April 21, 2000 - Field, British Columbia
Jeff Miller sent this report to us to use for educational purposes. He also wrote:
I would really like to go further with this story and experience. The chance to show others my mistakes is what I would really like to get out of this. If you could share this story with others, I would like to get this in an outdoor magazine to further impact this story on as many people as possible. I want to thank you for time you have taken in reading this and hope to hear from you.
I had been working at emerald lake lodge for the past year and half and usually on my days off I was out skiing, climbing, hiking or any outdoor activity where I was able to enjoy the area I was living in. This day was no different, we never made any plans to go hiking that day, so it was a late decision and we didn't get on the trail till noon.
The day was quite warm, 15 degrees, with a thin layer of cloud high above. The mountain we were hiking was Mt. Burgess - a mountain I had been to the top of twice before. We brought crampons and ice axes just in case the snow near the top would be hard and compact. It took a little longer than usual to get to treeline since the snow was soft and in many places we broke through up to our waist.
By the time we headed off the main trail and started towards the main gully which we had to climb the time was around 3 pm. On the slope below the gully there was the sign that an avalanche probably occurred the day before. A large slab had broken and swept down to the trees below. Not giving this a second thought we trudged through the slide debris and up into the gully. The snow was very soft in the gully, which made it tough going all the way to the summit. We finally made the top around 6 pm. We ate what we had in our packs took some pictures and headed down a half an hour after we had arrived.
I was a little faster on the first part of the descent than my friend; this probably saved both our lives. As I came through two rock bands and started to cross a small bowl on the way to the gully which we had to descend the first cracks appeared. I was standing at the top of the bowl and a huge slab started to move. I remember seeing the fractures circle the bowl a few meters above me. I tried to swim out of it but it was too fast and too powerful. I didn't even make a sound to warn my friend. The avalanche sucked me down like a whirlpool. The last thing I remember was flying through the air with my hands above my head and a sea of white all around me. I lost consciousness sometime during the fall, which was a 100 meter vertical drop followed by a 200 meter gully to the base of the slope just above the trees.
I don't really remember the first moments of opening my eyes. My first reaction was to clear the snow away from my face. My right arm must have been lying right on top of the surface because I was able to move it easily and clear the snow away. That first breath of air felt like I had been drowning and then come up for air. A few moments of coughing up some blood and I was able to bring my breathing back to semi-normal. I cleared the snow away from my neck and chest as best I could but it was tough going. The snow had turned to cement and even though I was only buried about a foot deep I fought to free myself for the next 3-4 hrs. I was lying on my left side with my left arm buried down and deep in the snow. My right leg was free but my shoulders were anchored to the snow by the very small daypack that I still had strapped to my back. Even though I would later find out the condition of my left leg I didn't feel any pain and thought that the fact that I couldn't move it was due to it being buried in the snow.
For the next 5-10 minutes I yelled for my friend Marty not knowing if he had been caught in the avalanche or if he was even in the area. After giving up yelling I worked on freeing myself from my cement hole. My right hand had already turned to wood since my gloves must have been torn off during the fall. I never felt any cold or pain through this whole experience, which probably was a very good thing. It's amazing what your body goes through when your adrenaline is pumping hard and you're in total shock. The only thing I thought of was getting out from the clutches of the snow. It bothered me that I could only look out in one direction and I think it was that determination that finally got me free. I first tried to work on moving my left leg. I thought if both my legs were free I could wriggle my waist out. My leg wouldn't budge, it was probably buried too deep.
My next thought was to get my pack off, which would free up my shoulders. By this time my fingers had no sensation and I couldn't grip on to the waist strap or the chest strap to get in undone. I still don't know exactly how I got the shoulder strap free but I was able to loosen the buckle and slip my one arm out. By doing this I was able to reach over to my left side and start scooping snow away from my left arm. With my left arm now in the open I was able to get it on the surface. With both arms free it was now a matter of rocking back and forth, loosening my back away from the snow. With one final hard lunge I got my entire body on top of the surface except for the left leg.
When I did get the leg free I noticed the extent of the damage. The leg was pretty much torn off at the knee joint and hanging only by a few strands of flesh and muscle. By the time I got to be sitting on top of the surface it was very dark. The struggle and determination of getting out of my hole had made me physically and mentally dead. My body was going into survival mode, only supplying energy to main areas of my body. In fact I was quite "stupid" in the way I acted and comprehended my situation. I remember looking off to the right and seeing the streetlights in the town of Field far below. I wanted so bad to start crawling toward them but I didn't move an inch. I had food, water, an extra jacket, and even a first aid kit but I didn't touch any of these. I was losing my ability to do the things that come second nature to us all.
My last thought that night was to fall asleep because I did not want to be awake all night. I finally did fall asleep, lose conscience, and didn't wake up till I was in the ICU of Foothills Hospital in Calgary two days later.
You're probably wondering what happened to my friend Marty throughout this whole experience. From what Marty has told me, when he first came upon the slab he wasn't sure if I had fallen with the snow or had continued down the mountain. When he couldn't find me in the gully or at the bottom of the gully he feared the worst. The spot where I went off the cliff and the spot where he was standing were approx. 800 meters apart.
I think that at this moment he panicked and with the oncoming darkness thought it was best to go get help rather than continue to search for me. When he finally did get down the mountain and called the Banff search and rescue it was 8:30 pm After getting to the town of Field and observing, in the final dusk, where I had fallen they made the decision to not do a night rescue believing that I was probably dead.
At 6:30 the next morning a helicopter spotted me sitting on the snow. Three wardens were lowered to my position where they found me alive with a faint pulse. I was rushed to Banff and then on to Calgary. When they brought me in I had a body temperature of 23 degrees (C). The doctors warmed my body by dialysis, warming the blood through a machine and circulating it around my body. When my body temperature was back to normal they went on saving my leg. I had four operations to rebuild the leg with muscle flaps and skin graphs.
Now, 10 months later, we are repairing the damage to the knee. Next week I am getting a donor tendon put in and hopefully next fall we will repair the ligaments. It has been a long process already and I still have a lot of rehab and therapy to go but I hope that one day I will be able to climb again. Not only climb, but to go back to Mt. Burgess and look at the fall I took and how lucky I really am to be here.
As you can probably tell I am not a writer. I just have a story that I would like to share with others who are into the outdoors as much as I am. Even though I had taken some avalanche training and had the knowledge to know how to act and proceed in the mountains I still made some key mistakes. Hiking this kind of mountain at that time of the year and at that time of the day were mistakes. I lost focus of where I was and what I was doing and got caught up in the enjoyment that everyone feels when you are in the mountains on a sunny day without a care in the world. I have been given a second chance to enjoy that feeling, this time with a whole new respect of the environment around me.
Jeff Miller, goldenjeffears@_no_spam_.hotmail.com
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