I Survived a Complete Avalanche Burial

January 29th, 2020

by Jeff Turner

January 27th is just like any other day for many. For me, it marks the anniversary of the day that my life was spared, and I survived a complete avalanche burial. 

I recently attended the funeral of my friend’s teenage son, who’s life ended suddenly when he triggered an avalanche while snowmobiling in the Wasatch mountains. As I waited for the service to begin, I looked around the chapel and overflow and was overwhelmed by the number of people who were there to celebrate the short life of this young man and to mourn his death. I sat and pondered the number of lives that would be impacted by this tragic event and how it could have been prevented. 

I then felt compelled with the need to share my story, not to bring attention to myself, but with the sincere hope that my experience can be used as an example to help educate others who recreate in the backcountry in the winter, so that they can avoid the pain and sorrow that I was witnessing on that funeral day. 

As the wise quote states, “Learn from example, don’t be the example”.

January 27, 2016 
Winter had gotten off to a slow start and the Northern UT snowpack was well below average. The areas where we typically ride; Franklin Basin, Providence Canyon and Monte Cristo, were all in need of more snow. I read on a FB thread that some backcountry riders found decent snow above Timber Lakes near Heber City, so my brother and I made a plan to visit this area and explore a bit. 

We unloaded the sleds at the trail-head near the Heber Valley Camp and followed that trail up the canyon, working our way South, towards Roundy Basin. We found some slopes to climb and play on which had been ridden pretty heavily and tracked out, but a recent storm had covered the tracks with about 6” of snow, so it was just OK riding. We made our way up to the ridge where we discovered that the recent winds had scrubbed it mostly clean and deposited a fair amount of snow on the Southeast side of the ridge. Note this detail for later.

We dropped off the ridge and played in the basin for a while, then decided to head towards Currant Creek Peak to explore the area more. We found an opening in the trees that looked promising and so we picked lines down the slope until the terrain opened to a clearing that seemed like a great spot to break for lunch. 

After lunch, we dropped into a basin which had a grove of trees in the bottom, surrounded by moderate slopes of untracked snow. We turned off the machines to chat a bit and eyed a slope that I wanted to make a run at climbing. This slope faced Southeast and had some scattered vegetation and evidence of wind drifting. There was some exposed rock about 1/3 of the way up the slope and I told my brother that I was going to “test” the slope by just looping around that rock on a first pass. 

I fired up my sled and proceeded up the slope and didn’t even make it to the rock before hitting soft snow and the track started to trench in. I slid off the side on my machine and grabbed the rear bumper to hop the track to one side, planning to throttle out sideways and abort the climb.

As I tugged on the bumper, the snow under me started to move downhill and as I lost my footing and fell into the snow, I pushed the sled away from me. The last thing that I recall seeing was the snowflap on the rear of the sled, before everything went dark. A roar filled my ears and I was overcome by an immense pressure that enveloped my entire body. I could feel the sensation of movement and tried to kick and pull myself free but was unable to move my limbs. The mass of snow that was carrying me away was moving like a liquid, but in solid form. 

As sudden as it had started the movement stopped, the roar was gone, replaced by the sound of my adrenaline-fueled panic breathing. My heart and mind raced as I exerted all my physical strength in the attempt to break free of this icy tomb. It was useless, I was trapped with no way to free myself. 

My thoughts turned to my wife and children, how they would react when they heard the news of my death, what their future would be like without me, what challenges would they face, their sorrow…….I then thought of my father and grandparents who had passed on, how soon before I would see their faces again? I wasn’t ready, NOT YET!

I fought to clear my mind and focus on the present. My brother had watched me ride up the slope and would now be searching for me. If I was going to survive, I needed to buy some time,and knowing that my oxygen supply was limited to what was in the snow around me, I became keenly focused on slowing my breathing. The pressure of the snow restricted me from taking a full breath and I had no idea how deep I was buried or which direction I was facing or if I was injured or how long I had been under. 

I performed a quick health assessment. I felt no pain, only the overwhelming pressure of the snowpack. I tried to move my legs and found that I could only move my toes inside my boots. The movement of my head was restricted to the slight rotation of my neck inside for my helmet. The wave of panic started again as I couldn’t move my arms or hands……..wait, I felt movement with the fingertips of my right hand!! 

My mind raced…..if I can move my fingertips, I might be able to wiggle enough snow away to free my hand, then my forearm, and then gain enough movement to start digging myself free. My will to survive was strong, but I knew that the clock was ticking on my oxygen supply. 

I bent my exposed fingers down and began flipping snow away from my hand. I slowly gained movement in my wrist and began to perform a sweeping motion with my hand to clear away more snow. I was surprised at how densely packed the slide was, but then I thought of the snow what would build up in the winter on the tin roof of the barn on our ranch and how it would randomly slide off and pile up on the ground, packed solid as soon as it stopped moving. 

I prayed for God to help my brother find me; for me to survive and be reunited with my earthly family, all the while flipping away the snow with my hand.

My mind fought against the reality that at this rate, I would run out of oxygen before I could uncover my head. My thoughts again went to my family and their future without me….but was jolted back to the present as I felt a hand grab my exposed hand! I began to weep with joy, as I was filled with assurance that I was going to survive!

My brother watched the avalanche break, saw me holding onto the rear of the sled, watched the slide roll me and the sled as it churned downhill; then disappear. The slide moved into the basin towards where he was parked, my sled being carried along near the leading edge of the slide. 

