January 4, 2004
Thankful To Be Alive
I’m writing you this story still badly bruised and sore after surviving one of the largest avalanches in British Columbia this year.
Every year, on Memorial Day weekend, myself and a bunch of my buddies make the 850-mile journey to the rugged mountains of British Columbia for a long weekend of extreme backcountry snowmobiling. This year we made the trip not knowing how the events of the next few days would change our lives forever.
Friday morning we rolled into Revelstoke, BC, to join 75 or so other extreme snowmobilers and headed up for a day of riding. On the mountain we were reunited with a lot of old friends whom we hadn’t seen since last year. We spent the day climbing chutes and playing in the snow, always trying to outdo each other.
Saturday we woke up to blue skies and headed for the mountains. It was another fun filled day with friends snowmobiling in the backcountry. We shot some amazing video of my friends Shawn and Josh climbing some huge chutes.
Also with us on this trip were two of my lifelong friends from Minnesota, Tony and Wes Foss. They quickly got the nickname “Flatlanders.” This was their first trip to the huge mountains of BC. What a shock it was for them to ride in such an amazing place.
Sunday morning we woke up to fog and rain. So 16 of us decided to head south to a place that we had ridden before called Meadow Creek. We all unloaded at the top of a logging road. Our group was made up of 16 people, including a father-daughter duo (Norm and Kirstin Leslie), a husband and pregnant wife (Josh and Gina Marshall), father- son pair (Ed and Cameron Hicks), a boyfriend-girlfriend pair (Shawn Hastings and Heidi Mebes), another husband-wife pair (Jim and Melissa Phalen), two brothers (Jade and Jarrod Sessions), two more bothers (Wes and Tony Foss) and myself and my best friend Kyle Goltz.
The weather was bad and the clouds were low but we kept on. About 4:30 p.m. we dropped into a huge bowl. Josh was the first to challenge a chute. He rocketed out of the chute on his 180 hp custom built hillclimber. Next was Shawn, choosing a different line, but still making the huge mountain look like a speed bump. While they climbed, the rest of us went to the other side of the bowl and started to climb some hills.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Kirstin, a cute, blonde 16-year-old girl, started up the bowl. She had just about reached the summit when the whole lower half of the mountain began to slide. Everybody started to scream and people scattered in all directions to try and escape the path of the avalanche, but it was just too massive.
I was too far from my sled to reach it, so I took off running for the trees. I jumped and grabbed the biggest tree I could find, just as the avalanche plowed into my back. It almost instantly snapped the 15-inch lodge pole pine and down the mountain I went. I rode the tree down the mountain with the avalanche flattening the 100-year-old forest in front of me. After a 300-foot ride in the avalanche, I started to come to a stop and I knew that I was in trouble. Luckily my head and one arm were still above the snow, but I could feel the snow starting to squeeze the life out of me.
Seconds after the lower half of the mountain slid, the top half of the mountain broke loose and a wall of snow 20 feet tall with snowballs the size of cars was coming to end my life.
I was totally helpless because I was so trapped. I could not even wiggle my big toe. Thoughts of my wife and two young boys, Andrew, age 5 and Paul, age 3, ran through my head. I remember saying, “God, please help me.”
My prayers were answered. The 20-foot wall of snow came to a stop just 30 feet behind me. My life was spared.
Sometime during the avalanche, my helmet was ripped off my head, but by some miracle it was laying right in front of me. I grabbed it and ripped the visor off and started to dig out my chest so I could breath. Then the chaos began. All I could hear was people screaming each other’s names. I looked around at the destruction of the avalanche and thought there was no way any of my friends could be alive.
The first person I saw was Norm Leslie; he was crawling over the piles of snow screaming Kirstin’s name. He came over and asked me if I was alright. I said that I could breathe and I could feel my feet so I was good enough for now. Then he said, “Where was the last place you saw Kirstin?” I told him the last I saw her, she had just about reached the summit. He said that he had to leave me but would send help back just as soon as he could.
I tried to dig myself out, but it was hopeless. The snow was as hard as concrete and impossible to dig with your hands. So I just tried to relax and wait for help. Then my thought turned to my friends and I started to pray, “God, please help them because I can’t.” My mind was going 100 mph. I thought, “How am I going to tell all of their families that their husbands and fathers aren’t coming home." Then I started to get hypothermia and physically sick to my stomach.
The next person to me was Shawn Hastings. He had found me with his transceiver. He said, “Who else was with you?” I told him no one was right by me. As he got closer, I could see the fear in his eyes. I asked him who was missing. He just looked at me and said, “You’re the only one I’ve found.” I told him to leave me and keep looking.
