Outside, Spring Break may mean big, sunny beaches and parties, but for this group of Alaskans, Spring Break is all about a week of snowmachining fun in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains near McCarthy. Anticipation runs high and the competition is fierce for who’s got the best machine and who can do the best riding of the year. The clan gathers from all around Alaska. One Rowland family lives year-round in McCarthy. Another Rowland family flies in from Dutch Harbor. The Williams, Randby and Persón families all drive in from Fairbanks. Very often other friends join this core group for the week. Ties of family, friendship and faith hold this crowd together. This particular Spring Break would further strengthen those ties.
Most people arrive Saturday evening, and on Sunday morning they all head up to the Keith Rowland family home for church and potluck. After service and before lunch a prayer is offered up to God asking for safety and good decisions for everyone for the week. Following lunch, most everyone gears up and loads up to spend the afternoon at the Bonanza Bowl, the traditional Sunday afternoon hangout for this crowd. This year was no different and soon everyone was at the Bowl “tearing it up” (clan speak for having a really good time). It was a bluebird day and the powder was just right; the skiers and snowboarders were enjoying excellent runs, thanks to the obliging snowmachiners who towed or rode them up high. The “big boys” were scoping the hills, mountains, and chutes around them looking for the best ride they could find. As usual, Dave Persón was wearing his GoPro head cam, looking for a rider to follow for some exciting shots to include in the yearly movie.
By 5:15 that afternoon, most were ready to call it a day. Dave and Scott decided to take one last ride up a chute behind The Pyramid. Another rider had ridden up a couple of times and Dave had done it once and decided it was safe for another trip. Dave and Scott discussed running up it to get a good film for the movie. Dave, half-serious – half-joking, asked Scott, “Do you have your beacon on? I don’t want to be looking for someone without a beacon.” Though a few people had left, most of the crowd lined up across the Bowl, on a knoll, to watch this last run.
Scott hit the chute and began tracing a good line with Dave following close behind. But when Dave hit a couple of holes wrong and lost his momentum he couldn’t get back on the line, so he decided to turn out. As he headed back down he noticed a bit of snow following him. He glanced back and realized that snow was sliding, so he sped up a little. Suddenly, from his left, he was hit with a wall of snow and knocked off his machine. Instantly realizing he was in an avalanche he began swimming for the top of the snow.
Meanwhile, Scott had made it up much higher out of the chute and onto an open slope. He completed his turn only to look down and realize that an avalanche was happening below him with Dave most likely in the middle of it. He watched, helpless, as the high mountain bowl slid down the 2,000 foot chute he’d just come up.
Dave wasn’t afraid, just busy swimming. However, the longer the avalanche went on, the more exhausted he became. It’s hard work thrashing for the top in full riding gear and heavy, chunky snow. Soon his legs were locked in. The snow was compressing and every time it hit a depression or turn in the chute it compacted harder. Eventually, he could feel the flow slowing down. He futilely tried kicking to get his legs free and to get closer to the top. He had one arm up, but both legs and an arm were locked in preventing any movement. As the snow stopped flowing it compressed harder and harder. He thought his ribs would crack. His left arm was extended up and he could move it at the elbow, so he swirled it because it was the only thing he could move. He attempted to take a deep breath to expand the area around his chest but was unable to do so. When everything stopped, he took stock. He was at rest with his feet downhill, he was face up, but tilted to the right with his right arm pressed against his chest. He couldn’t move, but he thought one arm was above the snow and he was able to breathe. He took about six or eight breaths before everything went blank.
As soon as the billowing snow was settled below him, Scott headed back down the chute as fast as he could maneuver his machine, jumping down the three and a half foot high fracture line. The avalanche had scoured all the snow from the channel forcing him to ride down mostly on icy rock. He reached the snow-packed bottom and began frantically looking for any sign of Dave. He saw what turned out to be the seat of Dave’s 800 and rushed to it.
A half-mile across the Bowl, everyone else was watching the mountain in disbelief and horror as a crack formed and then quickly spider-webbed out and the mountainside came booming down the gorge. They had seen Scott pop out on top and waited for Dave to appear. When he didn’t show they knew it wasn’t good. They started their machines to head over. Roger stopped everyone and wisely said, “We wait for it to stop.” As they waited for the cloud of avalanche snow to settle, Roger told them, “Unless you have a beacon and a probe you don’t move.” As soon as the snow settled they raced over, meeting Scott at Dave’s machine. As everyone got their beacons turned to “search” they realized Dave wasn’t with his machine. Roger got a reading on his and ran toward the signal yelling “50 feet, 45 feet, 40 feet…” with Jay jogging just behind him, probing. Everyone else followed close on their heels. As they neared the location, Jay saw Dave’s gloved hand sticking up out of the snow. They began madly digging.
