Monday, March 15, 2010

Wright Peak Avalanche Survivor Tells His Story

The Adirondack Almanack is pleased to have the unique opportunity to present the first-hand experience of Ian Measeck of Glens Falls, who along with Jamie McNeill of Vergennes, Vermont was caught in an avalanche on Angel Slide, Wright Peak on February 27th. The potentially deadly avalanche occurred just a month after Phil Brown wrote A Short History of Adirondack Avalanches. Phil reported a week ago that Angel Slide was still unsafe. What follows is Measeck’s story in his own words:

The day had turned sunny with the slightest hint of spring. I pulled in to my driveway and saw my wife and two year old daughter standing in the picture window at the front of the house. My daughter, Charlotte, had nothing but her diaper on and judging by the look on her face it was Christmas morning. I was so happy; I couldn’t get inside fast enough. Earlier in the day, I had almost died in an avalanche. Those were not words that I considered myself likely to write or even think.

On Saturday February 27th, Jamie Mc Neill and I planned to ski the Angel Slide on Wright peak. I had been there before on several occasions and it seemed a reasonable choice this day in order to make as many turns as possible. There had been a significant snowfall earlier in the week but it was wet and heavy. Realizing the potential risk for avalanche, we brought transceivers, shovels, and probes. The day started overcast with scattered flurries but contained a slight promise of sun.

We both felt good so the ski in was brisk and proved a nice warm up for the day. We followed a broken ski track towards the base of the slide. When we were about level with the base of the slide, the ski track continued up and left. Here we turned right to access the slide. At the base I dug a test pit on a slope that I thought was fairly representative of the slide’s average slope. I saw no weak layer or unconsolidated snow that would lead me to believe there was high avy danger, so we headed up and right towards the right “skinny” side, with the intention of digging another pit part-way at a group of trees. We never got the chance. [Since the incident I’ve learned that there were several problems with my test pit. A sobering thought that sometimes we know just enough to get into trouble but not enough to keep out of it.]

A quarter of the way up the slide we heard an unsettling “whoomp” Recognizing its significance, we both said “I’m not too sure about this” nearly in unison. Since we were 30 -40 feet apart and halfway across the slide, the plan was to continue to the trees to dig another pit and reassess. Moments after we uttered the words a wisp of snow caught my eye as if the wind were beginning to blow it around. I glanced up in time to see a cloudy wall of snow speeding down the slide. I turned to try to ski down and left out of the avalanche path but I still had skins on so I was, in effect, immobilized.

I don’t remember any pain when the avalanche struck me. The sensation is best described as almost instant acceleration in a river of wet cement. I was suddenly surrounded by this flowing snow bank. I have no idea how fast it was moving and I don’t remember much aside from the dark, the fear, and the thought that I had to try to stay on top of it somehow. I don’t think I tumbled, and maybe my skis helped to stabilize me. [Although, I’ve been told after that it’s better for the bindings to release because the skis can actually pull you under.] I was strangely cognizant of my surroundings and as I realized I couldn’t stop myself or get out, I tried to keep the area in front of my face clear. I remember the thought crossing my mind that I was most likely going to die, but it was brief and fleeting. Almost like an irrelevant thought that my mind didn’t have time for or was unwilling to process.

As quick as it began, everything stopped and my face was out of the snow. I was buried lying on my back. I couldn’t move my legs or arms…but I was alive! I could see the sun, the sky, and I could breathe! I was alive! Everything in me wanted out of that hole, but I was alive! Panic and fear had coursed instantly and fully through my body. It was then I remembered Jamie, and screamed his name. I heard no reply, only the mountain silence. I became frantic. I could move my left hand and after much struggle, managed to free it. My pack was holding me down and I had a difficult time loosening the straps.

What seemed like an eternity passed but was probably only a few minutes? I had snow packed in everywhere but I didn’t hurt. I screamed for Jamie again. At that moment my sole focus was on him. I switched my transceiver to receive and spastically tore at my pack to get the shovel and probe. No signal on the beacon so I started back up the slide. He started above me so I could only hope he had stopped above me. I screamed again and heard nothing, but I began to get a signal. As I scrambled up the slide I heard a call. I stopped, yelled, and listened. Jamie returned my call –he was ok- but stuck. The wave of relief was indescribable. Just over a small rise he had been stopped by a rotten stump. He was alive, and uninjured. Alive! I didn’t spend time thinking about what if he’d been buried. That thought passed as quickly as the death thought had earlier. We were alive.

I had slid more than the length of a football field, and I hadn’t hit anything. I stopped with my face above the snow. Jamie had stopped with his legs wrapped around a tree stump, yet no broken bones. All we had to show for this experience was a couple of nasty bruises and scrapes, a broken pole and one less ski. It was unbelievable considering what could have happened. And people say God doesn’t exist.

The following day, I spent the most of my waking hours playing with my daughter. The furthest away from the house I got was the corn field across the road. I couldn’t shake the flashbacks of getting swept away in the slide and the panic that ensued. That evening, I received my first phone call from a reporter. I was offended at first. I saw it as audacious to tell thousands of people about my intimate brush with death. I began to soften and the logical part of my brain took over to convince the crazy part that Adirondack avalanches are rare. Even more of a rarity are survivors that walk away to talk about it. People could learn from my experience and mistakes, and if that kept someone else alive then I was more than willing to let my ego take a hit.

Work was nice to return to, if only to occupy my mind with a sense of normalcy. I continued to have flashbacks of getting swept away followed by a wave of panic. The incident, as I now like to call it, only lasted a few moments but living with the memories and constant retellings has, perhaps, been the more difficult part. Everyone wants to talk about it, and I can understand that so I try to be patient. The trouble is I relive it slightly every time I tell the story. But more, it’s the shame. I feel ashamed that I got into a situation that I wasn’t smart enough, or I didn’t know better, to avoid. I almost died because I was wrong; because I was stupid.

Two weeks have passed now and I’ve stopped having flashbacks. The questions, comments, and jokes have subsided at work. Life seems to be back to normal, but I still remember. For most, the almost complete lack of physical injury diminishes the severity of my experience. Only I really know how close I came to death. I have noticed small changes in my psyche. I’m certainly content moving slower and certain things don’t really seem as important as they used to. But most importantly, my family is without a doubt the most beautiful thing in the world, and I am a blessed man to be here to see that.

Photo of Angel Slides on Wright Peak from Wikipedia.

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5 Responses

  1. Alan Wechsler says: