National Geographic: Avalanche - The White Death (1999)

Some call it the "White Death"
and an ancient riddle asks,
what flies without wings,
strikes without hands
and sees without eyes?
Every year more than a million
avalanches fall world wide.
Avalanches are simply part of
our planet's natural order.
It is only when we get in their way
that tragedy strikes.
Utilizing unique methods,
we continue our quest
to better understand the dynamic
power of raging snow.
But the magic of
the mountains lures us...
more and more place themselves
in harm's way.
My machine just moved over me
and everything just started moving
and I just yelled.
I just screamed "Help me God."
My whole life's flashing
in front of my eyes.
You go to inhale and you were just
inhaling a mouthful of snow.
I was sure I was gonna die.
They're not to be trusted.
They're awesome terrible things.
They'll rip you to shreds.
They'll Maytag ya.
Something we need to
learn something about.
Annapurna in Nepal,
one of the most dangerous mountains
in the world.
October 15, 1997.
Brothers Jose Antonio
and Jesus Martinez Novas,
veteran mountain climbers from Spain
plan to ascend over 26,000 feet
to the summit.
Cameraman Allejandro Rocha
is to record their departure
from Camp 2
and then await their return.
Recent storms have left deep snow
on the mountain side.
It is slow going as the brothers
set off to establish Camp Three
some 3000 feet higher on the peak.
An hour after they begin to climb
they are just two tiny dots
on the face of the mountain...
as Allejandro shoots video
from the tent.
As he faces death.
Allejandro captures
a final self portrait.
But just as it reaches the tent,
the avalanche is spent.
Allejandro is astonished
to find himself alive,
but has little hope for his friends.
Are you alright?
Like specters they emerge from
the white eager to tell their tale.
The following day
the weather got worse
and they were driven off Annapurna.
Some 20 percent of the Earth's land
mass is crowned by mountains.
In the Andes, the Caucasus,
the Himalaya,
the Alps and the Rockies avalanches
exert their terrible power.
in the United States
from Vermont to Alaska.
And here deep in the back country
of Alaska...
Three experts are seeking to
photograph the perfect avalanche.
With cinematographer Steve Kroschel,
world renowned avalanche experts
Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston,
are here both to trigger
the snow slide
and ensure the safety
of Kroschel's film crew.
I realize the power of the avalanche
and I try to capture that on film.
I mean it really rouses people.
It stirs in all of us something.
I don't know, primeval.
It's very interesting.
But to get those images,
I must go down into these
dangerous zones
where the avalanche
is going to come down
and if I make a mistake,
if I'm wrong, it'll cost me my life.
So being with people
like Doug and Jill
who are experts
and know snow safety to a T.
That's what their main objective is
to make sure that
I don't get killed.
I'm aware of the lighting conditions
that he wants.
And I'm aware of the kind of
avalanche he'd like to have.
But sometimes I feel like
I have to do a little reality check.
Because there's exposure
from crevasse fields
that are in the run out zone,
that people could fall down
and have avalanche potential
if they're on adjoining slopes.
And so those are the things
that I'm looking at.
First and foremost I want to
make it a safe spot.
Can we go along this ridge to
this little peak
where that cornice is just
go right along so I can look out.
This is a good spot isn't it Doug?
Well it's good so far up there.
This kind of concerns me
all those seracs up above
as far as landing down there.
We'll have to take a look at that.
This is the peak right here.
That should rip out Doug.
I believe it will rip out.
Doesn't that look good to you?
I don't like it because
of the crevasses.
And some of the exposure to
some of these chunks of ice
up here coming off.
I don't think it's safe.
It takes several hours to find
the spot that satisfies everyone.
It looks like we could drop
charges right down
in that little pocket there
where the cornice is.
Doesn't that look good to you?
Lower 'em in there like
it's my unborn son.
One camera is positioned inside
a padded steel crash box
which is placed directly
in the path of the avalanche.
Timing is everything
in this mission.
The camera must begin shooting
when the avalanche is triggered
or it will all be for nothing.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.
Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.
Fourteen. Fifteen.
On your mark get set and go!
Steve positions himself behind
a second camera at a safe distance.
