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The Beast Born Of Snow: What It Feels Like In The Jaws Of An Avalanche

Skiers free-ride down a slope despite a high avalanche risk, at the ski resort in Val-d'Isere, in the French Alps, on March 2, 2014.
Philippe Desmazes
AFP/Getty Images
Skiers free-ride down a slope despite a high avalanche risk, at the ski resort in Val-d'Isere, in the French Alps, on March 2, 2014.

It is April Fools Day 2011 and Jimmy Chin, the renowned adventure photographer and filmmaker, is shooting a couple of professional snowboarders in the Teton Range in Wyoming. This is one of the first really warm days of the spring season and so there is a lot of action in the snowpack. It is the kind of day where the risk of avalanche is high enough that everyone has their antennae up. But all three men are expert mountaineers who know how to read the conditions.

Chin — who is on skis — has just worked his way through a narrow band of snow called a couloir, and is continuing his descent down the peak. He makes one turn and then a second. And then there is a crack and the slope becomes riddled with a spider web of breaches. The snow drops out from under Chin and he begins a 2,000-foot tumble down the mountain in what would later be described as a class 3 to 4 (out of a scale of 5) avalanche — an event that can snap trees, pummel cars and crush houses. Surviving is a matter of expertise, equipment and luck.

About 30 people die in avalanches each year in the U.S. Those numbers have held pretty steady in spite of more and more adventurers exploring the back country in winter, something experts credit to avalanche awareness programs. Twenty-five percent of people caught in an avalanche are killed by the trauma, the rest die from asphyxiation. Jimmy Chin's April Fool's avalanche was trying to obliterate him any way it could.

"There's a tremendous amount of mass moving. If you can imagine you are in a car crash, but then think of being in a train crash," he says.

As he somersaulted down the mountain engulfed in a blizzard, Chin says it was like being held under by a giant wave. He couldn't catch his breath. Snow was pushing into his eyes, down his throat and crushing his face. At times he estimated he was down 30- to 50-feet deep and he prayed the slide didn't stop then because there would be no chance for rescue.

To try to move towards the surface Chin employed survival technique No. 1 they teach you in avalanche safety courses: swim for the surface. He struggled as best he could encumbered by skis and winter gear. And with some luck, it worked. In an outcome that left everyone shaking their heads Jimmy Chin popped out the toe of the avalanche buried up to his waist but, aside from some bruises, intact.

'Like A Monster In A Horror Film'

Two months ago, Mount Everest reopened to climbers after two years in which avalanches killed at least 35 people on the mountain. Those were serac avalanches, one of them triggered by the 2015 Nepal earthquake, in which large chunks of hanging ice broke off and crushed the victims.

Photographer Jimmy Chin on assignment in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan.
Brady Robinson / Courtesy of Jimmy Chin
Courtesy of Jimmy Chin
Photographer Jimmy Chin on assignment in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan.

Jimmy Chin was caught in a slab avalanche, where a mountainside will give way pushing an icy white tidal wave sometimes 20- to 30-feet tall at speeds reaching 80 mph in just seconds.

Bruce Tremper has been measuring avalanches for 40 years and recently retired from the Utah Avalanche Center.

"Avalanches are like a monster in a horror film," he says. "They lie underneath the perfect facade, this nice white snow, laying in wait for somebody to come along."

Most avalanches occur soon after a fresh snowfall, says Spencer Logan of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, who estimates his state experiences approximately 3,000 avalanches each winter involving about 60 people. Last January was particularly grim with an unprecedented 14 deaths across the U.S. The fatalities occurred during a period of frequent storms.

"We need a layer of snow that is a little bit more cohesive, it wants to stick together," Logan says. "And it needs to sit on top of a layer that is less cohesive, so one that doesn't want to hold together as much and we need something to upset that balance and get the incohesive snow to start breaking and then the more cohesive will slide down the hill."

That thing upsetting that balance is you, on your skis or a snowboard or a snowmobile.

Rising Above The Chaos

Modern technology has helped out a lot when it comes to surviving an avalanche. The go-to rescue device is the transceiver most serious back country skiers carry. Set this radio beacon to transmit as you're skiing. If there's a slide, set it to receive to pick up your friend's signal from under the snow. You'll also want a probe to help pinpoint their location and a shovel to dig them out.

Then there's the Avalung. This is basically a tube you breathe into if you're buried that diverts your toxic carbon dioxide away from you and pulls in oxygen from the surrounding snowpack adding precious minutes of survival time.

