Close call: Sled-recovery outing turns into frantic avalanche rescue

by • January 17, 2016 • UncategorizedComments (0)275

BY JOY SULLIVAN AND BEN ANDERSON

It was an overcast day, but flat light is rarely a good enough deterrent for diehard snowmachiners. Paul Croft and his three buddies set out to make the most of it. They knew the riding area well, and were frequent visitors to Summit’s playground. They made their way to the Tit, a popular riding spot thanks to the annual Arctic Man festivities.

Courtesy Ben Anderson The team continues to free Paul Croft little by little, after he was buried for more than 20 minutes by an avalanche. Miraculously, he survived.

Courtesy Ben Anderson
The team continues to free Paul Croft little by little, after he was buried for more than 20 minutes by an avalanche. Miraculously, he survived.

At the base of a hillside there was a small jump, and Paul decided to make a few lines. After two runs, he hit the jump at the bottom seperating him from his sled. Before he even knew what hit him, the hillside broke loose above him sending a flood of snow downward. Even though he was at the base of the hillside, he didn’t have time to react and was burried alive.

Many a snowmachiner has nightmares about this, and Paul was experiencing it firsthand. At first it took everything he had to just stay calm and concentrate on shallow breathing. He was cemented in, unable to move, which made it very difficult for him not to go in full panic mode. He doesn’t even know how long he was encased, when he blacked out. He was told by his rescuers that when they uncovered him he began breathing on his own, but he has no recollection. He regained consciousness somewhere in the process of them digging him out. Even after he was freed from what he had feared would be his snowy grave he found standing or walking difficult. When asked what he wanted people to take away from his story he couldn’t emphasize preparedness and safety enough.

Out of four riders in his group that day, only two had beacons, and although his was on, in the panic to find him his friends didn’t use the technology to locate him. Paul wants people to understand that having the gear isn’t enough: The knowledge and skill to use it is key. It is estimated that Paul was burried for more than 20 minutes, and he is lucky to have survived. He wants his story shared so that others don’t make the same mistakes he and his friends made that Sunday in November.

There were good Samaritans on the mountain that day who were able to save his life. Ben Anderson is one of them.

“What was an adventure in to recover a broken sled turned into helping save a man buried alive in an avalanche,” Anderson said. “My story starts when my friend, Darin Nachtrieb, asked me if I wanted to help get a snowmachine out of the mountains near Summit Lake. He said it was out on the glacier, and I am always down for a sled recovery. I love riding in the mountains even if it’s bitter cold, and believe me it was. I’ve had to drag a couple of broken sleds out of the mountains and if I could help someone get theirs out, I’m game.

“We packed up our gear and headed out to meet up with the guy whose sled needed rescuing. We met up with a group that was already in the process of getting the sled out. They had already pulled the sled across the glacier and to the first hill, and we just needed to pull it up. We were there for about 10 minutes when a snowmachine rolled up. The rider said he needed help finding his friend who was buried in an avalanche.

Courtesy Ben Anderson Unearthing Paul Croft’s sled was less stressful than racing the clock trying to rescue Croft himself.

Courtesy Ben Anderson
Unearthing Paul Croft’s sled was less stressful than racing the clock trying to rescue Croft himself.

“I couldn’t believe it at first, then I realized that he was serious and we didn’t have much time. I pulled on my gear and headed up the glacier. We ran up what felt like forever, reaching an avalanche field about 120 feet long, 60 feet wide and 25 feet deep. They were already probing for him when we got there. They said, ‘Paul’s been buried for about 20 minutes.’ I asked if he had a beacon on him and they didn’t think so. I didn’t have any way to probe because I had neglected to pack mine, so I asked where  the last place was they had seen him and began digging there.

“About a minute later someone yelled that they had found him with their probe. I ran over there and started digging like crazy. Within a couple minutes we had dug down 7 feet to the top of Paul’s helmet. I took off his goggles, he was blinking but his breaths were ragged. I kept clearing snow from around his face while everyone else dug out around his chest so he could breathe better.

“We asked him some questions and he answered back so I knew he was going to be OK. Paul was able to walk out with a little help and able to walk around in a couple minutes. We dug the sled out and drove it out of the hole. Much to our surprise after the harrowing encounter he had been through, Paul was able to ride out on his own.

“If it wasn’t for everyone coming together, and quick reaction to the situation, I don’t think Paul would be here. It’s an experience no one ever wants to go through, and I learned a lot from it. I was unprepared, although you can never fully prepare yourself for something like that. There are definite steps to take to make sure you have the tools and mindset to save a life. Anyone who rides in the mountains needs to have avalanche awareness, get educated on how to protect yourself and others and to the best of your ability ensure you are prepared in the backcountry. We’re all out there to have fun. Ride safe.”

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