A series of mistakes led to a near-fatal disaster.
Story by Patrick Kennedy
Photos by Patrick Kennedy and AAI Photo Collection
Five days of cool nights and rain on my metal roof had lulled me to sleep each night with the promise of bottomless powder runs in the alpine. But five days of rain also created a story I didn’t care for once I began analyzing wind, precipitation and temperatures. I stared at weather data from the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC), hoping to find something that would put my mind at ease before heading into the backcountry. Despite the avalanche warning signs, my partner Tarek and I decided to ride – cautiously.
As we unloaded snowmobiles and snowboards on Forest Road 39 at 1,200 feet, the warning signs of significant new snow suppressed our anticipation for great conditions, yet none of it remained in the trees due to wind. If wind was playing a role at this altitude, we imagined what was likely going on at 5,000 feet. As we began up FR 39 we saw another set of tracks and took some comfort knowing another crew was out there.
The first seven miles on Glacier Creek Road was blissful compared to the usual slow drive in trucks. Then we encountered an avalanche covering the road. This was a common spot for slides, yet the sight of it was a sobering reminder of the conditions. The group ahead of us had conveniently dug a path through the slide so we continued on for another eight miles through low-risk avalanche terrain. Gaining elevation, we burned twice the fuel than normal – snow was so deep it billowed over the hoods and sometimes over our heads. Snowmobiles act more like snowplows unless you can maintain a speed of 35 mph. Above that, the sleds plane on the snow surface, agile and playful, but below the surface they choke and sputter, desperate for oxygen.
Eventually we arrived at our destination, Grouse Ridge. Grouse is a lesser-known ridge near Heliotrope Ridge and ideal for snowboard runs with snowmobile shuttles back to the top. We could see that the crew ahead of us opted for another location 800 feet higher.
After a brief discussion on conditions, we cautiously agreed to climb up to the other crew. We found them at 5,500 feet filming a drop. Tarek and I chatted with them for a bit and decided snowboarding a few laps sounded better than shuttling a jump. We parted ways to investigate lapping a section of trees with accessible pick up and drop locations for snowmobiles. After packing down a track for snowmobile shuttles we left one sled at the bottom and doubled up on the other to the top.
On the ridge top there was considerable wind loading into a desirable chute we had both previously ridden on other trips. Wind was howling on the ridge and few words were spoken as we exchanged a mutual look that clearly stated this was not an option today. We decided to ride some lower angle, less wind-loaded, treed terrain also accessible from the ridge. Even though our terrain choice was prudent, the unstable conditions lurked in our minds, killing what would normally be a carefree run. We rode point-to-point, exposing one rider at a time, keeping in visual and verbal contact. After the first nervous run was over, the lower angle terrain provided two more laps in which every turn led to the white room, a quick swipe over goggles, spot the line, take a quick breath and repeat over and over again.
Our decision to ride powder instead of filming jumps was a popular one, and we soon found we had company. With the shuttle path well beaten in, we rapidly devoured lower-angle treed terrain. Only the chute remained untouched. Tarek and I were on top setting up for a run when we noticed one of the film crew considering the chute. The clouds had just lifted, providing visibility to film the line. Motives for footage outweighed caution and the rider dropped into the chute. I held my breath watching the rider’s first couple of turns. Beautiful turns they were, yet it was impossible to enjoy them when expecting the worse. His third and fourth turns were fast and nimble, and then he dropped out of sight. A few moments later we saw him rapidly approaching the valley floor and film crew. It’s only then that I took another breath.
Tarek and I once again exchanged the look and headed to partly tracked lower-angle trees for another lap. As we unstrapped bindings at the bottom of the run we heard some radio chatter and the words “dropping.” Neither of us had noticed another rider on top also considering the chute. From the bottom of the chute, I looked up and saw his first few turns. On his fourth turn the wind-loaded slab couldn’t take the load of a rider laying into a heavy heel slide and popped with a sound that none of us will forget. Something very large just broke.
Tarek instantly knew we were in the deposit zone and called for me to run, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the rider struggling to stay on top. I saw him go under and was awed by the size of the avalanche crown; I was instantly on Tarek’s heels moving as fast as possible sinking past my knees in the snow with each frantic step. Everything went white as the avalanche hit the valley floor. A frigid blast of air, snow and tree debris pelted our backs as we blindly ran away from the powder cloud. As the cloud settled, Tarek and I found ourselves only 10 feet clear from being buried by the avalanche.
I’ve never considered myself much of a competitive person, but at this moment I ‘heard’ the starting gun and knew this would be the race of our lives. People were yelling for the rider, but there was no way someone goes down in a slide that big and stays on top without an airbag. No one put me in charge, but I started barking orders anyway. We quickly had three teams working, one searching from the bottom up, one searching from the top down and another making a 911 call. A fourth team remained on the sideline in case the search team triggered another slide.
We had wisely left snowmobiles out of the deposit zone giving the top-to-bottom search team the advantage of covering more ground quickly. On the way to the top we passed over avalanche debris that literally filled a valley – if someone were to be buried there they could easily be 30 feet deep with little hope for survival. Within 90 seconds we stood at the top, strapping in and discussing the search plan that broke the path into thirds. Three of us rapidly descended the first 100 feet only to stop in shock for a second to marvel at the avalanche crown that measured 5 to 6 feet deep and propagated 200 yards out of the chute across the mountain side. No wonder the valley was filled.
