‘I’m lucky to be alive’ Avalanche victim shares story of survival

Published: Mar. 30, 2017 at 9:45 PM AKDT
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An Anchorage man says he’s lucky to be alive after he was rescued from a large avalanche in the Turnagain Pass area earlier this year.

James Stevens and a group of his friends travelled by snowmachine to an area near Seattle Ridge where they planned to go snowboarding on the sunny afternoon of Feb. 3. According to an incident report by the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center, avalanche danger on that day was listed as “moderate.”

While the group was stopped at a safe area under the ridge, Stevens decided to ride his snowmachine up a steep northeast facing slope known as the Headwall. Lifelong friend Aaron Ulmer decided to stay behind and watch his friend go up.

“I went back to the guys, told them what my plan was and then headed out there,” Stevens told Channel 2. “They were dealing with some other stuff being stuck.”

After reaching the top of the slope, Stevens turned his snowmachine around and began to head back down. That’s when he heard a sudden loud crack as a large crown propagated just a few feet above him.

“Once I got to the top, everything seemed safe. I wanted to get back around and check on the guys,” Stevens said. “So I turned around at the top and as soon as I came down everything broke.”

Ulmer, watching from afar, said he saw the whole thing happen.

“All of a sudden, as he’s on his way down you just see this blast from the crown when it breaks and the whole face just propagates with him in the middle of it,” Ulmer said. “Within seconds we realized that this is not a light, small slab. It’s a massive slide.”

At first, Stevens said he pinned the throttle and tried to outrun the avalanche, but he lost control after hitting some rocks and was forced to ditch the snowmachine. To make matters worse, his airbag failed to deploy and he had to “swim” as hard as he could to stay at the surface.

“It was like whitewater rafting,” said Stevens. “All this snow was breaching over rocks and cascading down over the exposures.”

By the time the avalanche finally slowed, Stevens was almost completely buried, and he felt the snow begin to compress his body like thick concrete. The greatest challenge was fighting the urge to panic, he said.

“I couldn't breathe. I had all this pressure around my rib cage and around my whole body. I could only take these small shallow breaths,” he said. “What was going through my head was that I'm going to die.”

Ulmer and the rest of the group --all equipped with probes, beacons and shovels-- immediately began a frantic search for their friend. They were soon joined by another man from a different party who was the first to find Stevens’ hand sticking out of the snow.

“I was slipping away and going unconscious and all of a sudden someone squeezes my hand and he’s like ‘Are you alive?’” Stevens said. “I barely could just give him a little bit of a squeeze and then he yells to Aaron.”

The rescuers worked quickly to unbury Stevens, first freeing his chest and allowing him to breath. Ulmer, who says he’s lost close friends to avalanches in the past, said the relief was indescribable. Aside from a couple bruises, Stevens escaped unscathed.

“We were all so relieved that we was just okay and he was healthy and that we weren't having to call for a heli to come and tow him out of there,” Ulmer said.

While Stevens and Ulmer say they’re not done with exploring the backcountry just yet, they’re nervous about returning after such a close call. Ulmer says he actually sold his snowmachine shortly after the ordeal.

“I’m a firm believer of if you fall off a horse you get back on it. But I haven’t gotten back on it yet,” Stevens laughed. “I’m no stranger to danger, that’s definitely in my blood. But no, I’m not going to get on it any time soon.”