Avalanche survivor recalls panic I can't even describe

Jan 8 2011 - 11:17pm

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(ROBERT JOHNSON/Standard-Examiner) Rescue dog Molly has a snow-covered face after digging to find a buried patroller during avalanche rescue training in the Sisters bowl area of Snowbasin ski resort on Friday.
(ROBERT JOHNSON/Standard-Examiner) Rescue dog Molly has a snow-covered face after digging to find a buried patroller during avalanche rescue training in the Sisters bowl area of Snowbasin ski resort on Friday.

EDEN -- On New Year's Day 2005, Preston Niederhauser found himself in a place he never wanted to be as a skier.

Niederhauser spent a good portion of his morning buried chin-deep in the freshly collapsed snow of an avalanche.

"It was a panic like I can't even describe," Niederhauser said. "I was convinced I was dead."

After a heavy snowstorm the night before, Niederhauser and four friends decided to ring in the new year with a morning ski run at Snowbasin.

Niederhauser said it was a sunny day and his group hiked up to No Name Peak.

"We'd done about 10 turns and then we all gathered at the top of what is called Hell's Canyon. That's where it happened."

Niederhauser said two of his friends were below him and two were above him when the avalanche hit.

"The avalanche fractured right behind me and separated us," he said. "Two people were left watching and three of us were in the avalanche."

One of Niederhauser's friends just tumbled, while another was buried up to the waist. Niederhauser was in the worst condition, unconscious and buried up to his neck.

"When I came to, all I remember was my mouth was so packed with snow, I couldn't even push it out with my tongue," he said.

When the avalanche finally stopped, Niederhauser's friends ran to free him.

They were able to get him out of the snow and take shelter under a rock just as another avalanche hit and rolled over the area where Niederhauser had been buried. Niederhauser was flown by helicopter to a trauma center, suffering a concussion and injuries to his leg.

"We were extremely lucky," he said.

Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center and author of the book, "Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain," said many times, avalanche danger is just the opposite of what people think it is.

Frequent, heavy snowstorms are actually good for the snowpack and decrease the chance of an avalanche.

Conditions get dangerous when there are many days between storms.

"The less it snows, the more dangerous the snow is -- at least as far as the underlying snow pack," Tremper said. "Most people get killed on the first sunny day after a storm."

Tremper said present avalanche danger in the Top of Utah is low, but that might change after the next snow storm.

"We have very stable snow right now and the avalanche danger is actually quite low," Tremper said. "That's great because we've had some dangerous years over the past few years."

Tremper said this year there has been regular snow in the mountains, with not much time between storms, although, the last few days have been different, meaning the next storm could increase chances of an avalanche.

"Now that we've had over a week of clear weather, the top layer of snow is quite weak right now," he said. "After the next storm, it will be kind of sketchy."

Tremper said almost all avalanches occur in the backcountry or out of bounds from ski resorts, such as the area where Niederhauser was caught.

Another skier, Todd Bell, died Jan. 24, 2010, while skiing in Hell's Canyon.

Out there, you have to be your own avalanche expert.

"The best thing I can tell people to do is become educated," Tremper said. "There's not a lot I can say in 10 second soundbytes, but there are all kinds of opportunities to get educated."

Tremper said for starters, people can visit www.avalanchecenter.org to check the current avalanche danger scale, see a video on avalanche safety, and learn where to take avalanche safety training courses.

Tremper said all backcountry skiers or snowboarders should carry a beacon, shovel and probe, but once trapped in an avalanche, there isn't much a person can do.

"It's kind of like asking what you can do when you get into a car wreck," he said. "Once you're in the wreck, there's not really a lot you can do. The best answer is just to avoid it."

Niederhauser agrees with Tremper's assessment. He said if his friends hadn't been with him or hadn't been able to avoid the avalanche, he would have been a goner.

"It was like someone pulled the rug out from under me. There was nothing I could do," he said. "It was like being in a really big washing machine. I had absolutely no control over any of my movements."

Tremper said 93 percent of all avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim's party.

Once a person is buried in the snow, they have about 15 minutes to get out.

Approximately 75 percent of people who die in avalanches die from asphyxia. Most of the rest die from trauma, Tremper said.

Niederhauser said his avalanche experience forever changed him.

"I am a lot smarter now and a lot more prepared," he said. "I definitely learned a lesson. I had a wife and a 9-month-old son at the time. If you're going to ski the backcountry, you need to be prepared. Most people won't be as lucky as I was."

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