The latest safety device which has been popular in Europe for a while and is now catching on in this country is the avalanche airbag. It sits in a small backpack behind you and when you pull the ripcord the bag inflates, increasing your volume and helping you stay high up in the avalanche above the crushing debris, rocks and trees, that is swept with the slide down the mountain. Elyse Saugstad had hers strapped on during the Tunnel Creek avalanche in Washington State. And it saved her life.

Saugstad is a professional skier and she and a large group of athletes were enjoying the fresh powder out of bounds near the Steven's Pass ski area on Feb. 19, 2012. Again, all were experienced, knew how to read conditions and were aware that there was some avalanche danger that day. She and four others were working their way down the mountain when a skier above them triggered the avalanche. One member of the group was able to save himself by wedging between two trees as the slide rushed by. Saugstad and three others were swept down the mountain. Only she was equipped with an airbag.

All was well she says until she heard someone scream, "Elyse, avalanche!" Immediately she tried to ski out of it but couldn't.

Elyse Saugstad is a professional skier and avalanche survivor.
Greg Martin / Courtesy of Elyse Saugstad
Courtesy of Elyse Saugstad
Elyse Saugstad is a professional skier and avalanche survivor.

"As I started to get caught I pulled the trigger on my ...avalanche airbag backpack, and immediately started to tumble, head over heels," Saugstad says. "You can't tell which way is up, you can't tell which way is down. If I hadn't pulled the trigger when I had I don't know if I would have been able to get my arm back up to the trigger point, because the forces were so strong you just lose complete control."

She came to a stop 2,500 feet further down the mountain. That's about two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other, she notes. Snow at the bottom of an avalanche sets up like concrete leaving a body completely immobile. You can't wiggle your fingers. You can't expand your chest enough to take a full breath. Saugstad was frozen in place. But Saugstad's airbag had kept her up high. She was on her back looking up at the sky. Her face was clear and she could breath. Her three companions were not so lucky. They all died. One was buried just four feet away from her.

"I just think if they were wearing avalanche airbag backpacks that they would still be alive," Saugstad says. "They actually didn't die of asphyxiation. They died of trauma. They had compressed lungs and broken ribs and just broken limbs in general. Because they weren't on top of the avalanche and they were being pulled below they were hitting all the debris."

'A Golden 15 Minutes'

What could be worse? The avalanche comes to rest. You've survived the trauma but you are cemented in place under the snow. Everything is pitch black. Your body is face down with your legs contorted behind and above you in a scorpion-like position. This is where pro skier JT Holmes found himself this past January near Donner Peak in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. His CO2 was building up and the clock was ticking.

"You've got kind of a golden 15 minutes, and after that time the numbers drop off really quickly," says avalanche forecaster Bruce Tremper. "So 93 percent of the completely buried people are still alive after the first 15 minutes. After about 45 minutes there's only about 10 or 20 percent still alive."

At first as he came to rest Holmes was able to thrash his head back and forth under the snow to try to create an air pocket. He could even see bits of light shining through. But soon the snow filled in every crack and sealed him in. There was zero mobility and zero light.

"If you were claustrophobic this would be your absolute nightmare," Holmes says. "What I was trying to do at that point was slow down my breathing. I was reminding myself that I was with professional mountain guides, and they were going to come get me. And I knew my beacon was on. So I was giving myself a pep talk."

He thought about how big wave surfers are trained to hold their breath for three or four minutes, how the mind thinks it needs oxygen way before it actually does.

"I never one time thought I'm going to die," Holmes says. "I was focusing on what I could control, keeping a cool head and not breathing."

He did wonder at one moment how deep he was, six inches, four feet, 10 feet? Eventually Holmes lost the battle between his brain and his lungs and after about four or five minutes, he estimates, he passed out. A couple of minutes later he was unearthed.

JT Holmes competes during the 2009 Xtreme freeride contest in Verbier, Switzerland.
Jean-Christophe Bott, Keystone / AP
JT Holmes competes during the 2009 Xtreme freeride contest in Verbier, Switzerland.

The next thing Holmes remembers is coming to and seeing the faces of his rescuers. He says everything was very bright, and for the first time during the experience he was really scared. But just like Jimmy Chin and Elyse Saugstad, he was not seriously injured.

And all three survivors say despite their close calls they are not about to lead tamer lives.

"It probably reinforced that what I was doing is what I am meant to do," Chin says. "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."

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Two-time Peabody Award-winner Peter Breslow is a senior producer for NPR's newsmagazine Weekend Edition. He has been with the program since 1992. Prior to that, he was a producer for NPR's All Things Considered.