Professional Freeskier Elyse Saugstad survives massive avalanche at Stevens Pass



Elyse: “… and it was very shocking to find that one of the victims that we found was buried literally three feet to my left…  I fully believe that my ABS backpack saved my life. My thoughts and prayers are with those that 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 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.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get very far. The first skier went the first 500 or so feet and stopped in a safe zone of old growth trees. I was the second skier to go. Several more skiers went and when the seventh skier descended the avalanche was triggered. We didn’t really hear anything and my partner to the skier’s right of me started screaming “Elyse, avalanche! Elyse, avalanche!” At that time I was the one being swept in the avalanche and his shouting helped trigger my brain as to what was really happening. It was a little confusing, I wasn’t really sure who else could possibly be caught at this moment because it happened so quickly. As I was being caught by the avalanche it took me only a second or two to realize the gravity of the situation and I decided to pull my airbag. The avalanche was approximately 2650’ in length, was 200 feet wide, and 32 inches deep at the crown. It was a nasty avalanche as we were swept through heavily treed terrain and into a tight creek bed that finally spewed us out at the bottom.

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 sympathies are with the families and victims of the avalanche incident outside of Stevens Pass Ski Resort. All the people in the party were properly equipped and experienced backcountry travelers. I was caught by the avalanche and was not completely buried. I believe my partial burial and survival was on account of the inflation of my ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack. My thoughts and prayers are with those that lost their lives.

Photographer: Grant Gunderson

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