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Avalanche survivor: 'We weren't being idiots'

Mike Dunham
Elyse Saugstad took first place at the Freeride World Tour 08 Nissan O'Neill Xtreme de Verbier event in Switzerland March 2008.
Jancsi Hadik / freerideworldtour.com
Elyse Saugstad took first place at the Freeride World Tour 08 Nissan O'Neill Xtreme de Verbier event in Switzerland March 2008.
Jancsi Hadik / freerideworldtour.com
Elyse Saugstad took first place at the Freeride World Tour 08 Nissan O'Neill Xtreme de Verbier event in Switzerland March 2008.
Jancsi Hadik / freerideworldtour.com

Elyse Saugstad was taking a break with several fellow skiers Sunday in the Washington state backcountry when the shouting began. "Elyse! Avalanche!"

The 33-year-old turned to see tons of snow boiling toward her.

"I pulled the trigger," she said, inflating two air bags attached to her backpack. The device is meant to keep skiers and adventurers from disappearing beneath waves of snow in an avalanche.

It likely saved her life, said Saugstad, who was hurled half a mile down the slope.

"(It was) like being in a washing machine," she said.

Saugstad came to a stop buried in densely packed snow. Only her face and hands were free.

"The snow was like cement," said Saugstad, who worried that a second avalanche might follow. Only later did she learn that the body of one her companions was buried a few away.

In all, the avalanche had swallowed three other skiers. Saugstad, a professional downhill skier who grew up in Girdwood, was the only one of the four wearing the air bag backpack -- and the only one to emerge alive.

On Monday, the Dimond High graduate and prize-winning freestyle skier told the Daily News that she was in a group of eight experienced skiers who opted to descend through a backcountry section near the boundary of the Stevens Pass ski area northeast of Seattle. Another group of five followed them.

"We weren't being idiots," she said. "We understood the dangers and followed all the safety protocols. We went one at a time, moving section to section, ping-ponging our way down the hill.

"Several of us had stopped in a safety zone among some old-growth trees," she said.

Hundred-year-old trees are usually a good indicator that an area is avalanche-free.

"Unfortunately, the freak accident happened," she said. "One of the skiers (above me) set off the avalanche."

Saugstad managed to pull the lever to deploy the air bags as the snow hit. The ABS TwinBag backpack, made by a German company and available in Europe for the past 15 years, has two bags, one on either side, connected to canisters of compressed nitrogen. In an emergency, the gas fills the pillow-shaped bags, which act somewhat like water wings.

"The idea is that it's keeping you up on the top of the avalanche," Saugstad said.

She didn't feel the bags inflate as the avalanche caught her, she said. "I wasn't even sure they were deployed."

She estimated that it was a Class 3 avalanche, which the Avalanche Center website says can destroy a small building and snap trees. Saugstad called it "huge."

She came to a stop an estimated 2,000 feet or more from where she'd first been caught in the slide. Her face, and her hands, wrapped in pink mittens, poked above the packed snow. The air bags formed a "cocoon" around her head and neck. Her feet were about five feet below the surface and she was unable to move.

"It's very frightening," she said. "I was trying to remain calm but after a while I thought, 'Hmm. Maybe I should scream for help.' "

Ten minutes after she was swept away in the snow, the first rescuer reached her. At that point Saugstad wasn't worried, except for the fear that a secondary avalanche -- or even a third -- might follow.

THREE FEET AWAY FROM VICTIM

As the rescue continued, she realized how close she was to death. Literally.

"One victim was buried three feet to my left," she said. "Another was 30 feet above me."

The Seattle Times identified the dead skiers as Stevens Pass marketing director Chris Rudolph; Jim Jack, head judge for the Freeskiing World Tour; and John Brenan, a Leavenworth contractor.

Aside from being sore, Saugstad said, she was uninjured.

"I definitely got beat up," she said. "I feel like I was in a fight. I'd like to sit and take a little wine but I have to be back on the road. I'm on my way to Whistler (British Columbia) now."

Saugstad now lives in the Lake Tahoe area with her husband, Cody Townsend. (Her family still lives in Alaska and she expects to return this spring.) Both are international competitors in the aggressive style known as free skiing or freeriding. The sport combines the speed of alpine skiing with the extreme conditions of cliffs, canyons, boulders and other backcountry challenges.

Sponsors pay Saugstad to race. Among them are Alyeska Ski Resort, where she raced as a Mighty Mite and a teenager, and manufacturers of outdoor recreation equipment -- including ABS, one of a few companies making air bag-equipped backpacks.

"That's why I had one," she said.

The cost, between $600 and $1,300 depending on the model, has been a deterrent to the acceptance of the devices in North America, she said.

"But it's very cheap when you're in the middle of an avalanche," she added.

Such backpacks aren't a license to jump into avalanche zones, Saugstad emphasized: "You still need to have all the knowledge and take all the precautions. But it's another tool that can help in an emergency."

TRAUMA IN THE TREES

Saugstad said that the slide whipped its victims through big trees at a high rate of speed. She expects that, when the investigation is concluded, at least one of the deaths will be attributed to trauma -- slamming into something hard. The air bags probably wouldn't stop that, she said.

But many experts assert that preventing burial is the most important factor in surviving an avalanche and that's where the gizmos seemed to prove their worth.

"I was lucky. I'm alive because of a safety device that a lot of people aren't aware of," Saugstad said. "I want to get the word out that these packs are available and they work.

"If this wasn't a good example, I don't know what is."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.


By MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage Daily News
Contact Mike Dunham at or on