Second one out.
Okay keep going... keep going.
Several sticks of high explosives
will be used to
trigger the avalanche
Most avalanches are
naturally triggered,
when the weight of the snow exceeds
its ability to hold together.
And most of these occur far
from human eyes.
I think the usefulness
of seeing avalanches in motion
is that a lot of the people
that we deal
with in our avalanche workshops
have never seen an avalanche
in motion before.
But when they see
this thing in motion
and they see the power
that's associated
with an avalanche
it's a wake up alarm
Like the snowflakes
they are composed of
no two avalanches are alike.
Even very small avalanches can kill,
and the big ones are true monsters.
They can attain speeds of
over 200 miles per hour...
traveling a mile or more
on level ground.
No place in avalanche country
is entirely safe.
In 1988
the Austrian town of St. Anton
which had not experienced
an avalanche in over 60 years,
was struck just after dawn.
Houses which had stood for
almost 400 years
were destroyed in an instant.
Remote areas in less developed
countries are the hardest hit.
The greatest known avalanche
disaster took place in Peru
where an ice slide
decimated the town of Yungay,
killing 18,000 people.
They're awesome terrible things.
They'll rip you to shreds.
They'll Maytag you.
But they're also
beautiful to watch,
they're delicate,
they're graceful, they dance.
They're a double edged sword
in that sense.
They're not to be trusted.
Something we need to
learn something about.
In the western world most
avalanche victims place themselves
in the path of danger,
and see the mountains as
a playground beautiful and benign.
The interesting thing about
avalanche accidents is that
most of them
happen on nice blue sky days.
It's also very interesting to me
that roughly 95% of the people
who are caught in avalanches
are the ones
who triggered the avalanche.
And really the question isn't really
why is so and so getting caught,
it's why did they let themselves
get caught,
because there's so much knowledge
available today that nobody,
nobody needs to get caught
in an avalanche by accident.
The trap is set over
a period of time.
One snow flake is light
as a feather.
But the stealthy accumulation
of trillions can
form massive layers weighing
millions of pounds.
What triggers slides can only
be discovered
by digging into the snow pack.
Doug Fesler introduces
a group of students
to the deadly archeology
of a slab avalanche.
What kind of force
is it gonna take to rip it out?
That's all I really need to know.
First of all do I have a slab?
I'll start feeling here and
I feel resistance as I pull down.
It goes fairly hard to begin
with now it's starting to go going
a little easier.
A little more resistance again.
Right here a little bit easier.
Right through here is a crust layer.
Now it's very easy right in there.
Another shear plane possibly.
This is a nasty shear plane.
Look how this stuff just falls out
of here.
Shear planes allow colossal
avalanches to be set off
by the slightest disturbance.
We're corroborating the opinion
we have about the hardness
and weakness of
these various layers.
This stuff is so weak it...
just falls out.
Intermediate faceted snow.
The sugar snow.
More people have probably died
in the world as a result
of this weak layer than
any other weak layer there is.
These snow crystals can be
more dangerous than dynamite.
Fluctuations in temperature
cause some crystals
to lose cohesion
and become slippery.
These frozen ball bearings
allow everything above to slide.
Notice I have my hand ready
just in case.
Okay now we have a
free standing column.
Want to make sure the ski
is nice and vertical.
See how that came out just like
it's spring loaded?
By integrating all that
information together
there should be a picture flashing
in front of your mind.
And the picture is one of
the serious instability that exists
from a human triggered
point of view.
And so the message there is
to stay away
from steep leeward smooth slopes
because those are the ones that
are waiting to eat you.
What I want you to do is
on the count of three.
I want you to go. One. Two. Three.
Up in the air punch your heels
in real hard. Ready Banzai warriors?
One two three. Banzai!
An avalanche on the move
is a dynamic event,
a slab will rip out new slabs,
transforming, becoming ever larger,
and triggering billowing clouds
of powder.
Fortunately, nature can warn
of avalanches
with subtle sights and sounds.
But if you're hard blasting
a 130 horsepower vehicle
at 85 miles per hour,
it's unlikely that you'll hear
or see any of nature's warnings.
Snowmobiles can swiftly invade
the heart of avalanche country.