Meanwhile, Norm had found Kirstin. She was buried right next to her snowmobile. She had a small pocket of air that her head was in and she was able to breathe until her dad got her out.
About 15 minutes went by and Josh made it over to me. He just lay down in the snow next to me and gave me a hug, and said how great it was to see me. I asked him who was still missing. He replied with a lump in his throat, “Kyle, Jade, Jim and Tony.”
I told him to get me the hell out of there so I could go look for my friends. He dug and dug. My legs were still wrapped around the tree and tangled in the limbs, but he wasn’t going to slow down until I was out. I was starting to lose it. I was shaking convulsively from hypothermia and was in shock at the thought of losing all my friends. Then Shawn called out to us that he had found Tony and Jim. He said they were both alive and Jim had a broken leg.
Then Jarred showed up to help dig me out and he said that he thought he saw Jade and Kyle walking out of the bottom of the avalanche three quarters of a mile down the mountain, but wasn’t sure it was them.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Everybody was accounted for.
Jarred said that Melissa had also been completely buried but was dug out almost immediately and survived with only a broken leg. Finally, after 45 minutes, Josh had dug me out. I stood up and turned around and got my first look at the avalanche. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The fracture line was over a mile wide and it slid for over a mile and a half. There were spots in the fracture line that were over 20 feet deep. I have never seen anything like it.
Josh and Jarred said they were going over to help Jim and Tony and I started back over towards the other side of the slide were everyone else was. The going got tough. I was trying to crawl over snowballs the size of cars with three broken ribs and severe muscle damage to my left thigh but I had to keep going. About 75 yards from where started I found what was left of my snowmobile. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It was almost bent if half. I got a very uneasy feeling knowing it went though the same bunch of trees I did and it was bent in half and I was still alive.
I finally made it over to the rest of the group, hugging everyone there. I told everyone who could to start gathering firewood. It was only about an hour until dark.
Norm and Kirstin headed to town to get help. I remembered there was an old cabin about six miles away and thought it would be a great idea to start shuttling people back to that cabin. We only had six snowmobiles left and 14 people to get out. So we started to shuttle people out. Heidi and Gina were the first to leave. I stayed with Melissa and tried to keep her warm and as comfortable as possible. Wes, Tony, Ed and Jarred were trying to help Jim back over to the fire. The going was very slow. They almost had to carry him the near mile journey back to the fire. I forgot to mention that Jim is 6-foot-5 and weighs about 280 pounds. But they got the job done.
About 20 minutes after I got the fire going, Kyle showed up. I’d never been so happy to see him. I just hugged him until he let go. We both started to cry and talked about what happened. He and Jade went for the longest ride of all. They had made it to their sleds and took off. They both got hit by the first wave of the avalanche at the top of a huge chute and down they went, getting tossed around like rag dolls. Kyle started to come to a stop half way down the chute. He was completely buried and thought he was dead, when all of a sudden he got hit by the second wave of the avalanche and started to move again. The second wave pushed him to the surface and brought him all the way to the bottom of the mountain. He was badly bruised but alive. He went for a 4,000-foot ride in the avalanche.
Right before dark everybody was back to the fire and we got a plan to get Jim and Melissa back to the cabin. Jim rode his own sled out and Melissa rode double. It was an agonizing six-mile ride for all of us but we made it to the cabin. The girls had a fire going and it was nice and toasty warn. Five minutes later Norm arrived and was bringing help. A few locals came up in a Snow Cat to the cabin with sandwiches, water and some first aid supplies. They loaded use in the cab and headed for town.
About 2 a.m. we reached Meadow Creek and the townspeople were waiting for us to arrive. They had hot soups and cookies for us in the cafe. One local offered to drive Jim and Melissa to the hospital in Nelson, BC. The rest of use stayed in the local motel for the night. I called my wife and told her what had happened and we cried on the phone together and told each other how much we love each other.
Word of our story traveled fast. By the next morning, we were surrounded by local news media and when we reached Nelson to pick up Jim and Melissa we were swarmed by the media again.
The ride home seemed to take forever. Traveling with broken legs and ribs is not a lot of fun.
I finally arrived in West Yellowstone at about 6 a.m. and sat on the couch with my wife and kids just hugging them and telling them how much I loved them.
This has been the most life changing event of my life. I look back at the pictures and wonder how anyone could survive that.
Only by the grace of God am I here to tell this story. This was such an amazing story of survival. Each one of use has a story to tell. This story deserved to be told to everybody because it was truly a miracle.
I’m thankful to be alive.