What it’s like to be trapped in an avalanche
R-C Alpine Bureau
She turned her back to the thick mass of hard wet snow: moving quickly and instinctively to create an air pocket with her elbow. All passenger side windows had been blown out by the impact and the car was filled with snow. Tunneling her hand through, she was able to get to her driver’s side window button and open it. She started hitting at the wall of white and suddenly a piece broke away revealing blue sky. There was hope.
It was April’s Fool Day 2011, and Karrie Baker was driving around Emerald Bay Road on a bluebird day in South Lake Tahoe. There was no indication or warning that anything might happen, and as it unfolded, the word “avalanche” never even crossed her mind.
Defying the odds, she was trapped in her car for more than an hour. Emergency personnel scrambled to get equipment there to move the snow so they could open the door. If you’re lucky enough to avoid any fatal injuries from the impact of the snow in an avalanche, death is usually due to slow asphyxia and hypothermia. If you are in a vehicle, there is the added threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. It is fortunate that Karrie’s car was a hybrid, which automatically shut off when she was stopped.
Any sound or movement has the possibility of triggering another avalanche, so both rescue workers and victim are put in a precarious situation. Karrie could see blood on the snow, and felt small cuts from the shattered windows imploding. She could not move her legs, as they were immobilized in the thick snow.
She did not know it at the time, but on the other side of her crushed car was her son Allen’s shoe, forced against the passenger side window. Rescue workers calling down to her from the opening she had created, they asked her over and over who was in the car with her. She continually insisted she was driving alone, but they were uncertain whether to trust her word with that little shoe indicating that a small boy may be trapped inside. The shoes had simply been left in the vehicle the last time they drove together.
It went through Karrie’s mind that this may indeed be the very unusual and surprising end to her life. She thought about the evening before when she and her then four year old son Allen had stayed up late into the evening, laughing and cuddling. She knew her son felt loved, and what was more, knew her husband John could be trusted unquestionably to make the right decisions all the way throughout Allen’s life without her there. Though she longed to be saved from this freezing place, she also felt at peace whatever the outcome.
The rescue workers spent a lot of time trying to dig through the heavy, end of the season “Sierra cement” and eventually enlisted the help of the CalTrans snow blower. With the center of the car collapsed and molded around her, it was remarkable that Karrie walked away with just superficial cuts and bruises. Once out of the car they walked her away from the scene and sat her in the patrol car to keep warm. It was then that she was first able to see how her car was buried and understand she had been in an avalanche.
They called the local tow company to clear her vehicle from the scene and a rescuer let her use his phone to call her family. What they didn’t know was that her husband John owned Emerald Bay Towing. Her story of being buried alive sounded more like an April Fool’s joke so John did not immediately dispatch the driver. There are chances of being in a crash, but to be buried in an avalanche on a highway? It did not seem possible.
This rare occurrence changed the trajectory of Karrie’s life. She says, “I don’t feel so much like a survivor. I feel more like a thriver. I have a zest for Yes. Anytime someone asks me to do something that puts me outside my comfort zone I find a way to fit it in.” Since the accident she has run in over 20 half marathons and completed a Half Ironman triathlon.
She recently traveled to Italy by herself to study how to cure meats and immerse herself in the culture of her ancestors. Many asked if she was afraid to travel alone since not one would want to do that themselves. But Karrie was not afraid. She had been buried alive in a completely unexpected way and had lived to tell about it. She had already proved that miracles occur, and could rest her life in that knowledge. She celebrates the anniversary of this event as her “second birthday.”
On a beautiful, clear day the last thing that comes to mind is the possibility of an avalanche. Nature dictates what happens at these higher elevations, and the conditions could be just right for a wall of snow to come down. In the mountains, be prepared for the unexpected because it is bound to happen.