Riders enjoy jetting up
a steep incline as high as they can,
unwittingly teasing
a potential avalanche.
The game is called "high marking."
Whoever gets the highest wins.
These snowmobilers almost lost it
all one morning near Kellogg, Idaho
A friend videotaped the action as
a wall of snow came plunging down.
They would all escape unharmed
and spend the rest of the afternoon
tempting fate on other slopes.
But in January 1998,
three friends exhilarated by
a crisp clear day outside of Bend,
Oregon were not so lucky.
It was all virgin snow.
Everything was smooth and
just real billowy and soft looking.
And being the first one to make
the tracks is kind of a thrill.
That's where you really get your
adrenaline going
and just let the throttle do
what you can with the machine.
And we could get twenty or
thirty miles away
from anything and see country
see a lot of country in a day
that was nobody else was around.
The snow just looked like a big
a big pillow
it was just smooth
and soft looking.
When you got on it it would kind
of fall apart beneath you
because there was nothing holding
it from below.
Both Art and I looked at this
big clearing off to the right of us.
Art took a couple of stabs at
and I watched him go up the mountain
or go up the slope.
He must have gone up I don't know,
I'm guessing six seven eight times.
He came down and I decided to go up
and I got up on top and I got stuck.
At that point in time
I was pretty much stuck like this.
So I got off the low side of my sled
and pulled down on my front ski.
My machine just moved over me and
everything just started moving.
I was almost to the bottom getting
ready to turn around and go back up.
I just got a big push from behind
and snow dust everywhere.
And when the dust had gone down
enough I turned around.
The snowmobile
was buried to the seat
and my legs were
buried right along with it.
And I turned around
and I could see the ski
of Brian's snowmobile, but no Brian.
Buried alive, Brian has little more
than 30 minutes to live.
And when everything came to a stop
it just turned real dark.
My eyes couldn't focus on anything.
And I went into a
very frantic time frame.
After trying to get control
of the situation and just calm down,
I tried to move anything and
everything I possibly could.
I tried to move a finger
in my glove inside my glove
and I couldn't even do that.
And I ran up to where his
snowmobile was
and looked around
but I didn't see any sign of him.
It's about the most helpless feeling
you can have.
You know that there's somebody
that needs help
and you don't have any idea
where they are.
The snow was compressed
to my chin like this
I... I could move...
I felt my cheeks moving
and my eye, my eyelids.
I could only move my stomach inward.
I just screamed.
And after I calmed down
I just remember saying
"help me God."
And we kinda started digging just
with our hands within just a minute
we realized that that wasn't
getting us anywhere.
We could only dig maybe
a foot or two deep.
It was just gonna take too long.
So then I figured out
that I thought we needed a probe.
And I asked Mark if he had anything
and all he had was a saw.
So Mark took off with his saw to
find a stick or tree
or something that we could use.
When you try to search for
something you can move other
then your lips and your eyelid
you just surrender.
I just remember surrendering.
And I just kind of went to sleep.
I didn't know what else to do.
We were probing close to
the snowmobile
and started working up the hill,
and probably within 10 probes
I hit something that felt...
it had some elasticity, it wasn't,
it didn't feel solid.
And I told Mark I think I have him.
Brian was seconds from dying
of asphyxiation
not just from the lack of air
but from the extreme pressure
on his chest
Barely a few feet down, he might
as well have been cast in concrete.
They reached him just in time
and learned a lesson they are
eager to share.
In retrospect there were some signs.
And had we been as educated then
as we are now
about avalanches we probably
would have recognized them...
But the basic bottom line I think
is just
common sense and the awareness.
Being snow smart out
there carrying shovels and probes
and beepers is a big factor.
I would like to see the people
that are gonna go in the back
country get some basic survival gear
and some basic survival knowledge
and just try and be prepared for
some of the events that can happen.
Such events have been happening
for thousands of years
and no one has experienced a longer
or more grievous struggle
with the avalanche
than the stalwart people
of the Alps.
In the Great Saint Bernard Pass
sits a hospice founded
in the 11th century to aid
and protect weary travelers.