Soon Dave’s head was uncovered and Scott took off Dave’s helmet. His eyes were wide open, pupils constricted, and staring blankly, his jaw and lips were blue, and he wasn’t breathing. Scott tried to find a pulse with his cold hands and couldn’t so he immediately started mouth to mouth. Jay and Roger dug out his chest, while Micah started digging out his back.
Scott performed CPR for ten to twelve minutes before Dave took his first breath. As the other men shoveled they kept yelling, “Fight, Dave!” “Breathe, Dave!” They were praying in desperation. The snow was slippery and kept sliding back into the hole. Afraid that Dave wasn’t going to make it, Roger sent the younger men (who’d been pulling the snow chunks away from the hole) to go dig out the snowmachine, about fifty feet up the hill. It seemed forever before Dave at last responded to Scott’s efforts. Scott said, “Dave, if you can hear me, blink.” Dave blinked very slowly and they realized with huge relief that he could hear them, and was beginning to respond to them. Scott sent Axel over to the waiting crowd to let them know that Dave was alive. Still, it took time for Dave to be able to breathe consistently on his own. He was coughing and gurgling, seemingly trying to communicate, but not making any sense. After they got his upper half dug out, Jay slid behind him to help get him warm. As soon as he was breathing reliably on his own, Scott kept Dave engaged while Micah did quick compression checks on Dave’s arms, neck, and back, watching his eyes for any sign of pain. Incredibly, though he felt nauseous and dizzy there were no injuries. As Dave stabilized and began speaking, they continued to try to get him warm. They found warm mitts to exchange for the cold gloves on his hands, but because of the oxygen deprivation he was fighting them. Yet he kept brushing his hands together in his signature move and complaining about cold hands. Eventually, Scott sent David Rowland over to get Lora, a fourth year nursing student, to help with Dave. They were concerned about internal injuries and wanted her help in assessing potential problems. As soon as Lora came over, Dave calmed down and submitted to her medical expertise. The crew got him up and out of the hole and Jay wrapped his down coat around Dave; Roger took off his snow pants to put on him. As soon as he was alert, Dave said, “My wife is going to kill me.”
Though they were not with Dave in the hole, the younger crew worked hard getting the machine dug out and had the presence of mind to watch the chute and surrounding mountains for any other avalanches. They also gave up some of their warm gear to keep Dave warm and kept the older men supplied with whatever they needed.
The group left across the Bowl was huddled together praying, and watching. Until Scott sent Axel to get a sled for transport and to inform them that Dave was breathing shallowly, they had no idea what was happening and could only watch as their men located first the machine and then Dave. They couldn’t tell whether or not he was alive, or if he was hurt. Seven-year-old Andu kept asking questions and it helped settle them to answer his questions and keep praying. Kathy decided she needed to go to the Persón cabin to sit with Renée, who’d stayed back at their cabin for the day.
Lee and Beth had left almost before the avalanche was settled, racing to catch Keith (who’d left just minutes before the avalanche started) and to go be with Renée. They nearly caught Keith by Persón’s cabin; but their snowmachine suddenly died. Lee quickly fired up another machine from the cabin and caught Keith at his shop.
Beth went inside the cabin and quietly told Renee, “There’s been an avalanche. Dave and Scott were in it. One has come out, but the other hasn’t. Lee’s gone to get Uncle Keith for some more help.” “Oh, God!” Renee’s mind started racing, “What do we need to do? What needs to be done?” She started praying, “Help me trust YOU!”
Soon Lee and Keith came back; they’d gotten hold of the Park Ranger, Stephens Harper, and had some information. Keith told Renée, “Dave’s breathing, he’s hypothermic and not in good shape. But he’s breathing and we’ll probably get Life Flight to fly him out to Anchorage. You have plenty of time, there’s no rush. We’re waiting for word.” (They later learned that Dave was not hypothermic, just oxygen deprived.) Just then Kathy arrived. Kathy and Beth packed a back-pack for Renee to take along on the flight to Anchorage. It was decided that Keith should take a sleeping bag and hot water bottles up to Dave. Everything was quickly gathered and Keith headed up to the rescue site.
