Professional freeskier Elyse Saugstad survives massive avalanche on Stevens Pass


Elyse: "... and it was very shocking to learn that one of the victims we found was buried literally three feet 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 19, 2012:

"A small group of us initially started the day at Stevens Pass ski area, whereupon we got together with more people around 11 a.m. with the idea that we would ski outside the boundaries 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 avalanche forecast that morning was considerable for the area (SSW) where we would be skiing. Once at the top, we went through the typical ski touring protocol for decision making. For example, we used the buddy system and split into smaller groups, since there were 13 of us total, and skied down the mountain one at a time, working our way down the mountain in small sections and stopping only in safe zones. Reminiscent of a game of ping pong down the mountain.

Unfortunately, we didn't get very far. The first skier skied the first 500 meters or so and stopped in a safe zone with old trees. I was the second skier to leave. Several more skiers followed, and when the seventh skier descended, the avalanche was triggered. We didn't really hear anything, and my partner to my right started yelling, "Elyse, avalanche! Elyse, avalanche!" At this point, I was the one being carried away by the avalanche, and his screams helped my brain realize what was really happening. It was a little confusing, I wasn't really sure who else could get caught at that moment because it was happening so fast. When I got caught in the avalanche, it only took me a second or two to realize the gravity of the situation, and I decided to pull my airbag. The avalanche was about 2650' long, 200 feet wide and 32 inches deep at the crack. It was a nasty avalanche as we were hurled through densely wooded terrain and into a narrow creek bed, eventually spitting us out on the ground.

The avalanche felt like going into a washing machine, because I was being tossed back and forth and spinning this way and that, sometimes having no idea which way was up or down. I was being thrown around by a lot of weight, and I remembered not to fight it. I felt my body bump into a few trees along the way, but none of the encounters were hard. The avalanche sped up and slowed down at times, and I would estimate that it lasted about 45 seconds total. That gives you a lot of time to think, and although there were some negative ideas running through my head about what my fate might be, I ultimately tried to stay calm so as not to waste energy or oxygen. Also, you have to keep your senses alert. The avalanche is so much more powerful than you are, so there's no point in fighting it.

When the avalanche finally came to rest, I was completely buried except for my face and arms. Avalanches compact snow a lot, and as the altitude dropped, the snowpack became wet and heavy, which is similar to being stuck in cement. Although 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 because it was so firmly buried in the snow. All I could do was lie there and try to stay calm while I waited for my friends to come and rescue me. As I lay there, I realized that others might be buried as well, and I felt like I needed to pull myself together in case I needed to help with the search and rescue.

It took about 10 minutes for the first person to show up and dig me out. As soon as I was dug out, other members of our group showed up to help with the rescue search. It didn't take more than a few minutes for us to find the other victims. It was very shocking to discover that one of the victims we found was literally three feet to my left and buried just a few feet below. The third victim, the one who had triggered the avalanche, was found about 300 feet below us at the outlet of the avalanche; he had suffered severe trauma. It was really disturbing to realize that while I was lying there partially buried, my friends not far from me were completely buried. They were not wearing avalanche 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."

Foto: Tegan Mierle