Today the hospice
still welcomes those
who come to visit the ancestral home
of the legendary Saint Bernard.
In earlier times,
both the monks and their dogs
quickly responded to travelers
in distress.
With their keen sense of smell
and massive strength,
nothing could stop
the noble Saint Bernard
from locating avalanche victims.
During the several centuries
that the Saint Bernards served
at the hospice
more than 2000 lives were saved.
But the legendary brandy keg
never actually hung around
the Saint Bernard's neck.
The tradition originated with
beginning with Sir Edwin Landseer.
The last thing a hypothermia victim
needs is brandy.
In World War I,
the Alps saw
a more sinister response
to the danger of the avalanche.
When Austrian and
Italian armies met here,
each side deliberately triggered
deadly snow slides upon the other.
An estimated 40,000 men were lost
in this lethal use of nature.
Avalanches are intentionally
triggered today...
but for
an entirely different reason.
Fire in the hole!
Artillery and explosives are used
in preemptive strikes,
releasing potential avalanches,
preparing the mountains
for another kind of invasion
Each morning before skiers
hit the slopes
the ski patrol hits them first,
to make them safe.
But for some a tamed mountain
is not a sufficient challenge.
Extreme skiers seek remote places
where the powder is fresh and alive.
In 1996, three of them were shooting
an adventure film
that almost ended in disaster.
Miraculously, they all survived.
Others filming the glory
of unbounded snow sports
have pushed the margin
of safety a little too far...
These experts escaped
with their lives
but near ski resorts,
those caught in unsafe
areas can find themselves
in trouble with the law.
Here in Loveland Colorado,
instead of going to jail
this avalanche
offender chose to be buried alive.
I'm kinda scared right now actually
to tell you the truth.
Buried beneath the snow for up
to half an hour,
he'll have plenty of time
to identify with avalanche victims
And retrieving him is great training
for the dogs.
Angel search. That's good.
Easily the furriest and friendliest
part of any rescue effort,
rescue dogs often arrive too late
to save lives
and end up being used
to recover bodies
Humans on the scene are usually
the only ones who can help in time.
Therefore avalanche safety schools
across the country teach
as many as possible the techniques
of rapid rescue.
Avalanche "victims"
are taught various
means of escape and survival,
such as using swimming motions
to stay on top of the slide
and creating a breathing space with
their hands before the snow hardens.
Radio beacons are a modern aid
to fast rescue.
A transmitter worn by a victim emits
a signal that others can home in on.
But the best defense remains
avoiding the avalanche altogether.
The danger is well known.
Warnings abound but sometimes
they are discounted or ignored.
On January 23, 1998,
a French Alpine guide broke
all the rules
as he led a group of teenage hikers
and their teachers
off of marked trails near Les Orres
in the Alps.
None of them were wearing beacons.
Some of the children slammed
into a grove of larch trees they had
just walked through.
Their bodies caught in branches
and wrapped around trunks.
More than 150 rescuers
combed the scene
in a heart breaking search
for survivors.
Yet it could have so
easily been avoided.
The group had discussed avalanches
and had even watched
a video illustrating the risks.
But when some of the children
questioned the wisdom
of hiking that day,
they were ignored.
The accident gripped the heart
of the nation.
Eleven died,
nine of them school children.
It was the worst avalanche disaster
to hit France in almost 30 years.
the Cascade Mountains of Washington,
disaster struck travelers who had
never expected to even touch snow.
Number 25, a Great Northern Railroad
passenger train
is followed by Number 27,
Great Northern's fast mail train.
Heavy winter storms
trigger avalanches
causing both to stop
just before the Cascade Tunnel.
On the following day
the tracks are finally cleared
and both trains
slowly steam through.
The trains are diverted
to a side track
outside the railroad town
of Wellington.
There they remain helpless.
Crews work to clear the tracks
but for each foot they clear
another falls
and the peaks above
are a looming white wall.
Without warning
an avalanche crashes down
from the mountains
destroying the cook shack
where passengers had eaten
the night before.
The tracks ahead and the tracks
behind are now completely blocked.
There is nowhere to go.
Five days pass.
Some passengers slog to Wellington
for food and comfort,
returning to the train to sleep.