Dropping from the slab, over the crown, onto the avalanche bed surface spoke volumes of why this had popped where it did – it was ice on a 43-degree angle slope. We searched while snowboarding in our lanes, which enabled rapid straight lane searching versus the typical zigzag back and forth. Tarek and I knew where the guy would likely be due to the tree terrain trap that lies below the chute. We both converged on an avalanche transceiver signal, following the flux line right to it. A quick pinpoint search revealed that he was shallowly buried.
I wasn’t waiting for a shovel. I started wildly clawing at the snow and shouting, “We are coming for you!” As shovelers converged, I was very lucky to uncover the snowboarder’s face, but it was blue. Morale hit bottom and some thought he was dead. I sharply corrected them, saying this is what people look like after being buried in an avalanche. Truth be told, I made that up simply because I wasn’t willing to accept that we didn’t reach him in time. The search felt fast and efficient – it had to be less than 10 minutes. Shovels began excavating as I leaned in searching for a pulse, and while doing so, I could hear his lungs struggling to clear some loose snow. He was breathing!
As quickly as morale tanked it was back, but excavating him revealed another problem – his body was wrapped around a tree with his left femur and arm bent in a terrible position. As we were assessing damage, the rider, Wyatt Stasinos, regained consciousness. I don’t know that I’ve met a tougher person in my life, as he certainly handled a broken femur, elbow and face trauma better than I would. His broken femur was trying to punch through the skin, which made evacuation down the 43-degree slope to the valley floor our next delicate obstacle.
We wrapped Wyatt in space blankets and came up with the idea of using his snowboard as a backboard. Six of us slowly and cautiously worked him down the slope through trees to the valley floor. While we had been working on the makeshift rescue sled, the 911 team had found higher ground and made a successful call providing latitude and longitude to SAR.
Shortly after reaching the valley floor we heard the sweetest sound any of us have ever heard. A Black Hawk from the Whidbey Island naval base was on approach with its rotors thumping in the air someplace above us out of sight in the clouds. Three times the pilot tried to descend into the tight valley but could not with no visibility, wind and heavy snowfall. After the third try, the bird left with the same sound as arrival, but it wasn’t as sweet this time. With a storm growing in intensity and only 45 minutes of light left morale again hit bottom – hard.
We had lost communication with SAR. Latitude and longitude would have worked for a heli-evacuation if weather conditions had allowed, but it was proving to be useless information for whatever ground rescue effort that might be happening. Someone was going to have to go out and lead SAR back to our remote location.
I gave Wyatt a thermos of hot soup, promised he would not spend the night out there and left the crew to find search and rescue. Thank God for Jeff Hambelton! As I started on the 15-mile journey back to the trucks, I ran into Jeff. He had heard an avalanche around Heliotrope Ridge and went to investigate. He knew our usual stomping grounds and needed no lat/long; good old-fashioned tracking was working well since I ran into him within a few miles heading out.
Jeff had extensive Wilderness First Aid training and work experience as a ski patroller and avalanche educator at Mt. Baker. I relayed the situation to Jeff, and he went on to offer medical aid to Wyatt as I continued out to search and rescue. I reached them and was happy to see some familiar snowmobiler faces, but I couldn’t understand why they were just sitting there. I soon found myself detained by the sheriff just as they were. SAR was waiting for a rescue toboggan and doctor to arrive on scene.
I was needed to lead the team back to Wyatt, and was therefore a critical piece in their rescue plan. I’ve never experienced that level of frustration before, and I’m sure it showed on my face as I sat there mumbling obscenities, watching the last bit of light fade. During the hour and a half I waited I came to the conclusion that counting on someone other than your own party for rescue is a mistake I will not repeat. Eventually the rescue toboggan and doctor arrived and we started the 15-mile journey back to Wyatt. Twelve miles enroute we ran into Jeff, Tarek and the rest of the film crew heading out with Wyatt secured to a snowmobile.
Thankfully, all snowboarders worth their salt wear belts to keep those baggy pants up. Jeff had put Wyatt’s leg into traction using tripod legs and belts. They then came up with the idea to extend the snowmobile seat using photo bags. The seat extension created a long, flat, padded platform. Ratchet straps were used to secure Wyatt to the snowmobile, and the end result was a highly mobile rescue device with suspension to cushion the 15-mile ride through technical terrain.
I don’t think any other technique would have gotten Wyatt out, and we all now know to use it in the future should we need to. Dragging someone through 15 miles of rough terrain on a rescue sled just isn’t realistic. A train of 11 snowmobiles escorted Wyatt out to the base of FR 39 where an ambulance waited. His injuries proved serious enough to require advanced medical attention at Harborview Hospital in Seattle. Wyatt now sports some permanent high-tech titanium that enabled an incredibly quick recovery time. He returned to the Baker area last season and charged terrain with absolutely no indications of a wounded limb.
Oddly enough, I ended the day the same way it began – sleepless in front of a computer staring at NWAC weather data. Rain and cool nights continued for another month, but the sound no longer lulled me to sleep. Mistakes were made, we know that. The avalanche was completely avoidable as almost all avalanche incidents are. We walked into the day knowing of the instability and picked a poor line. Communication was inadequate. Desire outweighed caution. Warning signs were ignored. Some of us had companion rescue training, some didn’t. Having backcountry gear isn’t a free pass to recklessly recreate. Take your pick, they were all factors that made the events possible.
We all still ride together in the backcountry, only wiser and grateful to have a second chance. X
Photography and outdoor recreation are the driving forces in Patrick Kennedy’s life. When not taking photos or recreating outdoors you’ll likely find him at Bellingham REI working as the Outreach Specialist or at Mt. Baker Ski Area in the Mountain Education Center.