Snow-How

How one skier survived 48 hours in a blinding blizzard

illustration of skier on slopes

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Tests of survival are almost always surprise quizzes with multiple-choice questions. Alan Austin knows that as well as anyone. What Austin, a Palo Alto attorney, thought would be a simple ski run down a Squaw Valley slope in 1994 turned into a two-day ordeal that could have killed him if he hadn't opted for the right answers. "I certainly didn't make all the correct decisions, but I suppose I made enough of them," he says.

Austin’s adventure began on a snowy day in early December. His family and friends had packed up their skis for the day, but he decided to take one last run by himself in the fading light of the late afternoon. Austin, then 45, took a lift up KT-22, a peak he had skied down many times before. But when the lift deposited him at the top, he found the weather conditions more severe than they had been at the bottom. A blizzard was howling, and he could barely see his hand in front of his face due to high winds that turned everything into a swirl of snow and drove the windchill factor below zero. He decided to take the easiest route down, a trail called the Saddle. In order to reach the trail, he had to ski along the ridge of the mountain—a difficult task with limited visibility.

"I don’t know how it happened, but I skied along that ridge and got down on the wrong side of it," Austin says.

His anxiety rose when he encountered what skiers call "flat light," a condition in which visibility is not only limited but oddly distorted. "There were no shadows, no definition to anything," he says. "I had no depth perception. It was like the entire world had gone white."

With his sight hampered, Austin skied directly into a deep snowdrift, much the way someone walks into a glass door that appears to be open. While digging himself out, he lost a ski pole. "But that probably was the luckiest thing that could have happened to me," he says, "because it made me just stop. Up to that point I was just getting more and more frantic and panicky. But losing the pole made me settle down and start thinking, How do I get control of this situation?"

He was faced with one of those multiple-choice questions. Should he: a) keep skiing despite the blizzard and hope to reach civilization; b) wait for the blizzard to relent and then try to find his way back; or c) stay where he was and wait for rescuers to find him? He settled on "c," which is almost always the right answer.

"It’s harder for searchers to find a moving target," says Bob Cushman, director of Squaw Valley’s Ski Patrol. "Also, by continuing to move, the person risks getting injured or getting into even more treacherous conditions."

Having decided to settle in and wait, Austin built a crude cave, burrowing into the snow near a tree to shelter himself from the winds. He lined the floor of the cave with tree branches and pine needles to avoid lying on the snow, which would have quickly drained his body heat. As night fell, another choice arose: Should he try to rest in order to keep his strength up, or should he stay awake through the night? He stayed awake, again the right choice. The body’s metabolism slows during sleep, which would have allowed the weather to drain his body heat even faster. He spent the night doing small exercises, flexing his fingers and toes repeatedly to reduce the likelihood of severe frostbite.

The night passed, and then another, and the psychological aspect of his ordeal came into the foreground. "Your frame of mind is so important in a situation like that," Austin says. "If you don’t truly believe that you’re going to make it, you’re probably not." He stayed optimistic, buoyed by the knowledge that he was in excellent physical condition and by the hope of seeing his family and friends again. "I would be curled up in my cave thinking about the agony I was putting my family and friends through," he says. "The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the only way to make it up to them was to survive. I owed it to them, and that helped keep me going." But Austin, who had no food, knew that eventually his mental strength would be overcome by physical weakness. He decided that if help didn’t arrive the next day, he would set out on his own.

But that afternoon, Austin heard a helicopter outside his snow cave. The searchers didn’t see him frantically waving on their first pass over the area, but when they circled back about 10 minutes later, they spotted him in his bright yellow parka. He had passed the test, with only some minor frostbite that cleared up fast enough for him to be back on the slopes three weeks later. But not before his family, friends, and colleagues threw a party for him when he returned to his office. Austin, however, steered clear of one of the party treats—Eskimo pies.

Snow-How

Alan Austin says his first mistake was not telling anyone where he was headed when he decided to go off on a ski run by himself. Rescue team workers would agree. Most of them recommend never skiing alone. Even when you're with partners, tell someone staying behind where you're going, with whom, and when you expect to return. Experienced search-and-rescue workers offer these other preventive measures for outdoor winter activities:

Dress in layers, with a bottom layer of nonabsorbent wicking material, such as polypropylene, that transfers moisture away from the body; a middle insulating layer of polyester pile, fiberfill, Thinsulate, or wool; and a hooded protective outer layer that's high-visibility and wind- and water-resistant. Wear polypropylene liners under your mittens or gloves and your wool or fleece cap.

Don't wear cotton. It has no insulating value when it gets wet and takes a long time to dry.

Carry as many of the following items as is feasible: a plastic whistle (three short blasts signal a need for help); waterproof matches; a pocketknife; a candle; cocoa or powdered drink mix; a metal cup for melting snow; a map and compass; high-energy, high-fat food; two large plastic trash bags or an aluminum space blanket to be used as a poncho or emergency shelter; a cell phone or some other communication device.

Always check the weather and avalanche report. The Weather Service International's Web site, features up-to-date information on weather conditions; and phone numbers for local avalanche reports are available at the Cyberspace Snow & Avalanche Center's Web site.

To further prepare yourself for winter activities, enroll in a snow safety class. For example, Alpine Skills International, based in Norden, California, offers a Snow Camping & Winter Survival course that teaches skills for traveling safely in the snow, including improvisational techniques that can be used during an unplanned night out. Information: (530) 426-9108.

Photo by Glenn Matsumura, Illustration by Monica Lind

This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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