A few risk the perilous trek
to the next town.
Everyone else remains.
Then on March 1st around 1:30 AM
the white death falls hard
from the mountain.
A slab a half mile long,
and twenty feet deep
surges over the tracks
Rescue workers follow trails of
blood in the snow to unearth bodies
Mothers, daughters, salesmen, sons,
lawyers, ranchers,
shepherds and miners crushed beyond
recognition in the frozen deluge.
The final toll is 96 dead,
with 22 survivors
This remains America's worst
avalanche disaster.
In Europe, the threat of
such tragedies has hovered over
Alpine residents for centuries.
Some homeowners fearing
what their ancestors
called the "avalanche beast"
have built barrier walls
for protection.
A 17th century church meets
the avalanche head on,
like a ship plowing through
a sea of snow.
One of the best protections
is the natural one.
Dense forests of trees can prevent
some avalanches
and slow others down.
Yet years of mindless deforestation
have left some towns hanging
on the edge of disaster.
Today as the slow process
of reforestation continues,
steel and concrete barriers do
the work of trees.
Although unsightly and expensive,
they offer some protection.
While the search for
better methods continues.
With their dense population
and mountainous landscape,
the islands of Japan are a
prime target for avalanche tragedy.
A devastating slide hit
near Niigata, in 1986.
It was one of the worst avalanches
to hit Japan since World War II.
This disastrous slide would provide
crucial data
for scientists in Japan.
Prompting Dr. Kouichi Nishimura
of the Institute
of Low Temperature Science
at Hokkaido University
to begin his research on avalanches.
A computer model shows just how
the tragic slide progressed.
Here in Sapporo at the sight
of the 1972 Olympics,
he recreates an avalanche
on a small scale
to increase his understanding
of the internal flow of snow.
Tracking individual particles
of snow
as they behave in an avalanche
is all but impossible.
Nishimura's inspired substitute
over 300,000 ping pong balls!
The behavior of the balls
will be fed into a computer
to learn more about how hard,
how far and how fast
an avalanche will run.
Dr. Nishimura hopes to
better predict
how and where it is safe to build.
In Juneau, Alaska,
that lesson has still to be learned.
As the city has expanded
into several avalanche paths,
Juneau is a disaster
waiting to happen
Just past 5 AM on March 22, 1962
above Behrends Ave
in the Highland district...
a fast moving avalanche raced down
Mt. Juneau
and smashed into
the neighborhood below.
Miraculously no one was hurt.
But there was
an immediate public outcry.
Yet none of this should have come
as a surprise.
Avalanches had fallen in the past
and Behrends Ave lies directly
in their path.
Studies were commissioned.
Plans were made,
but nothing happened.
Mayor Dennis Egan remembers...
The city and borough of Juneau
has spent
hundreds of thousands of dollars
doing avalanche research,
doing studies.
In fact what we did was list high
hazard areas right on the maps
so when folks see those
and go out to purchase a home
from someone else
and come into
our Planning Department,
they'll know that they'll be buying
a piece of property
that's in a high hazard area.
Now we tried to put language
in the deeds that
when the property was sold
and was refinanced through lending
that they were
in a high hazard area.
But the property owners
were violently
opposed to it as well as
the financial institutions
and it didn't pass.
In fact, we had talked about
a program to buy the properties back
and the folks were violently opposed
to that as well.
It's the place they want to stay,
it's the place they want to retire
and they don't want anybody
telling them what to do.
They know they're
in a hazardous zone
but they've come to accept it.
This summer I started in July
and I've now built this deck
and I'm working on this building
I'm building as I think of it.
I'm not
I don't have an exact plan but it,
I know what I want.
I want a hot tub right here.
I want to be able to see
that avalanche come and get me.
And I guess it's sort of
a King Lear thing,
uh blow ye winds and
rage ye hurricaneos.
I like the weather.
I love the weather. It's everywhere.
Apparently the risk of dying
in an avalanche
is less than that
from choking on meat
and I'm not a vegetarian
so you know,
it's just... whatever you do,
wherever you live,
I mean, people live in flood plains,
people live in mud zones,
people live in hurr...
