UNDERSTANDING, UNDERNEATH: AN AVALANCHE SURVIVAL STORY

Written by: Abby Cooper

Abby Cooper
Abby Cooper

December 26, 2014. Before I even arrived at the base of the cat skiing operation at 7am, a slew of bad choices had already been made. Considering the conditions, my gut was telling me not to be there. But, I wasn’t the one in charge, and I chose to trust the owner and his experienced guides rather than fight them. Unfortunately, I would have to learn the hard way that I should never second-guess my gut feelings, even when I’m surrounded by more qualified professionals. As is the case with any backcountry incident, there were multiple factors as to why things went haywire, but I’m not telling you this story to point fingers.

We were three runs deep into a powder-filled day of cat skiing, and my subconscious kept nagging me, reminding me that the snowpack wasn’t safe. As we regrouped after a steep pitch on the third run I stood in silence and watched as a guest placed a beautiful clean line into the white canvas of snow. Then I heard it, the dreaded whoomp. The ticking time bomb for an avalanche had started and no one knew how many seconds were left on the clock. Instantly, I turned to the guide who was ten feet away and asked, “Did you hear it?”

“No,” he replied. He hadn’t heard anything.

I couldn’t believe it. It was so loud, how could anyone have missed it? Quickly, I told him about the ‘whoomp’ and he soon asked for me to help the mid-slope skiers in my line of sight navigate their way to to safety. This would unload the slope. I yelled to the skiers above and informed them of the plan. The lead guide radioed to the tail guide at the top of the run to hold back the rest of the crew. I started to navigate the remaining on-slope skiers and redirected them to the new re-grouping spot.

And then it started to move. It was slow at first, but the slab was free and moving towards us. One of the guests above yelled “Avalanche!” and with a shiver running down my spine, I attempted to free my board from underneath the rushing snow, so that I could ride out of the way of the avalanche path. Despite my desperate attempts, the dense slab rushed past my legs so quickly that it made it impossible to free my board and get it above the surface. I tilted backward with the rushing snow but managed to hold my ground.

Then there it was: the big push of snow that knocked me off my feet. I let out a yelp of muffled words – something about falling, said one of the skiers later on. I was rolling in a sea of white when I hit my head on what I believe to be a small tree, but the force felt big. The powerful washing machine of snow tossed me around before I started to slowly slide down the hill head-first, face-up and completely buried. I knew this was bad news as soon as my body started to slow and the snow continued to rush past me. No longer moving with the snow meant that the opportunity to rise to the surface no longer existed. Survival mode set in – a survival mode that I didn’t know existed until that moment.

Ten years of avalanche training was about to save my life.

abby dell photography
abby dell photography

My thoughts screamed at me. I knew I needed to preserve my airway. With arms flailing, I pulled one hand into my body tight and covered my mouth while moving my fingertips to keep the snow out. My other arm was waving above my head and around my face in large movements to keep the snow from setting up around me. I don’t remember thinking about the rest of these actions – just doing them. I continued to move my arm until it was frozen in place by the concrete debris. When the snow stopped, time stopped, too. A moment of realization set in and I thought to myself, “I’m buried in an avalanche. Now, what?”

Airway: check, well, kind of check. The snow had crept into part of my mouth, making it impossible to take a solid breath. Next on the checklist: don’t panic. And then, all of a sudden, I started to panic. In an attempt to calm myself, I focused on my breathing. It wasn’t great, but I was breathing. Taking long, deep, inhales and exhales is what they tell you to do when you begin to panic, but being buried made this physically impossible. The snow felt like a million tonnes sitting on my chest. I couldn’t expand my lungs, and settled for small, shallow breaths. I couldn’t stretch. I couldn’t even uncurl my fingertips. The snow had framed my body tightly with no room to wiggle. I wanted to scream. I heard a squeak in the snow and all I could think was, “Please, no more snow.” I was worried another avalanche was coming. I could feel the solid fountain that trapped my body starting to free around my head.

