Once I made it to my seat, I leaned my head against the window and stared at the vastness of the Chugach, hoping my ski career was not over.

The helicopter ride to the hospital was quiet. Each one of us silently recounted what had happened in our heads and thanked our stars it didn't turn out worse. Only Dave talked, asking questions of the three of us to make sure we were all right.

When we arrived at the hospital in Valdez, I was put on a stretcher and wheeled into the ER. Doctors moved me from the stretcher to a cold stainless steel table and cut off all my clothes. As they stripped me, they removed chunks of snow from inside my long underwear. Snow was packed inside every layer of clothing I was wearing.

As I lay naked on the table, the doctors tried to hook me up to an IV. With a body temperature of 93 degrees, my veins were in hiding, preventing the doctors from easily accessing them. While I shivered uncontrollably, doctors covered me with hot blankets in an attempt to get my body temperature back to normal and expose a vein to tap.

The ER doctors kept jabbing me with needle after needle, searching for a single raised vein. All the while, I stared at the lights on the ceiling and hoped they would find one quickly and end the pain.

I heard Tim on the table next to me moan in relief as the morphine drip kicked in. As he sighed, the doctors continued to stab my arms and hands. After about 15 minutes under the hot blankets, a vein surfaced and the doctors moved in. We were then loaded onto a Bell 412 helicopter for the one-hour flight from Valdez to Anchorage.

At the Providence Medical Center in Anchorage, I was checked into the Intensive Care Unit, where they X-rayed me. The diagnosis was a fractured pelvis and a fractured left kidney. According to the doctors, I had "shredded" all the muscles in my pelvic girdle, including my stomach muscles, which had torn from the pelvic bone. I had also ruptured my bladder, and torn my right glutes, groin, right hamstring, and all the ligaments and cartilage attached to my pelvis through the sacroiliac joint, located in my lower back above my right glutes.

The doctors hoped my pelvis would remain stable and heal on its own. For four days they had me get lots of bed rest and use a walker once or twice a day to prevent blood clots in my legs. The pain was excruciating as I tried to walk with a broken pelvis. I guess the doctors didn't believe me when I said it didn't feel right.

X-rays taken on the fifth day, however, showed that the 2 to 3 inch separation in the pubis area of my pelvis was causing it to torque and move in a way that threatened to break the fracture in the sacroiliac joint. The only solution was to insert a four-inch titanium plate in the front of my pelvis to stabilize it. The primary orthopedic doctor turned my case over to Dr. Bret Mason, who specializes in pelvic surgery.

As it happened, Dr. Mason was a graduate of the University of Colorado in Boulder, my alma mater. After we bonded by singing the CU fight song, he explained the procedure and got to work. I was scared but optimistic about the surgery. Dr. Mason assured me that the plate would stabilize my pelvis, making it easier for me to recover.

I spent six more days in the hospital before returning to my home in Boulder. I remained on crutches for 10 weeks while the ligaments and tendons in my sacroiliac joint healed. Physical therapy began six weeks after surgery.

At first, I was unable to get myself up or lift my legs off the bed while I lay on my back. Slowly, I rebuilt my muscles and strength using Neuro Core Kinetics, plyometrics, a fitness ball and a hell of a lot of hard work.

On Oct. 5, five months and nine days after my surgery, I skied in Saas Fee, Switzerland, with Tim. He had recovered from his injuries with rest, some weight training and plenty of biking. Being on skis again was exhilarating. I was stiff and sore, but just skiing again-and sensing that I might one day return to my old self-was awesome.

Since then, I've skied more than 25 days, gaining confidence with each run. Skiing has taken on a whole new light, and I'm thankful I have a second chance to experience it.

I hope to return to the Chugach next spring to even the score. I was invited to attend the annual trip this year, but declined. Alaska is not a place I want to ski again at anything less than 100 percent. Though this was an unfortunate accident, it could have been tragic. Avalanches occur regularly anywhere there is enough snow and slope angle to trigger them. It's this challenge of the elements and the solitude of skiing where few have gone before that drove me to ski the Chugach.

Now, nearly a year later, I look back on the avalanche with a clearer perspective. People who weren't there were quick to blame our guide for misreading the snow. I'm not. Maybe we were just unlucky. Or maybe we're just lucky to be alive. At this point, I honestly don't care. I'm just thrilled to be back on skis again. on was to insert a four-inch titanium plate in the front of my pelvis to stabilize it. The primary orthopedic doctor turned my case over to Dr. Bret Mason, who specializes in pelvic surgery.

As it happened, Dr. Mason was a graduate of the University of Colorado in Boulder, my alma mater. After we bonded by singing the CU fight song, he explained the procedure and got to work. I was scared but optimistic about the surgery. Dr. Mason assured me that the plate would stabilize my pelvis, making it easier for me to recover.

I spent six more days in the hospital before returning to my home in Boulder. I remained on crutches for 10 weeks while the ligaments and tendons in my sacroiliac joint healed. Physical therapy began six weeks after surgery.

At first, I was unable to get myself up or lift my legs off the bed while I lay on my back. Slowly, I rebuilt my muscles and strength using Neuro Core Kinetics, plyometrics, a fitness ball and a hell of a lot of hard work.

On Oct. 5, five months and nine days after my surgery, I skied in Saas Fee, Switzerland, with Tim. He had recovered from his injuries with rest, some weight training and plenty of biking. Being on skis again was exhilarating. I was stiff and sore, but just skiing again-and sensing that I might one day return to my old self-was awesome.

Since then, I've skied more than 25 days, gaining confidence with each run. Skiing has taken on a whole new light, and I'm thankful I have a second chance to experience it.

I hope to return to the Chugach next spring to even the score. I was invited to attend the annual trip this year, but declined. Alaska is not a place I want to ski again at anything less than 100 peercent. Though this was an unfortunate accident, it could have been tragic. Avalanches occur regularly anywhere there is enough snow and slope angle to trigger them. It's this challenge of the elements and the solitude of skiing where few have gone before that drove me to ski the Chugach.

Now, nearly a year later, I look back on the avalanche with a clearer perspective. People who weren't there were quick to blame our guide for misreading the snow. I'm not. Maybe we were just unlucky. Or maybe we're just lucky to be alive. At this point, I honestly don't care. I'm just thrilled to be back on skis again.

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