I went to school is Sarasota Florida
where we waited for hurricanes
on a regular basis.
You know, there's no place on earth,
I don't think,
that is completely hazard free.
My friends they make jokes about it.
They call this Fort Liston.
And I get a charge out of it,
I think it's pretty funny.
And they say, well we know
you're going to be seeing
the avalanches coming down
and I say... Bring it on!
In 1972, a powder blast rocketed
straight into the center of Juneau.
Luckily by the time it hit town,
it's energy had already dissipated.
Many residents thought it was simply
a fast and furious local blizzard.
A look up should have been enough
for all to see the truth.
Experts say that it's not
a question of "if"
but "when"
the next disaster will happen.
While some choose to live
in danger zones
others must earn a living there.
One of the most incredible
survival stories
took place at the Bessie G mine
high in the La Plata mountains
of Colorado.
In November 1986, Lester Morlang
was working frantically
to build a snow shed
with his partner, mentor
and best friend Jack Ritter.
We knew this storm was coming
and we had to get this timber
in place before the storm came.
That was the whole purpose was
to keep that old east portal open
for our ventilation inside.
Because of winter weather,
the Bessie G had only been
worked three months a year.
But Jack Ritter, who knew more about
gold mining than just about anyone,
had figured out how to
operate her year round.
Yet this was the worst weather Jack
had seen in over a decade.
Two feet of snow had already fallen
and both men were
in a race with the storm.
Lester was in the bucket
of the skip loader
and Jack was handing him timbers
when everything
suddenly turned white.
When it initially hit
when I come out of the bucket.
I'm sure that was only a matter
of seconds before I landed.
And just naturally
you put your hands
in front of your face
in kind of ball up
because you don't know
what's happening to you.
But for the first few seconds,
my whole life's flashing
in front of my eyes.
And I'm seeing things
I could never remember normally.
I'm actually seeing things
like my son graduating from college
and you know I was sure
I was going to die right there.
Although the snow was
packed loosely around him,
Lester Morlang's odyssey
had just begun
When I come to of course
I had my hands
in front of my face
and everything was packed.
One of the first things I could do
was get the snow away from my face
because you go to inhale
and you were
just inhaling a mouthful of snow.
And then of course, I was screaming
for Jack, you know, I just,
screaming and crying
and everything at the same time.
I mean it's trying to
take your mind over.
Jack was already dead.
And now... buried only
a few feet from Lester,
the skip loader's diesel engine was
spewing deadly exhaust
into the snow.
I could feel the vibration
in the snow and I could hear it,
definitely hear it and I knew
to keep away from it
because I knew it would have been
a big pocket of gas.
For if I'd a dug into that loader
why that would have been it.
Lester knew where not to dig.
But which way was up?
And when I had my face free I was
kind of overlaying over on my side.
I had moisture from my mouth
and I could feel it running across
the corner of my eye.
So I knew I was laying kinda
of on my side, head down,
so I knew I wanted to start
the incline you know to get back up.
What Lester couldn't know
was that he would have to dig
through almost 30 feet of snow
fighting cold, claustrophobia
and a fear so intense,
it sickened him.
Several times I would go
into convulsions and I did throw up.
It seemed like every half hour,
why you'd have the dry heaves
and some convulsions
kind of like attacking you.
I wasn't thirsty at first
I knew not to
try and eat the snow
but my mouth was drying out
and everything and I'd take
a little bit of snow in my mouth,
just to wet my lips,
and spit it back out.
Every second. Every hour.
Every minute there's something
there wanting you
to lose control of your senses.
And you know I'm thinking
about my family
and the position
I'd be leaving them in
and a couple of times
I almost thought
my wife was right there with me
because I could smell her perfume,
it was just as distinct as...
I know it was there.
I could smell her and it
and that was good
because that kind of
gave me some strength
to know that I was,
somebody was thinking about me.
Many people were thinking about him.
Word of the missing miners reached
Sheriff Bill Gardner.
As soon as I heard
I knew that this was the real thing.
I can't describe the feeling.
It... My heart sunk.
My stomach turned and
literally chills went up my spine
because I knew
what we were up against
This was a significant winter storm.
We had snow of at
least two inches an hour.
