Sara: Three Friends, Fresh Snow and an Avalanche

A story anyone should read, every year, before backcountry and avalanche season.

By Michael Gilbert | November 16th, 2017

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Michael Gilbert: “It doesn’t matter how well you ski, how experienced or fit you are: You can be taken.” Photo by David Clifford.

Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted—One moment

Would you capture it or just let it slip?

—Eminem, “Lose Yourself”

 

Mistakes are made. Everything starts innocently enough: two women, two dogs and me. Another day skiing in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. Nine inches of new snow, or so the avalanche report said, with more falling as we head up toward Serpentine, an infrequently skied couloir on the west side of Red Mountain 2. The avalanche forecast:

Near and above treeline on NE to SE to S aspects the danger is CONSIDERABLE with pockets of HIGH. On other aspects and below treeline the danger is MODERATE with pockets of CONSIDERABLE.

Well, we’ll be skiing below tree line, on the west side, so . . . .

I’ve climbed for 40 years, and skied for longer; I began skiing in the backcountry in the late 1970s. Several years ago, after a long hiatus, I started backcountry skiing again. At the urging of my partners, I completed a Level I avalanche course. During the winter, I receive daily avalanche bulletins from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center by email, and read them religiously; I discuss snow conditions and backcountry ski protocol with friends and guides during the ski season. After being involved in an avalanche earlier this winter, I refreshed my rescue skills by practicing beacon searches and using my avalanche probe. In 1979, my 21-year-old brother was killed by an avalanche while approaching a winter climb on Mount Kitchener in the Canadian Rockies. I fancy myself skilled, knowledgeable and avalanche-averse.

On March 21, 2005, there are signs; there always are. I read them and put them into the equation, but fail to come up with the correct answer.

 

Winds are from the northeast, maybe 30 mph. It snowed yesterday, also with strong winds. From below timber, we can see snow blowing into the open basin above us, and, with the dogs trailing behind, Sara, Donna and I discuss the obvious wind-loading. Small (six-foot) shooting cracks and soft slabs appear at sparse intervals along the skin track. It is snowing, at times heavily.

We keep to the trees primarily, and all agree that we don’t want to be up high. We stop well below timberline and hug the trees on the way down. Great skiing, if low angle—certainly not much above 25 degrees.

It is snowing heavily as we decide to skin up for another run. And now that the track is in, it is easy up. I am a bit ahead, followed by Sara (with Tucker, her dog), and then Donna (with her dog, Sita). Sara has been a world-champion mountain biker, among other things. Donna is a nurse.

During the 30- to 40-minute skin up, the sky clears, flashing sun and blue. At the end of the skin track, I want more up, and traverse to climber’s left across a steepening open gully. Leading us deeper, I switchback up to two tall pines in the middle of the slope on a blunt rib. Sara, a bit below me, and I discuss the possibility of traversing from the pines to another rib on the right, and then skiing down through the trees. She climbs up to join me.

We are at 11,300, still well below timberline, but perched precariously in the middle of an open bowl. Rocks protrude perhaps 200 feet above, and just beyond us, the slope steepens. Sara and I belatedly discuss our exposed position, and reaffirm our plan to traverse to the trees on the right. Donna comes into view a few hundred feet below and begins to cross below us. Sara and I wait until Donna nears the relative safety of the trees. Asking Sara to watch me, I start across the slope.

Avalanches are binary: 0 and 1; the snow is stationary, and then it is moving. I take one step from the trees and trigger the slide. Sara screams to alert Donna. Snow breaks underfoot; I look up and see a sympathetic fracture cross the entire gully about 200 feet above. Sara and I are perpendicular to the slope, with skins on and heels unlocked. My first thought is to somehow turn into the fall line—to what, ski?

It seems benign enough. There is not much snow moving, and one is optimistic, yes? Things will be fine, surely. The snow takes me with it, and I fall face-down with my hated skis above me, my legs being inexorably pulled down and apart, tearing at my knees. The snow is pushing me down and I struggle desperately to stay on top, my back arched painfully to keep my head up. The snow moves faster, building up around my body, pulling me deeper. It drags me through some tiny pines, and over a short steeper roll. Forget any illusion of control—there is none. It doesn’t matter how well you ski, how experienced or fit you are: You can be taken.

And still I am swept downhill, until it begins to slow, and then instantly solidifies around me, like quick-set concrete. It’s around my face as I fight to stay on top, arms outstretched, punching toward the surface for air. Then it stops, and snow just covers my head. I am, however, able to—barely—stab through to the surface. I can breathe; I am not broken, although my legs are twisted wickedly, painfully behind me. I gasp and spit snow from my mouth. Am I alone? Where is Donna? Sara?

I have about 15 degrees through which to move my arms; the first thing I do is set my stopwatch. My left knee is slowly being tractioned apart. I have to dig myself out and find the others. My anemic hand-digging drops more snow around my face. I can’t free my pack to reach my shovel. Even if I am able to dig myself out, it will take hours. Will the exertion fend off hypothermia for that long? I dig, and dig, to little effect save exhaustion. Where are the girls? I poke my gloved hand out of the snow, resting, and a moment later hear Donna. She has not been buried, and appears at the mouth of my cave.

“Where’s Sara?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she replies. “Buried.”

“You’ve got to find her, I can breathe.”

“Two will be better to search,” she says.

“Get me out of here.”

She is digging, but it is taking so long, too long. I am encased, unable to move.

“Donna, hurry, dig above my back.”

