Caught in an AvalancheIn November 1978, Bruce Tremper—then 24 years old and fresh out of college—was helping to build chairlifts at the Bridger Bowl Ski Area in Montana. Here’s how he got caught in an avalanche and survived to tell the tale.
Having learned about avalanches and skied backcountry terrain since he was 10 years old Bruce Tremper naturally enough considered himself to be something of an expert, i.e. a typical avalanche victim. Over a foot (30 cm) of light snow had fallen the night before and the wind was blowing hard, loading up the steep slopes beneath the upper section of the chairlift with thick slabs of wind-drifted snow.
Triggering the avalanche
Working alone (first mistake) and not wearing a beacon (second mistake), he found himself part of the way down the slope without backcountry skis or skins (third mistake) and faced with an exhausting pig wallow to climb back up, through chest-deep snow. Aware of the risky conditions he noticed that only a 15-foot (4.5 m) wide couloir separated him from the safe slopes on the other side. Thinking that a good skier like him should be able to get up enough speed and zip across it before anything too bad happened (fourth mistake), he attempted to ski to safety.
“. . . I did my ski cut according to the book. I built up speed and crossed the slope at about a 45-degree angle so that, in theory, my momentum would carry me off the moving slab, in case it did break on me. Since I had never been caught in an avalanche before, I had no idea how quickly the slab-after it shatters like a pane of glass-can pick up speed. I heard a deep, muffled thunk as it fractured. Then it was like someone pulled the rug out from under me . . . the blocks of shattered slab were moving around me like a herd of tumbling cardboard boxes blowing in the wind. Nothing seemed to work. Even though only two or three seconds had elapsed, the avalanche, with me as its unintended passenger, was already moving at a good 20 miles per hour (32 km/h) . . . .”
Going downhill in the avalanche
Looking downhill he saw a line of small trees coming toward him, and when the avalanche slammed him into the smallest one he held on with all his strength.
” . . . The snow pounded me like I was standing under a huge waterfall, and it felt like my neck would snap as each block of wind slab smashed into my head. The tree snapped off, and I rocketed down the slope again. Then the tumbling started, over and over again like being in a giant washing machine filled with snow. Hat and mittens, instantly gone, snow went everywhere, down my neck, up my sleeves, down my underwear, even under my eyelids, something I would never have imagined. With every breath, I sucked in a mixture of snow and air that formed a plug in my mouth and down into my throat. I coughed it out but the next breath rammed it full of snow again. Just when I needed to breathe the most I couldn’t-I was drowning to death high in the mountains, in the middle of winter, and miles from the nearest water.”
Most skiers have heard that when caught in an avalanche you should attempt to swim, but how good a swimmer are you? How well can you swim wearing ski boots and skis? As the avalanche slowed from about 60 mph (90 km/h) to around 40 mph (64 km/h), Bruce Tremper found himself on the surface and able to breathe once again-but he soon discovered that his body tended to sink like a rock unless he swam hard.
“. . . So I swam. But something was pulling one of my legs down. This was in the days before ski brakes and I had safety straps attaching my skis to my boots. I could swim but my skis couldn’t. One safety strap had torn free but the other one remained attached, and it felt like a boat anchor tied to my leg. The ski was beneath me in the slower- moving debris, and as the surface debris moved faster it tipped me forward, shoving my face in the snow again and again. I struggled hard to pull that ski up through the debris with my furious swimming. Eventually, the swimming worked, and when the avalanche finally came to a stop I found myself upright and buried only chest deep, breathing hard, very wet and very cold.”
Trapped in the snow
With the avalanche debris set like concrete around him as soon as it came to a halt, Bruce Tremper was trapped in a body cast from the chest down. Fortunately he had a shovel but it still took him 10 minutes to chip away at the rock-hard snow before he could finally free his legs. On one foot the heel section of the binding hung from a 6-inch (15-cm) section of the top layer of the ski, but the rest of the ski was missing and although the other ski was still attached, the tip and the tail were broken.
Clearly luck played a big part in allowing him to survive but it is also clear that someone with less experience might not have been able to swim that last section to avoid becoming completely buried. Ask yourself the question, how would you have coped in these extreme circumstances?
Bruce Tremper and Mountaineers Books
Extracts and quotes reproduced from ‘Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain‘ by Bruce Tremper and reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher, The Mountaineers Books. The author Bruce Tremper Is the Director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center and one of North America’s foremost experts on avalanches. He has appeared in news reports and documentaries produced by National Geographic, PBS, and Discovery Channel, among others.