We knew that we had winds of
in excess of 50 miles an hour.
And we knew that the site
was totally isolated.
That the only way to the site
was either by air,
or through a canyon that
was literally avalanche alley.
Avalanche safety expert Chris George
was brought in to bomb the area,
clearing it of potential avalanches,
making it safe for the rescue team.
The road into the Bessie G up
the La Plata canyon was already
a serious hazard
I mean just driving that road.
Just because one avalanche runs
doesn't mean to say
that everything else is secured.
You know you'll have one or
two people trapped somewhere.
You send another 40 people in there.
It's not secure.
It's something we have to do.
After almost 22 hours of digging,
Lester finally inched closer
to freedom
I could tell I was seeing
a little bit of light
and so I was about,
maybe two feet under
and of course
the adrenaline started pumping then
and I just started digging
and beating and jumping
and I can remember just breaking out
and just screaming
Thank God, you know, I just,
I made it.
I can't believe, I made it...
and then, to get out
in a freezing storm, snowing,
blowing, that's when I got cold.
Bitterly disappointed
with no rescue in sight,
Lester was forced to return
to his snow tunnel for warmth.
He attempted to settle
in for the night.
I tried to go to sleep
and wake up real quick
and think I was in bed
and had a bad dream.
But a very sad thing when
I did wake up,
I was still in the cave.
Then another avalanche hit,
burying Lester for a second time.
To hear that crack and
that sliding sound
and I just assumed it
was gonna squash me like a bug
in my little hole there.
Luckily it just slid over the top.
Morning came I knew I'm gonna get
started as early as I can.
I'm gonna dig my out again.
So it was about six.
I started digging my way out.
Course I only had a couple
three feet of snow to go through.
and I got out. I just started...
the only direction
I could move was down.
Finally in mid morning
the winds abated enough.
We sent in Chris George to do
our first aerial surveillance
of the accident site.
And we flew by the east portal
looking for tracks.
There was no indication
of where that portal was,
it was just
one smooth angle of snow.
I had absolutely no idea
that Lester had gotten out
and was at the foot of
the mountain which is quite
a desperate descent under
any circumstances.
I'll never forget that
helicopter flying
approximately the same elevation
that I was, but they were looking,
I could look in and see them
and they were looking up
at the avalanche,
of course, they didn't expect me,
where I was and then,
yeah it made me mad,
I was, I was mad.
They just flew past me.
I could almost I thought
I felt prop wash they were so close.
This must have been
a half hour later.
I heard the thunder or
what I thought was thunder
and then I realized
they were dropping bombs
on the slope to secure the slope
for the rescuers.
So I knew I had to get out of there.
I finally got up
and got behind a tree
and it wasn't 15 minutes,
I could hear the roar.
It was louder than any
thunder you've ever heard.
If the first two didn't get him,
the third avalanche certainly
Lester was almost to Junction Creek
when he heard the sound
of the helicopter overhead.
This time they saw him.
He was flown 10 minutes away
to Mercy Medical Center
where he was treated
for severe frostbite.
They wanted to cut off several
fingers but Lester held on.
With physical therapy and
personal strength,
his fingers remain.
I can't express the mixture
of joy and wonder
that someone survived this.
I mean veteran mountaineers
and search and rescue people
were looking at each other.
People were hugging each other.
And we were going
we can't believe this is true.
I have read hundreds of reports
of avalanches.
I've been teaching snow safety
for 35 years.
I've been in mountains, you know
for 40 odd years.
To me it's one of the greatest
survival stories I've ever heard of.
It's good for me because it gave me
a new outlook and I,
I'm a lot tougher than I was
and I appreciate things
a lot more than I did.
Like a nice warm house
and a loving family.
I'm rich, I didn't need to extract
all the gold out
of this mine to get rich.
I know now what rich is
and I'm rich.
Experience teaches
when we pay attention.
Wisdom arrives after we learn.
Winter will always come.
Snow will always fall.
All things obey the law of gravity.
In the mountains,
ignorance and arrogance can place us
in harm's way.
We have a choice.
But if we remain unaware
and the mountains continue
to lure us,
the white death will strike again...
and again.