Thinking that the truck would be a better transport vehicle than a snowmachine, Lee and Beth warmed up the truck and took it up the trail as close to Kennecott as they could.
Renée decided to stay at the cabin and wait for further word. She felt that going to the rescue site would be hard on the men taking care of Dave and hard on her watching them. Soon Tammy called from the rescue site to reassure Renée that Dave was alive and moving! A few minutes later she called back to say that Dave was on a machine with Scott and riding toward them. And a few minutes after that she called again and put Dave on. Hearing his voice was overwhelming and Kathy held Renée while she cried her joy and relief.
Dave rode down the mountain with Scott, tucked up against him trying to stay warm. As they rode down, Scott kept whacking Dave’s leg to make sure he was still responsive. Dave would pound back letting Scott know he was still there. When they met the truck several miles down the trail, Dave climbed in and they rode the rest of the way to the ranger station in warmth.
When Dave walked into the ranger’s station there were a few moments of confusion for the Rangers. They were expecting a badly injured man to be carried in and were surprised that the avalanche victim walked in under his own power and announced himself. Dave lay down on a cold table and they gave him oxygen for half an hour. Covered with sleeping bags and two hot water bottles to warm him, Dave answered the Ranger’s questions while they monitored his vitals and took brief notes on the incident. Dave drank a couple of cups of hot Gatorade, and sucked on a tube of glucose. After a little over half an hour he got back in the truck and headed for the cabin, ready to end the day with some dry clothes and hot food. Everyone was relieved that he would not need to be flown out for care.
In the cabin he changed out of his wet clothing and sat by the fire while everyone ate dinner. He had a headache and slight nausea until about ten that night. Getting up, getting warm and moving about made him feel much better. He suffered no other ill effects from the incident. The rest of the people involved were much more traumatized. Many had nightmares, all needed to talk. Each had a story to tell and in the various homes and cabins that night the accounts were flowing.
Over the next couple of days many visitors stopped by the Persón’s cabin. Every one that came needed to reassure themselves that Dave was really alive and completely himself. And they needed the chance to share their part of the story. God had been merciful to them and they wanted to spend time together as the shock and fear drained away.
The day after the avalanche most everyone, including Dave, went back to the site to retrieve Dave’s machine. The machine was a total loss, most everything was torn off or crumpled. It had obviously had a much rougher trip down the hill than Dave “enjoyed”.
Monday night, the whole clan gathered at the Roger Rowland home and watched a slide presentation on snow travel safety. All the riders attend a similar class most years. Safety is important to this group. They all carry safety gear designed for this kind of situation, which in this case saved Dave’s life. Even though most of the information was not new to the group, they felt that it was a good time to review what they had done well, and what mistakes were made, so that they could further reduce their risk on future rides. Everyone agreed that the next piece of equipment for the riders, skiers, and snowboarders to acquire should be an avalanche air bag. That evening together also allowed the group to process the incident as a group. Scott and Dave shared what happened from their perspective and many others contributed their thoughts also. The rangers expressed their amazement at Dave’s survival and their admiration for the rescue efforts of the group.
There was no single hero in this rescue. Each person had a part and each did it well. From Dave remembering and implementing his avalanche training, to the men digging out and reviving Dave, to the young men retrieving the snowmachine and watching the area for further potential danger, to the group of women and young men praying, everyone did their job. God was merciful to this group and every person knows and acknowledges it. Dave should be dead – but God was merciful and revived him. It could have taken longer to find him, he could have been buried much deeper, he could have sustained severe injuries like his machine – but God was merciful.
Each person has come away with their own perspective on what happened. Each person has been impacted in different ways. But the one perspective they all share is gratitude. They are grateful that God spared Dave’s life. They are grateful that God kept the others safe. They are grateful that they remain a clan. And everyone looks forward to next Spring Break with eager anticipation to see who’s got the best machine and who will do the best riding of the year.
Keith and Laurie Rowland –from McCarthy
Roger and Tammy Rowland – from Dutch Harbor
& friend David Durst
& friend Bridger Herrmann
Jay Williams – from Fairbanks
Scott and Kathy Randby – from Fairbanks
Lora Anderson – from Fairbanks
Dave and Renée Persón – from Fairbanks
Lee Persón and his fiancée Beth Welch – from Fairbanks
A Little Photo Gallery