“Philip Fritch boarded a snow slide enroute from the Sneffels district [not far from Ouray and Telluride, Colorado]. He contemplated switching off from the pass as it whizzed by Box Canyon, but having lost his hat, guidepole and most of his nerve, he hung on to the avalanche until it had spent its force near the Piedmont water tank, about 8 miles north of here in the Uncompahgre park.” (Ouray Herald, 8 March 1902)
Did you notice the date? Yup, more an 100 years ago. Working in southwestern Colorado Mr. Fritch likely worked for a mine, and like many miners he used skis. Apparently, he was on skis and headed to Ouray when he somehow got tangled up in an avalanche. From the sounds of things, He had quite a ride. However, other than the loss of his hat and pole, his encounter is not representative of what most avalanche victims report. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s the “news” reported by American newspapers often mixed facts and sensational fiction. Fanciful stories sold papers, and if you owned a newspaper, that was more important than accurate reporting.
So what is it really like to get caught in an avalanche? With Christmas just days away, I am reminded of an accident that happened way back in 1969. Whoa…stay with me…I know that for many of you 1969 might seem like the dark ages or ancient history, but for one lucky skier his words from 41 years ago remain true today. Here’s what happened. The first-person account for what its like to take a ride comes from Jim Hagemeier, a US Forest Service landscape architect. His story can be found in The Snowy Torrents, Vol. 2.
December 25, 1969
Christmas wishes had been answered when 2 feet of snow greeted skiers Christmas morning. On the upper mountain strong winds accompanied the new snow and created widespread soft slab conditions. The fresh snow and danger kept the ski patrol busy that morning with avalanche hazard reduction work. Small explosives produced some spectacular results, including one avalanche in Peak 8’s Horseshoe Bowl.
Jim Hagemeier enjoyed the morning powder, and after lunch he joined a friend who was the Forest Service Snow Ranger. The Ranger offered to take Hagemeier out to show some results from the morning’s mission.
One slide was especially impressive. Two hand charges had released a half-mile wide soft slab in Horseshoe Bowl. The fracture line ranged from 4 to 7 feet deep, and no doubt looked stunning when viewed from the lower mountain. No wonder ski patrollers and the Snow Ranger wanted check out their handiwork. A visit would also allow them to positively identify the weak layer, so they could keep hunting other potential monster slides.
At this point I’ll let Hagemeier tell some of the story. “Everyone put on his orange nylon avalanche cord [typically a 50-foot colored cord similar to parachute cord that one ties around his waist, if buried the idea is that the cord can be followed to the buried person], except me. Mine, unfortunately, was down at the car.” Not feeling good about the situation, Hagemeier followed his friend and two other patrollers out to the avalanche. There, below the 4-foot deep fracture line, they found another 3 feet of snow, most of which was weak, loose depth hoar. Hagemeier didn’t like the situation, and picks up his story.
“ I thought I should be going back and turned to look for a safe way out. About this time I heard a sharp sound, like a clap of thunder, similar to a charge [explosive] going off in the snow. …as I looked upslope I could see a new fracture line going across the top of the slope and the snow starting to move.” What happened next happens to many skiers and riders. Hagemeirer’s description is timeless, well except for his mention of “swimming” but I’ll save that for another blog. Hagemeirer continues his story.
“Since the big load was still above us, there was not an immediate movement of the snow under my skis. I immediately turned my skis downhill into a shuss, thinking that I could reach a rock outcropping and possibly out ski the slide. At this time I thought I was the only one caught in the slide.
“I had skied perhaps for a second or two when the major impact of the load above hit me, tossing me into the air and completely engulfing me. At this time I lost my poles and had a terrible feeling of panic. Several thoughts ran through my mind: first, I was a damn fool for coming there; and second, I fully realized the size of the slide and was certain that I would die.
“The feeling was of being dunked under water, as the impact took my breath away. For some reason, when I started to move with the slide, I could breathe much easier. I thought about the fact that I didn’t have an avalanche cord and that it was up to me to get myself out of there. My right leg was being bent behind me by the pressure on the ski, which then released. Neither of my arlberg straps had been taken off; I am not really certain that this was a hindrance to me, though this thought occurred to me as I was engulfed in the slide. As it was, I got a good belt on the shins from one of my skis.
“The sensation of speed was fantastic; I had put my skis into a shuss on a 30° slope and was engulfed immediately. I remember the speed increasing as I went down the slope. The ride was very rough, and I was being tossed around quite a bit. It seemed as though I was in a big flume of water, where I was occasionally able to get a breath of air; but most of the time I was overwhelmed by snow.
“Later, individuals asked me if I had a sensation of which way was up or down. I can truthfully say that I was aware of up and down, at least after the initial shock of the slide hit- ting me. Initially, when the full blast of the slide struck me, I had no idea which way was which. As I moved downhill faster, I was able to orientate myself fairly well with the movement of the snow.
“I worked myself into a sitting position, with my feet downhill, and tried to swim as if treading water. This seemed to work, and I instantly started to rise in the snow. I kept doing this as I sped down the hill and increased the swimming motion as the slide began to slow down a little. Actually, it was not a fast decrease; it was just going very fast, then it started to stop slowly.
“I swam until I could feel the slide coming to a stop. I was still buried at this time. How deep, I didn’t know, but it seemed deep! I pulled my arms in near to my head; at that minute the slide came to a rather abrupt halt, and I found my head and hands sticking up out of the snow. The snow was still moving very slightly, and I was able to work my body out to where I was sitting on the surface. I was able to pull my feet out and immediately release my arlberg straps.”
What a ride and what a story! The second avalanche broke out an area nearly the size of football field and swept up the four investigators. Two were partly buried and one completely buried. Fortunately, all the men survived, but their outcome was not clear. Let me add a little about avalanche cords before letting Hagemeirer finish his story.
Back in the days before transceivers, avalanche cords were the only companion rescue tool available. Though cords were widely used, they most often didn’t work as advertised. However, on Christmas Day one of the ski patrollers was very lucky. When the slide stopped, part of the patroller’s cord was visible on the snow surface. Hagemeirer followed it to find the man buried more than a foot down. This was the only time — in the US — that an avalanche cord saved someone’s life. In other accidents, cords were completely buried. Most often, the cord spooled around the buried victim.
Hagemeirer concluded his story by adding, “…I might say that it was probably the best Christmas gift I have ever had in my life to end up sitting on top of this slide.”
We hope that you also find some Christmas luck (and hopefully it will have nothing to do with avalanches).
Merry Christmas and happy holidays from RECCO.