My knee is rotating out of its socket. Five minutes? Donna, hurry, you’ve got to get me out of here; Sara’s dying. A shovel in my back. She’s getting close. I should be able to move now, but can’t.

“Uncover my legs, my feet. Hurry.” More digging. “Release my bindings.”

Seven minutes? Finally I can move. My left knee untwists painfully. As I crawl toward the light, I switch my transceiver to search.

I see no sign of Sara, just a vast slope of debris hundreds of feet above and perhaps 100 feet below. Eight minutes?

We have a signal. As I move up and across the slope, my Barryvox indicates that we are close: 4.0; 3.5; 3.3; 2.9; 2.5; 3.3; 3.5; 2.5; 2.2; 1.9; 2.5.

“She’s here, right here!” Donna shouts. We are both reading the same thing. Sara is here, under this clueless debris pile. She has to be here.

“Get your probe!” I shout, as I dump my pack and begin to assemble my probe. These probes are our only hope now.

I hear Donna behind me: “My probe is f—ked!”

Mine assembled, I systematically probe the area where Sara must be, has to be. It’s up to me; I have to find her, now. Nine minutes? Ten? I’ve lost track. Probing: one, two, three. For what? A body? The probe penetrates its full 7’8” length. Nothing. Sara. Sara.

Four, five, six. Sara. Seven, eight. I feel something! Rock? Bed surface? It’s nearly six feet down. Could she be that deep? I probe again two inches to the left. Nothing. Probe again, and I think I feel something soft. Is it Sara? It has to be. There is no time for no.

I leave the probe in place, and begin to shovel. The snow is desperately heavy. Donna is to my left, exhausted, but helping as much as she can, and I am right on top of Sara, I must be. I’m excavating a grave, one shovel at a time. Eleven minutes? I go anaerobic, gasping and screaming for air. Jesus, where is she? Four feet down; two to three feet wide and nothing! Keep digging, she has to be here. She has to be.

A tan glove stretches upward: she had been reaching for the surface when the snow entombed her. Is it just a glove? No, there’s a hand in it. Where’s the other? More digging, and there is her second hand with its fingers at the level of her other wrist, both hands supplicating toward me. This hand is ungloved, ice blue—death blue. No! But what did you really expect after so long?

Where is her body? I move the first arm, hoping it remains attached to the rest of her; it is limp, lifeless. Sara. More digging, and there is hair and blood, and then, finally, her face, from which I desperately scrape the snow with my hands. She is lying face-up in the snow, and is azure ashen ice; her thin lips desiccated in a frozen grimace; her mouth open and blue; her matted red hair a Gorgon’s splay in the snow; blood on her cheek and forehead. She is not breathing.

“Donna, get in here!” Donna crawls into the pit, and begins mouth-to-mouth. It’s f—king useless, I think, but continue to excavate Sara’s chest. I can’t bear to watch the attempted resurrection. We’ve failed; we are too late.

“She’s breathing,” Donna says.

Sara Ballentyne
Sara Ballentyne, a day later, revisits her burial site. Photo by Michael Gilbert.

She’s breathing, God, she’s breathing. Life, too, is binary: living, and then not living; and now living again. No time now for tears; keep digging. She’s so blue, so cold. After a few minutes, she regains consciousness, moans, and in a frozen whisper says, “Thank you.”

No, thank you. For being one of the toughest human beings alive. For the years of training that made your heart strong. For having faith. For staying alive, for me, for Donna, for your four-and-a-half-year-old daughter. For your husband.

We wrap her in a spare parka, but still she shivers uncontrollably. Minutes later, her ashen pallor begins to breathe slowly toward pink. I hold her to bring warmth. I hold her to hide tears, hoping that the panic and fear will dissipate and the adrenaline fade. I feel the beating of her heart.

Tucker is gone. There is no time for him now. Sara is hypothermic and in shock, and can barely stand. I dig her skis out from her tomb, and excavate mine from mine. We collect the three ski poles we have left between us, stuff our gear into packs, and struggle out to the car.

 

The next day Sara and I ski up to the site. We have been terribly lucky. The fracture line propagated about 200 feet from where we had triggered it; it was about 300 feet across, and had a crown 12 to 18 inches deep. We were swept down together about 500 feet and ended up within eight feet of each other in debris strewn 100 feet across the slope.

Sara’s head was buried about four and a half feet under the surface; her feet, six feet down. My burial was about the same, except that I was able to scratch a hole through to the surface. I’m 6’2”; she’s about a foot shorter. Burials six feet or deeper are 90 percent fatal. Sara was, fortunately, buried face up and was therefore twice as likely to survive than if she had been facing down. Her last breaths melted the snow and created a small air pocket. Facing down, her head would have been pushed down, and extinguished the air space. She had been buried under more than a ton of snow for, I estimate, 12 minutes or more. Had the rescue been a minute or two slower, Sara would be dead. As Sara wanders uphill from our burial site, I probe for Tucker, and quickly locate him near where Sara’s feet were, finally, unearthed. We leave him there, with a couple of Snickers bars; Sara says he would have liked that.

 

Michael Gilbert is a trial attorney in Louisville, Colorado. He has put up over a hundred rock routes in Colorado, and has climbed rock and ice in Alaska, Canada and Europe. Sara has forgiven him for whacking her in the face with his shovel.

See our informational article “Avalanche Safety”  on avalanche understanding, awareness and educational resources. You can find a plethora of information, forecasts and reports in Avalanche.org.

 

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