I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe, but I could hear, “Visual on Abby. “

As soon as I could feel the last bit of snow wiped off of my lips, I expected to embrace some sort of instant relief. I was wrong. With only my head freed, the weight of the compact snow on my chest kept me from breathing properly. My mouth was still half-filled with snow and I couldn’t lift my still semi-buried arms to clear it from inside my mouth, nor communicate with my guide towering right above me what I needed. The ability to breathe surrounded me, but I could barely embrace it – just enough to keep me conscious. Here I was, alive, so very alive, but completely unable to help myself. I was frustrated that I was so useless and that the guide hadn’t completely cleared me from the snow.

My whirlwind of thoughts silenced when I heard my guide began to relay a headcount over the radio to see if anyone else was buried. While caught in my own struggle, unable to fully breathe, blood rushing to my down-slope head and attempting to fight off panic, I had a glimpse of empathy. What if someone was in a worse situation than I was?

The thought fled quickly; I was in survival mode. It seemed to take hours for the guide to finish on the radio and get back to me. I’m not sure if I actually cried or just wanted to. I could feel myself slipping in and out of consciousness when the snow began to break up near my arm. Someone was helping to dig me out. When my arm was freed, I instantly cleaned out the remaining snow from my mouth. I let out a whisper that was intended to be a yell, “My chest. Clear my chest!” The details here get a little foggy as I transitioned from almost unconscious to overwhelmed with adrenaline. I’m not sure if it was my guide who helped me out or a nearby guest, but at that moment I didn’t care.

I was a survivor.

Abby Dell Photography
Abby Dell Photography

Through the pure force of adrenaline I was able to stand and check in with the guests who were all asking, “Abby, are you okay?”

My own life had just flashed before my eyes and I couldn’t make sense of what happened. But I knew I wanted to be strong. I replied, “Yeah, I’m okay.”

But, I wasn’t okay. I had almost died, then I survived, and now I was oozing with adrenaline and shivering beyond control with tears rolling down my cheeks and a big smile plastered on my face. My brain couldn’t decide if I wanted to break down and cry or act like this didn’t just happen. I didn’t make a conscious decision, but rather just drove into action to help others get out of the debris safely. Fortunately, no one else was fully buried or seriously hurt.

We moved through terrain very cautiously down to the near-by yurt. I stumbled into the yurt, and stirred the soup that was on the stove. I took off my soaked boots and placed them by the fire, I was freezing. I wanted my bed and my dog and a big hug, but I acted strong and distracted myself by serving lunch. When we finally got out of there and back to the base of the cat ski operation, I was beyond done. At the exact moment I sat down on the big comfy couch at base, my body felt like it had been run over by ten trucks. Aches took over my body and mind.

I caught a ride home and called my brother to tell him to come over quickly. When he arrived I told him everything in a very matter-of-fact tone. I had to be logical; it was the only thing getting me from A to B. He hugged me tight with tears rolling down his cheeks and I finally broke down. I had survived an avalanche. Mentally I felt like I had conquered Mt. Everest. Physically I felt like I should have been wrapped in a body cast. The next day I went to the hospital and found out that I had a acquired a number of injuries, including a compressed disk, severe whiplash, a gnarly concussion, and some bruised or broken ribs.

It’s ten months later, and there isn’t a day that I don’t think about what happened that day. Every time I get a twinge of pain in my neck I am reminded of being tossed around underneath the snow. This story isn’t to blame others for what happened, but I tell it so that you’ll learn to listen to yourself. One moment of ignoring my gut changed my life. It changed where I live, where I work, and how I perceive risk.

There is no end to this story; each day I add to it. I cannot conclude by claiming that my body and my mind are perfectly healed or at peace. My mental and physical recovery process is ongoing. But, what I can tell you is what I have learned. I have learned to trust my instincts. I have learned that every voice matters, including my own, and that speaking up never hurts.

Was it worth it? No. But through the experience I have learned the value of life and of each breath that sustains it.