A big year for avalanches
NCW — It’s been a big winter for avalanches.
MAZAMA — When Mazama ski guide John Sunderland got knocked out and buried by an avalanche near Washington Pass almost two weeks ago, the four Seattle men who were with him knew instantly what to do.
Paul Wyckoff, John Forsen, John DeRocco and Steve Miller knew this rescue mission had to go like clockwork.
They knew that the life of their friend and guide — an avid skier who’s been taking people into the backcountry for 29 years — depended on almost immediate recovery. DeRocco said he didn’t even think about the possibility that Sunderland could have already been killed as the snow pushed his body down a slope littered with trees.
“More on our minds was that every second counted, and we had to find him as soon as possible, and dig him out as soon as possible,” DeRocco said.
He said without even talking about what they should do, they sprang into action. Miller stayed at the top with a radio to keep an eye on the overall scene while DeRocco, Forsen and Wyckoff split up on different parts of the slope and zigzagged across it.
DeRocco said that within three minutes, Wyckoff got a signal on his beacon that Sunderland was nearby. They converged on the spot and used probes to locate his body. At four minutes, they were digging him out. By eight minutes, they had his face uncovered. Then, the sound everyone was praying for — a big breath.
“People can die within five minutes,” DeRocco said. “They consider 10 to 15 minutes pretty much maximum in a lot of cases.”
He said Sunderland looked a little gray, but not completely. There was a big gash on his head, and when he regained consciousness, he remembered his name, and was wiggling his fingers. “I don’t know how many more minutes he had,” he said.
Just that morning, Sunderland had given them instructions on how to rescue someone who’s been buried by an avalanche. It’s standard training before every backcountry trip with North Cascades Heli-Skiing.
And guides take these trainings very seriously, even when they’re with people — like these four Seattle men — who have been through more than a dozen times, as was the case on the morning of March 4.
“I emphasize the important parts of a search for a buried victim, and I tell them pretty much point blank that if they’ve got their beacons out to search for a person, it’s me, so be sure you get it right,” he said. “And they did. They were rock stars.”
DeRocco noted that even though it’s standard procedure for Sunderland to leave them at the crest of this slope while he skies down to ensure it was safe, “That act alone could have saved all four of our lives,” he said.
Wyckoff added, “We wouldn’t have been rock stars unless we had the orchestra teacher give us the proper notes to follow.” He stressed that they weren’t being careless that day. The Northwest Avalanche Center rated the danger as considerable both near and above the treeline, but not high, and they had skied on stable snow all day.
It was the end of what would have otherwise been a perfect day for these four skiers. The helicopter’s landing site was in view, and Sunderland was making his way down this last slope when the avalanche was triggered.
DeRocco remembers the sound as a muffled “foomph.”
To Forsen, it was more like wummph. “And then all the sudden it comes up in a visual. Like the bottom of a big waterfall, with all this mist coming up. It becomes kind of a whiteout.”
Wyckoff remembers they all shouted, “Avalanche!” in case Sunderland didn’t see it coming. But this was the kind of avalanche where a whole slab of snow, more than 100 yards wide, separated from the snowpack and slid downhill, all at once.
By the time they yelled, the ground beneath Sunderland was already moving. And when the whiteout cleared, he was nowhere to be seen.
To Forsen, the next moments felt surreal, as if time was moving in slow motion. But they knew what to do, and they did it.
“We had the right tools. We had excellent training from the guys, and we were all familiar with each other,” Wyckoff said.
Despite the intensity of the experience, none of them have any question in their minds that they’ll be out on the backcountry slopes the next chance they get. Even Sunderland had no hesitation when asked if he’d continue.
It’s been less than two weeks, and already, he’s back working at his “day job,” as a land program manager for Methow Conservancy.
“For the most part, life is back to normal for me,” he said, adding, “I am very lucky. But also, all of the things that we do to ensure survival worked just like they were supposed to.”