Close Call: An Avalanche Burial Caught on Camera
The story of this avalanche starts in December, when four buddies and I met up for an early season ride at the Isabel Pass area in the Eastern Alaska Range. After a three hour drive, we unloaded and punched out to a spot called Hookup Gully. Although there is incredible glacier and high elevation riding just a twenty minute ride farther, the snow was so incredible that we decided to stay and play around in the lowlands.
The intermountain snowpack is typically very dry, but doesn’t bond well and is prone to sliding after a winter storm rolls through. I’ve seen my friends almost get snuffed out more often riding in the Isabel Pass area than anywhere else in AK.
On this day, both sides of the gully showed signs of slide activity and an unstable layer since the most recent snow had fallen just a day prior. The snow seemed dangerous on any moderate slope.
Avalanche Burial Caught on Camera
After playing around for a couple hours and snapping photos, my main riding buddy Chris and I sat and watched two of our friends work on getting their buried sleds unstuck. The fifth rider in the group, Scott, sat underneath the short but steep climb up to the bench at the top of the gully.
After looking at the slope for a couple of minutes, he attacked it with a handful of throttle. A quarter of the way up, he stood his sled straight up-and-down, and fell off the back into the trench his 165” Summit 850 had made on the way up.
It turned out to be a very unfortunate place to fall, because right in front of our eyes, a 100’ (30 m) wide crown propagated above him and the whole slope slid down onto Scott, burying him completely.
It was at this moment that I threw my camera down into the fresh snow, and Chris and I doubled up side-by-side directly to the last place we had seen his body before it was covered. Thirty seconds of frantic digging later, we had uncovered his legs (he ended up being buried head down), and after a minute, we had cleared his airway and got his helmet off.
When we finally got him fully unburied, Scott, Chris and I all sat panting on top of the fresh slide. Scott was visibly shaken, and his eyes were wide.
“Don’t worry Scott, your sled is okay,” Chris said with a grin, and we all laughed.
Within a few minutes, the other two riders in our group had shown up and we all exchanged hugs.
The rest of the day went by like a ringing in our ears. It was pretty clear—we knew with certainty that we had come very close to losing one of the crew. That we hadn’t, gave us a feeling of elation but there was also a numbness—like a child’s bottom after being spanked for misbehaving. It was a pretty visceral experience, and definitely the only time in my life that I can say with absolute certainty that I helped save another human being’s life.
“There was a numbness—like a child’s bottom after being spanked for misbehaving.”
The takeaway, for me, was to never ride out of eyesight of your riding buddies, and always make sure there’s someone there to assist in case the worst happens.