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Avalanche Survivors Recount Their Experiences


It doesn't take all that much to trigger an avalanche. Steep slopes, vibrations, warming temperatures combined with fresh snowfall can cause a snowpack to come tumbling down. Avalanches kill about 30 people each year in the United States, and this season is on track to be the deadliest on record. A few years ago, NPR's Peter Breslow filed this report on three people who survived.


PETER BRESLOW: It was April 1, 2011, April Fools' Day. Renowned adventure photographer Jimmy Chin was shooting snowboarders in the Teton Range in Wyoming. This was the kind of day where the avalanche risk was high enough that everyone had their antennae up. Chin, who was on skis, had just worked his way through a narrow band of snow and was descending down the peak.

JIMMY CHIN: I made two turns, and the entire slope - spider-webbed is what we call it. It just kind of cracked all the way around me. And the entire slope essentially just drops out from underneath you.


CHIN: Your first instinct is to try to ride it out and try to ski out of it, you know? I thought I was going to make it. And then I just kind of got pulled under, and I knew I wasn't going to make it out.


CHIN: You're swirling around a whirlpool. And then all of a sudden, you get to like the tighter funnel, and it just pulls you down. I was in what is called a Class 4 avalanche. People don't usually survive Class 4 avalanches. It is big enough to take out houses. If you can imagine if you are in a car crash, but then think of, like, being in a train crash. I was under probably 30 to 50 feet of snow at certain points on the way down.


CHIN: Well, eventually the avalanche slowed down. And that was actually the most terrifying moment because then I could tell that even if I was a foot underneath the snow that my partners were never going to find me in time. And then eventually I kind of got pushed out. And I just kind of - you know, buried up to my waist, but my upper torso was out of the snow.


BRESLOW: The icy white tidal wave of an avalanche can reach speeds of 80 miles an hour in just seconds. They've been likened to a monster in a horror film lurking just beneath the facade of perfect bright snow waiting for somebody to come along and trigger a collapse.

ELYSE SAUGSTAD: My name is Elyse Saugstad, and I'm a professional skier. The Stevens Pass avalanche that I was caught in happened on February 19, 2012.

BRESLOW: What saved Elyse Saugstad's life that day in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state was an inflatable backpack airbag. It kept her riding high above the crushing debris of the avalanche. She was skiing with an experienced group that knew the risks of venturing out of the ski area's groomed slopes. It was foggy, she remembered, but the powder was irresistible, as her GoPro documented.


SAUGSTAD: (Laughter).

It happened so quickly - so, so quickly. And as I started to get caught, I pulled the trigger on my avalanche airbag backpack and immediately started to tumble head over heels and head over heels. You can't tell which way is up. You can't tell which way is down. All I saw was white muffled darkness. I couldn't breathe because the forces were so strong. You just lose complete control.

BRESLOW: Saugstad fell 2,500 vertical feet - as she likes to say, the distance of two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. Rescuers spotted her pink mittens.

SAUGSTAD: And at the very bottom, the snow had cemented around me. I was stuck there. I had to wait. But most importantly, I was on my back. My face was up. I was able to breathe.

So there was four of us caught, and I was the only survivor. It is a very difficult thing, especially because two of the guys were buried nearby me. And I just think if they were wearing avalanche airbag backpacks that they would still be alive.


BRESLOW: JT Holmes is a professional skier who was in the Sierra Nevada's of California in January 2016. Weather conditions were unstable, so his group double-checked that there avalanche beacons were working properly. Holmes was on his third run of the day when he felt the slope fracture under him like broken glass.

JT HOLMES: They say, you know, try to escape at a 45 degree angle. Use your arms in a swimming motion to stay afloat. And so I was doing that.

BRESLOW: It didn't work. Holmes ended up trapped face down under the snow. His legs contorted above him like a scorpion. It was the mountaineer's ultimate nightmare. He had about 15 minutes before he would asphyxiate.

HOLMES: And I'm smashing my head back and forth to try to create an air pocket. And then I can still see the light coming through the cracks in the snow. But then that goes away. You know, the snow fills in every little crack. And then it's completely dark - 100% dark. And you have absolutely no ability to move a single muscle in your body. You're just completely entombed.


HOLMES: I was giving myself a pep talk under there. I was thinking about the ability to hold one's breath. And that lasted a while. And, you know, you're under there, and you're kind of alone with your thoughts. And there's a lot that goes through your head at that point. I had this moment of, damn, I wonder how deep I am. Am I six inches under the snow? Am I four feet under the snow? Am I 10 feet under the snow? And then I passed out.


BRESLOW: The next thing Holmes recalls is coming to and seeing the faces of his rescuers who tracked the ping of his avalanche beacon. He'd been buried about six or seven minutes. As he regained consciousness, Holmes remembers it being very bright. And for the first time during the episode, he was really scared.

Amazingly, none of these avalanche victims were seriously injured. And none of the three said that they would lead tamer lives because of their close calls. Here's Jimmy Chin.

CHIN: I think I was probably unbelievably unlucky (laughter) and then unbelievably lucky. And then I can't help but think, well, apparently, it wasn't my time because if there was a time, that would have been the time.

BRESLOW: Photographer Jimmy Chin, who's been in Chile on assignment for National Geographic. JT Holmes has been busy skiing off cliffs with a parachute. And according to Elyse Saugstad's email auto reply, quote, "I am in the remote mountains of British Columbia skiing my pants off." Peter Breslow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.