Jeff Eckland dropped into Button Bowl at Kirkwood, California, one January morning in 1993, he assumed his powder turns would be stress free. Seconds later the entire basin fractured and in less time than it takes to say "big fat avalanche," Eckland, then 25, was buried alive. He could open his eyes, but otherwise could move nothing, not even wiggle a fraction of an inch. He could breathe (at least for a short while) because his face was pressed up against a pine branch, which had created an air pocket. All around him was dead silence and pitch black. His first sensation was disbelief-"Oh, my God, I'm really buried"-followed quickly by pain.
Eckland's head and torso throbbed from hitting the tree-but most excruciating and mysterious was the searing pain in his gut. "I assumed I had a big old gnarly juniper branch going through me. It turns out the avalanche had folded my body in half backward. My heels were right by my face, but I didn't know it."
Eckland, a nighttime groomer, had grabbed his skis to search the resort for fresh tracks after finishing his graveyard shift. He hardly expected to be entombed under five feet of quickly hardening avalanche debris. Button Bowl rises above lift access, yet is considered inbounds and is controlled for snow safety. Eckland and his friends checked in with patrol before hiking to the top, but even the best snow safety experts don't always know what lurks under the layers of white.
In fact, snow avalanches are so complex that there are scientists who devote entire careers to studying them. In the most general of terms, however, a slab avalanche-the most deadly kind-is poised to pounce when a strong layer of snow lies on top of a weaker layer. When triggered, the bond between the two layers fractures and the heavier upper layer slides. While nature itself can trigger an avalanche, as it devastatingly did in February 1999 in the Mont Blanc region of the French Alps, 95 percent of all serious avalanche accidents are set off by the people involved.
From 1992 to 1997, avalanche fatalities averaged 24 deaths per year in the U.S. and 12 in Canada. The 1996-1997 season brought 35 deaths in North America; the number rose to 46 the next year and peaked at 49 in last season's wild La Niña winter. Traditionally, skiers and mountaineers have topped the list; of those, approximately 75 percent were traveling out of bounds or in the back-country. Postincident reports indicate that in almost every fatal slide, clear signs of avalanche danger were apparent prior to the event. Still, as Jeff Eckland and former Alpine Meadows liftie Anna Conrad Allen discovered, even within avalanche-controlled ski-area boundaries, nature can have the upper hand.
In Eckland's case, snow had been falling for the better part of a week, followed by intermittent high winds. His first hop turn set off a substantial but slow-moving slough. Seconds later, the entire bowl cracked. "I heard my friends yell, and at that moment, the whole mountain gave way, everything, the whole bowl," he recalls. "The sound was quite a roar."
The turbulent, high-speed ride peeled off Eckland's gloves, goggles, hat, and all his ski gear-then sent him straight toward two pines that stood midway down the slope. He slammed into the trees headfirst; a torrent of snow piled on top of him like surf pounding Maui's North Shore. The bulk of the avalanche rumbled downhill another 800 yards to the base of the bowl.
Kirkwood's patrol sped to the scene and began searching the rubble at Button Bowl's base. Patroller Dave Paradysz, who works at Kirkwood with his search-and-rescue dog, Doc, heard the call from a distant corner of the mountain (where, ironically, he was digging a pit to analyze snow safety) and began making his way to the scene. Meanwhile, Eckland sat in pain and darkness high above the searchers.
"I was just trying to be as calm as possible," Eckland recalls. "I said to myself, 'you are buried bbut at least you're in a resort and you're with experienced people.' I kept trying to slow down my breathing to protect whatever oxygen I did have. For the first eight or nine minutes, I was really good at keeping a calm head."
Eckland was lucky to be alive: Approximately 25 percent of people caught in avalanches are killed by the motion of the avalanche itself or by resulting collisions with rocks, trees, and earth. "Ninety-three percent of avalanche victims that survive the ride are still alive after 15 minutes, but then the numbers drop catastrophically," explains Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. The 15-minute cutoff occurs for a reason: In that amount of time, a buried person's body heat and breath have met with the surrounding cold snow for exactly long enough to create an encasing ice capsule, a thin layer that surrounds the buried person with what Tremper calls "an impermeable barrier." In other words, oxygen can't get in and carbon dioxide can't get out. A good air pocket can buy you time.
For Eckland, the clock was ticking. "In the last five minutes, I was totally panicking. It was starting to get harder to breathe. The last three minutes, I was almost panting like a dog trying to get air. Then I thought, 'I'm dying.' At that point, I started getting tunnel vision. The tunnel slowly started to close, and I was panting and panting and no air was coming. I thought I was history. The tunnel almost closed, and right then Doc's paw broke through and hit my back. I had this incredible inrush of oxygen and could breathe again. I knew it was Doc, and I started screaming, 'Doc! Doc!' It was great."
Trained search-and-rescue dogs can, in 30 minutes, thoroughly search a slide area that would take a team of humans six to eight hours to probe. Unfortunately, trained dogs are rarely on hand when needed most; less than 10 people in the United States have been saved by avie dogs. Most often, the dogs are brought in to recover dead bodies well after the fact. But when Paradysz and Doc arrived on the ridgeline some 14 minutes after Eckland went down, it was clear Doc was onto something live. The golden retriever sped straight to the trees. He thumped on the snow with his forepaws like a polar bear breaking through ice. His tail whirled like a propeller as he began digging straight down.
While the patrollers began the careful process of digging out Eckland's bowed and broken body, Doc sniffed out each piece of the skier's lost gear-and even a pen cap dropped by a patroller in the snow the week before.
Eckland had been buried alive for between 15 and 17 minutes. It was only when the patrollers freed him that Eckland realized he had been bent backward by the avalanche's force. He sustained cracked ribs and a broken back. He spent three months in rehabilitation and has been grooming-and skiing-at Kirkwood ever since. "I'm lucky," says Eckland, noting that the crown on the Class 3-4 avalanche that buried him was some 300 yards wide and a whopping five feet deep. "I'm very lucky to be alive."