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Professional Freeskier Elyse Saugstad survives massive avalanche at Stevens Pass

19.02.2012

Elyse: "...and it was very shocking to learn that one of the victims that we found was literally buried one meter to my left... I firmly believe that my ABS® backpack saved my life. My thoughts and prayers are with those who lost their lives."

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And that’s what happened on February 19th 2012:

"A small group of us first started the day at the Stevens Pass ski area, whereupon we met up with more people around 11am with the idea that we would be going outside the borders of Stevens Pass to an area called Tunnel Creek. After our assessment, we decided that it would be okay to ski in this area, as the morning avalanche forecast for the area (SSW) where we would ski was considerable. At the top we went through the typical ski tour protocol to make a decision. For example, we used the buddy system and divided into smaller groups, as there were 13 of us, and went down the mountain one by one, working our way down the mountain in small sections and stopping only in safe zones. Reminds me of a game of ping pong down the mountain.

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, 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.

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. The avalanche sped up and slowed down at times, and I would guess the avalanche to have 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, so there’s 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 the snowpack became wet and heavy which is 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 just a few 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 my friends were completely buried not far from where I was. They were not wearing avalanche airbag backpacks.

My thoughts, condolences and sympathy go out to the families and victims of the avalanche accident outside the Stevens Pass ski area. All participants in the group were well equipped and experienced backcountry travelers. I was caught in the avalanche and not completely buried. I believe my partial burial and survival was due to the inflation of my ABS® avalanche airbag. My thoughts and prayers are with those who lost their lives."

Photo: Tegan Mierle