By Debra McGhan
Buried under more than six feet of snow, Jeremy Hanke could do nothing more than contemplate his life.
“I was twisted up like a pretzel and couldn’t move my little finger,” he said.
A day of riding and filming had suddenly turned into a real-life horror show.
Hanke lay there thinking about everything that had brought him to that moment. He pictured his mother, his father and his friends.
“What you think about down there is not so much about your life as what those people you love are going to feel once you’re gone, the pain that you have caused them is heart breaking.”
Hanke knows he was not an easy person to love.
“I was a tough kid and hard to handle at 15,” he recalled. He ended up leaving home determined to set the world on fire.
“I admit, I was pretty much out of control and going the wrong direction.”
Hanke was convinced that the only thing that saved him from himself was a friend giving him a snowboard.
“That board got me out into the mountains where I could really live for the first time,” he said. “I channeled all my energy through snowboarding and was never happier than when I was riding the mountains.”
Then in 1999 he bought his first snowmachine with the idea he would use it to get into the mountains to ride his board. Instead he fell in love with sledding, and put the board away, pouring his talent and energy into his sledding.
“I discovered I could get an even bigger thrill from riding my sled so I got into the adventure that sledding offers. I started riding with some of the top riders out there. Plus I had a great job in the oil industry making lots of money. Life was grand.”
At least, life was grand until that moment in 2004, the day he got buried – the day he thought he was going to break his family and friend’s hearts, the day he thought he was going to die.
“I’d been out drinking and partying that night like I always did in those days, so I was hung over and late showing up for the film shoot that day,” Hanke said. “I had to make this super long, fast, bumpy ride to the location to catch up to everyone, and when I get up on this ridge, I stepped off my sled and the first thing I noticed is the snow was rock hard and windswept, bullet-proof.
“So I’m standing there and I look across and see my friends standing on top of this 90-foot cliff and I’m thinking, ‘What the hell…? Are they planning to launch off that?’ So I work my way over to where they are and when I step off my sled I sink up to my waist. It’s all wind loaded and super deep.”
Hanke said no one really talked about the conditions, but they seemed to understand the snow was very unstable. Talking with the rider who would be doing the jump, they discussed the avalanche hazard but felt like if it did slide, the pocket that was going to let go would not be that large. There were others filming from a safe place so the choice was made for Hanke to drag behind the sled to slow it down on the in-run.
As they started the descent into the drop, Hanke remembers feeling how unstable the snow was under him and telling his friend he didn’t like it at all. His friends agreed so Hanke let him go. Moments later his friend launched off a lip, hit the slope and crashed unleashing a small avalanche. He tumbled down the slope in the small slide and came to rest near the bottom of the slope.
“When he came to a stop his sled was pretty jacked up. Parts where hanging off the machine,” Hanke said. “So me and some of the other guys ride over to help.
“At that time our riding group had about 70 years of combined experience in the mountains,” Hanke explained. “We had all the rescue gear and we were prepared.”
He says he thinks his story is important because it was the classic, ‘if anything can go wrong or be done wrong,’ it happened that day.
“So a couple of us go to help out our buddy and we park our sleds pointing downhill but one other guy, who can’t really ride that well, circled around in front and blocked our sleds. Then two other guys came along that weren’t with our group and instead of taking the path of least resistance and going around, they climbed right above us with two people on the slope and triggered a large avalanche.”
“We are working on fixing the sled, when my friend starts yelling ‘Go! Go! Go. Take me! Take me! I look behind me and see this monster 60-foot wave of snow coming for me. As I turned around and hit the throttle, my friend jumped on the front of my sled. I thought we were going to be able to out run it. And then I saw my buddies, the two guys I trust the most, being swept up in this enormous cloud.”
“I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to fight this and I have to get away from my sled or it will crush me’ so I push off and fly over the handle bars and try to swim. I was flipping all over and thought about an article I’d read that said how important it is to make an air pocket so I tried to put my hands up around my face as the snow slowed down and stopped.
“Then I realized, I was alive but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even tell which way was up. All I could do was wait and think about my life.”
While he thought about his family, Hanke strained to listen but it was deathly quiet.
“I’m thinking, this is it. I’m going to die like this. But then I heard all this commotion and realized someone was searching and digging in the snow. My heart started pumping hard, and I was trying to stay calm and wait but I wanted to scream out to let them know I was here and I was alive.” Instead he focused on breathing slowly and waiting. And then it got quiet again. They had moved on. Help was not coming.
“At that point I think I just gave up and went to sleep.”
The next thing Hanke remembers was someone wiping snow out of his mouth, pulling his tongue out of the back of his throat and hitting him on the chest.
“I survived that day, but it changed me. One of the other guys that climbed above us didn’t make it. That has always weighed heavy on me.”
It wasn’t long before Hanke realized he couldn’t live without the mountains so he bought another sled.
“I went out to ride but I was scared. I couldn’t concentrate and I had trouble remembering things. Eventually, through a chance meeting, I got involved with the Canadian Avalanche Association and started to share my story in hopes that it would help others to not make the same mistakes that we made that day.
“And I realized these were lessons I wanted and needed to share with other people. I wanted to go a new direction with my life.”
Hanke and another avalanche survivor worked with the Canadian Avalanche Center to create ‘Throttle Decisions,’ a snowmobile avalanche education video series, and he started a company called ‘Soul Rides,’ to teach people safe-riding techniques for snowmobilers.
“I want people to know that you can get out and experience everything amazing the mountains have to offer but you have to learn some basic rules for avalanche terrain. These rules can really go a long way to keeping you and your friends safe out there.”
NOTE: Throttle Decisions is free thanks to a SARNIFF grant, the Canadian Avalanche Center, FD Productions and Soul Rides. Learn more at Alaskasnow.org or visit UrockSafety.com.
Throttle decisions; Make the choices that may save your life Next Post:
The Q&A: Patrick Nephew rider profile