What It's Like to Get Caught in an Avalanche
The Short Version:
On a heli-ski trip out of Haines, AK in April 2008, experienced backcountry skier Chris Cardello was prepared and knew the risks. He was also wearing a helmet cam. This footage is an intense first person perspective on being caught in an avalanche, riding it to burial, breathing through a Black Diamond AvaLung and being rescued by trained professionals. Be safe out there!
For more info on avalanche safety go to the Canadian Avalanche Centre.
The Long Version:
In April of 2008 I drove from Lake Tahoe to Haines, Alaska up the Al-Can highway through British Columbia and the Yukon with an enclosed 4-snowmobile trailer and a ton of gear. I told myself the year before after a few years of getting “shut out” with heli time, that I wouldn’t come back up without snowmobiles….instead of sitting around drinking myself into oblivion on a “down day.”
Well thank God we did that because we definitely had down days again right from the get-go. The sledding up at Haines Pass is out of control good. Even staying closer to town like below Old Faithful is great. Can’t say enough about how much fun it is to ride snowmobiles up there with no trees.
So the first legit day after that main snow storm cycle, we still went out snowmobiling one more time wanting to let the snow set up a bit more….while another part of our group went up in the bird. Actually two groups went up in the bird, and the first group did all the normal day-after-storm-cycle snow pit and snow quality tests.
The first group decided that while the dangers remained elevated, that it was good to go. They all made some of the sickest pow turns in their lives I was told. The next group then – a couple hundred meters or so over – set up for their descent.
The guy in the video was the first one to drop from their group and while not a guide, he had a lot of Utah and AK backcountry experience. He had a Black Diamond Avalung on, but as you can tell from the video while he’s talking as he’s dropping in, it wasn’t in his mouth to start. He tried to shove it in the instant of starting to get sucked down, but it didn’t stay in fully during his ragdoll descent. It was just off to the corner of his mouth he said, and he definitely got some snow / ice in his mouth still.
So as he drops in you can also see the sluff to the skier’s right immediately start building….and that’s actually the chute that was the intended route down. For whatever reason – well pure, unadulterated powder will do it to you – he didn’t go make some strong “skier cuts” into the upper pack to do one final snow check as instructed by the main guide who was doing the “tail gunner” work.
Instead he just sent it. And it didn’t take more than a few turns out on this big shoulder above this cliff band to break loose.
This was a decent sized avalanche. 1,500 feet the dude fell in a little over 20 seconds. The crown was about 1 – 1.5m. The chute that he got sucked through to the skier’s right was flanked on either side by cliff bands that were about 30m tall. He luckily didn’t break any bones and obviously didn’t hit anything on the run out.
He was only buried for 4 and a half minutes which is incredibly short. I cannot stress these next sentences enough; that in and of itself to be unburied in ONLY 4:28 is miraculous if you have any understanding of being caught in an avalanche and what it takes to be found. It could literally be some kind of “world record” just on how good the guide and supporting cast of other skiers was in getting to him. It also shows why you should ALWAYS be going with people trained in avalanche rescue / first aid….as well as why you’d want to be going with a guided heli operation. Sure this was terrifying for him, but he would’ve probably been dead if not for going with a guide.
He also got very lucky to be honest. In the time that he’s buried, you can hear his breathing already accelerate. The ruffling noise back and forth is his chest rising and falling and the noise that his jacket makes. The intermittent whimpering noise you hear is him trying to swallow and get some air since the avalung wasn’t fully in his mouth and instead just to the corner of his mouth. Still sends chills up the back of my neck. Oh…the luck? They located him so fast because his right glove came off just before he came completley to rest and there was an excellent visual of course.
And then the digging out is utterly amazing. I don’t think that you could’ve paid a Hollywood crew to stage something better. The fact that he could’ve been facing any 360 direction and yet he’s looking right up into the sun-filled blue sky with that first full scoop away of the shovel is borderline spiritual.
This is simply a very sobering and unbelievable video. However, you should take away from this video all the positive things that you can learn from it. Yes there are risks to the backcountry – but with proper gear, training, and guide(s) with avalanche and EMT training – you can greatly lower your chances of getting caught in an avalanche in the first place…..and coming back alive if you ever were to get caught in a slide.
Respect Mother Nature for sure. Learn from this. But just like a Craig Kelly in the snowboard world or a Shane McConkey in the ski world who died out in the backcountry (Craig via avalanche and Shane via ski B.A.S.E. jumping), they left this earth while doing the things that they were truly passionate about. And while they would stress the need for the proper gear and training….neither one would want backcountry enthusiasts to curtail their adventures because of their accidents….or this video.
Please check with your local resort for classes on backcountry training, or try starting with a place like AIARE – the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Training. Their website is avtraining.org.