Monday morning dawned clear and sunny for the first time after a week of rain and ice. It looked to be a perfect day to mount a helicopter rescue.
I guess there's no place to start but the beginning. On Sunday, January 12, my dear hubby Thane was caught in an avalanche. I haven't mentioned this adventure before now because Thane asked me not to. I think he was hoping to keep it quiet, but in a town of 4,000 word travels quickly. Since then, I've heard him tell the story many times, and each time he does, I pick up on some new detail. So, as far as I know...
He was snowmachining with four friends in the mountains just southeast of Valdez, exploring a collapsed ice cave below two glaciers. Always conscious of safety, there was nothing in the terrain or snow conditions that led them to believe they were in any danger of an avalanche. Nor had they done anything to set one off. Indeed, at the time it started Thane was off his machine taking photos. The avalanche started at the top of the mountain well above them.
Thane's buddy Chris was able to get on his machine and outrun the cascade of snow and ice, but when Thane tried to get his machine moving, he was pointed the wrong direction, and in his hurry to move he got bucked off. He hid behind a giant block of ice, hoping to avoid getting swept away. He could feel the snow tugging at him as he fought to hold his ground before he was pulled along by the force. Somehow, without being able to feel the pull handle, he got the airbag in his avalanche backpack deployed.
Ice chunks banged against him as he tumbled in the flow before he came to rest 1,200 feet across the bowl from where he started. His head was a few inches below the surface with the rest of him down at about a 45-degree angle. His forearms and hands were sticking out of the snow. He felt like he was trapped in cement, although he was able to brush enough snow away from his face to breathe.
It took about five minutes for the dust to settle enough for his friends to start looking for him. With his hands visible, they were able to start digging immediately. It took 10 - 15 minutes to dig him out, but he was still so solidly stuck that he couldn't release himself from the snow beneath him; they had to pull him out. Despite feeling like he'd been run over by a train, his only real injury seemed to be a damaged right knee. He credits his avalanche backpack for saving his life, and was glad that he wasn't able to hold his position behind the block of ice. If he had, he'd likely have been buried under 20 feet or more of hard snow pack.
His brand new, 2014 Skidoo sno-go, however, was totaled. Thane said it looked like the fist of God had smote it. Any part not securely attached was gone: seat, bags, windshield.... There was no way they could get it out of the mountains that day. I know they were all thrilled just to be getting Thane out.
Now we come back to that beautiful day a week later. Thane had arranged for a helicopter to fly out his snowmachine. When the day dawned clear, he put off his drive to Anchorage for an MRI on his knee to get the machine taken care of. My job was to drive our truck out the highway to Keystone Canyon and wait for the helicopter. The plan was for Thane to fly out to the scene, dig out his machine, and hook it up to the helicopter. The pilot would then fly it out, set it down on our truck, and then fly back to pick up Thane.
I was not happy with this plan. It can take just minutes for conditions to go from perfect visibility to flat light with no contrast, conditions in which a helicopter can't see the ground let alone land. My imagination went into overdrive with fears of Thane getting left out in the mountains with no survival gear. It didn't help when clouds started rolling in from the south.
Luckily, my fears were unfounded. Everything went perfectly. It all took a little longer than planned, enough to make me really worry, but both the machine and Thane made it out. Here are a few photos to tell the rest of the story.
Since then, Thane jumps every time the snow slides off our roof. He said the avalanche sounded just the same. He had an MRI and doctor's appointment today to get his right knee looked at. He had a minor tear in the MCL and a 90% tear of his ACL. He accused me of bribing the surgeon who told him to lay off of snowmachining for a while and go snowshoeing and skiing instead. If he's lucky, he'll be able to avoid surgery. Looks like I'll have a playmate for the next few months.