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The Truth: Shawn Heinrichs

A firsthand account of the season's earliest avalanche death.
posted: 04/17/2006
Boulder, Colorado, resident Shawn Heinrichs at Berthoud Pass, where he and several others tried to revive the season's first avalanche victim. Photo by Lucas Gilman

AT 11 A.M. ON NOVEMBER 6, 2005, SHAWN HEINRICHS and his ski partner were approached at the Berthoud Pass parking lot by a panicked stranger, who announced that his friend Sam Teetzen had been caught in an avalanche. Heinrichs and his partner, both regulars at Berthoud, began their search; others followed suit. After nearly an hour of hiking, skinning, and probing, the unofficial search crew located Teetzen. Heinrichs, who helped dig, performed CPR on Teetzen. He wrote about his experience in an account that circulated on the Internet last fall. Below is an excerpt.

AIR WAS FIRST PRIORITY. His face was blue, his mouth was open, and his eyes were bloodshot with a sad blank stare. He looked very dead. We all started calling to Sammy to hang in there.

CPR WAS SAMMY'S ONLY CHANCE. Each person took turns supporting the head, doing chest compressions, and blowing air. Supporting the head to keep his passage open was very tiring. Doing chest compressions was like doing push-ups at 11,000 feet.

AS THE CPR PROGRESSED, air got into his stomach. Ribs were cracking. When we administered mouth-to-mouth, a terrible smell would come from the stomach. It was hard not to throw up.

SAMMY WAS NOW BLEEDING FROM HIS NOSE. My partner Elias duct-taped Sammy's nose shut. The tape covered his eyes as well.

MOUNTAIN RESCUE FINALLY MADE their way up the ravine. Over an hour had passed since we began our search, probably more than two hours since Sammy had been buried. The process can only go so fast.

AT 12:52 THE MEDIC PRONOUNCED Sammy dead. There was little talking. We gathered our gear while Sammy was lying on his back, eyes wide-open and lifeless. I put my fingers on his eyelids and closed his eyes.

THIS DAY I LEARNED OR REAFFIRMED some important lessons:
• Never enter the backcountry without ALL the proper equipment. Sammy owned a beacon - it was in his bag in the car.
• Always carry a sufficient medical kit in the backcountry, including a CPR mask.
• You won't muster superhuman strength and speed. You are at 11,000 feet with little oxygen. You are burdened by gear. You are guessing each step. You are battling thoughts of hope and hopelessness.
• I don't ever want to be in this situation again in my life.


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