The slide came to rest, then a 2nd larger avalanche broke free at the ridge and ran into the basin on a more westerly path, away from the 1st slide that I was trapped in.  
Several minutes passed by before all the snow stopped moving and my brother began frantically scanning the rubble from his safe vantage point, searching for any signs of my location. The surface of the slide was strewn with blocks of snow that ranged in size from a toaster to a refrigerator.
He noticed movement that appeared like snow settling, but then noticed a dusting of snow being repeatedly flipped from behind a block. Moving through knee-deep snow, he struggled to reach the slide, then scrambled through the debris to where he had last seen movement. He saw the snow flip again and rolling away a block, observed my gloved hand, sweeping snow around on the surface! 

He gripped my hand tightly and I pulsed my grip back, as if to somehow indicate that I was OK. He began to frantically dig with his hands to clear the snow away from my arm. With my forearm free, he worked his way down towards my shoulder and I tried as I could to help, by sweeping loose snow away with my forearm and hand. I could hear the snow moving as he would dig and then it would stop, then he would dig some more. 
At this point, I became somewhat aware of my orientation in the slide, I was lying on my left side with my head downhill, my left arm pinned across my chest and my right arm had been raised skyward. The pressure on my right shoulder and chest were decreasing a bit as the muffled sound of digging became clearer; the darkness was slowly replaced with an orange glow as daylight reached my fogged goggles. I will never forget how amazing it was to taste fresh air!! 

With the face of my helmet clear, but my breathing still shallow and labored, my brother scrambled back to his sled to retrieve his shovel. Upon return, he quickly worked to free my head and chest, then removed my helmet and took a much-needed break.
We both sat there, me in a 4-foot-deep hole with my lower torso still buried in the slide, sucking in the cold mountain air and mentally absorbing the event that had just occurred. I had a raging headache, the byproduct of oxygen deprivation from breathing in expelled carbon dioxide. We estimate my burial time somewhere between 12-15 minutes.

My brother shoveled out the rest of my body and I climbed out to sit on the edge of the hole. I was compelled to say a prayer, giving thanks for this second chance at life that I had been blessed with, for the heroic efforts of my brother and for the angels that I feel had a hand in the outcome of this event. 

It took some time to uncover my sled and get it to fire. My mind was beginning to clear and knowing the gravity of what had occurred, I felt the need to take some pictures of the slide and document the event. I had only recently been introduced to the Utah Avalanche Center and thought that having photos might be of value. We snapped a few photos and then slowly worked our way back toward the trailhead. 

I’ll leave the details of the rest of the day for another time. Let’s jump to what can be learned from this event.

Surviving this burial fueled my desire to learn as much as I could about the science behind avalanches and how to prevent myself, my family and my friends from ever having to experience what my brother and I did that day on the mountain, or worse.
In the days and weeks that followed, I uploaded my pictures and avalanche report on the Utah Avalanche Center website, I downloaded their app on my phone so that I could get daily alerts on the snow conditions throughout the state and specific details on the areas where I frequently ride. I read everything that I could find about identifying snow conditions, wind patterns, terrain types most prone to avalanche, snow pits, route planning, safe slope crossing, safety equipment, etc.

I purchased a beacon, probe and a backpack that would also hold a shovel. My brother, who is my frequent riding partner, was outfitted with the same. We also added radios for better communication. I took a course on how to properly use the beacon and practiced bracketing location techniques and probing skills. 

Some key points that I learned is that human body is 3 times denser than avalanche debris and will sink quickly. Once the avalanche stops, it settles like concrete. 

Avalanches are caused by four factors: a steep slope, snow cover, a weak layer in the snow cover, and a trigger. 

The vast majority of avalanches (90%) occur on slopes with angles between 30 and 45 degrees. Steeper slopes tend to continually slough snow, keeping a deep snowpack from building up.

If completely buried in a North American avalanche, a victim has a 79% survival rate if they are found and extricated within 5 minutes, but only a 40% survival rate after 15 minutes. Survival rates quickly drop off to zero if the rescue time stretches to 30 minutes. 

Asphyxia accounts for more than 75% of avalanche deaths, caused by inhaled debris blocking the airway; exhaled water vapor that freezes, forming an ice mask around the victim’s face; or oxygen depravation from rebreathing expired air.

I came to the realization that the slope where I had triggered the avalanche was home to a sleeping monster. Faceted snow conditions at the base, top-loaded drift snow from the previous Northern winds and 30-45 degree slope angle. Combined conditions that should have been avoided.

Looking back on some of the terrain that I’d traveled, I was surprised that I hadn’t triggered an avalanche before, because I had unknowingly taken many risks.

I had been operating in the backcountry for 35 years on pure luck and ignorance.

Proper safety gear (beacon, probe, shovel,) and the training on how to use them should be a minimum requirement and riding alone should be avoided. 

Even more important, is the knowledge of daily snow conditions available in the Utah Avalanche Center reports. https://utahavalanchecenter.org/

No amount of safety gear, including airbags, will keep you out of harm’s way like using the UAC Daily Snow Condition Forecast as your guide on the snow conditions and terrain aspects which are safe to ride. UAC produces daily forecasts for the mountains of Logan, Ogden, Salt Lake, Provo, Uintas, Skyline, Moab, Abajos. These reports are available at your fingertips via the UAC app on your smartphone. Their KnowBeforeYouGo program is loaded with information to keep you safe in the backcountry.

I have my own beliefs as to why I survived the burial. We were riding that day without beacons or probes. Why was my right arm stretched skyward, placing my hand at the surface? If 6” lower, I wouldn’t have been unable to move it and my brother would have had no idea where I was buried. That slide could have been my grave.
With proper training, my burial could have been avoided. 

I am eternally grateful for my brother’s heroic efforts, for the grace of God and the angels that watch over us.

Respect the mountain, my friends, as it holds no respect for you.