Snowboarding to the Edge of Death ~ An Easter Monday Reflection, Part I

This Oxford Adventure: A Self-Wrought Achievement, or a Gift?

When you really push it down, what is it that makes the decisive difference in your life?

When push comes to shove, is it you and how you respond (or fail to respond) to the opportunities and challenges in your life that makes the decisive difference?

Or do you take a different, more dependent stance? One recognising that what you have and are in life has far more to do with what you’ve received than what you have wrought?

In the first position, you essentially are what you’ve made yourself to be – you forge yourself, for better or for worse. But in the second position, the decisive difference maker is outside of oneself, in another to whom we owe our existence and every good gift we enjoy.

Related to our family’s story, the question plays out this way: Is this journey through Oxford fundamentally something we have earned or something we’ve been given?

What about your story? Which way do you see it?

The terrifying experience of looking death in the eye helped clarify these matters for me.

Slipping Away

Province Front Page

The front page of The Province newspaper, a week after the accident. Page A5, is in Part II of this post, linked below.

Twenty years ago, on March 31, 1997 – which was an Easter Monday like today – I ‘snowboarded to the edge of death,’ as the Readers Digest would later put it.

It had proved well worth it for my dad, brother and me to cross into the US from our home near Vancouver, Canada for a day of skiing and snowboarding at Mount Baker, Washington. The conditions were epic, and we came to the last run of the day as the mountain closed. Feeling confident, I ducked under an out-of-bounds rope to drift in some staggering powder just off the ski run before heading home. I went alone, but with my dad and brother’s knowledge.

After my fun, I wanted to get back to the regular ski run. Some neon orange “Danger Cliff!” signs had caught my attention and, having peered over the precipice and guessed a 40′ drop to the tops of the trees, I headed parallel to the cliff edge through a break in the trees that looked like a path out. Inadvertently, I was descending into what I would later learn was called “Gordie’s Gulch” after a poor man named Gordie who met his end right there. I nearly met mine.

I only realised after it was too late that the gulch shot sharply around to the cliff edge. I tried to stop by turning my board, but my back edge just skidded over a thin layer of snow on top of ice. The chute quickly spit me off the cliff. I remember the sensation in my stomach and throat as I fell: that sick feeling you get when descending in a rapid high-rise elevator. I fell 14 meters to the cliff base, only to descend a further 7 meters into a crevasse that gaped there. I had fallen well over 60′ in total, was trapped underground, and now trickling water from melted snow (which created the crevasse) was chilling me. I was suspended 2/3 the way down the ice hole, with another 10′ or so to fall beneath me. If I fell all the way to the bottom, I would disappear even further down whatever channel the water finally escaped through.

Alone in that crevasse, slowly freezing, I learned the meaning of terror. I screamed. I clawed. But no one could hear me as I was some distance from the nearest run and 20′ beneath the surface. My cries were lost amidst the thick trees above. There was nothing I could do to save myself. Despite my best efforts to undo my mistake, it was quickly becoming fatal. I felt life slipping away.

Crucial Premonitions

My brother Carl was the first one to sense something was going to go wrong. On the chairlift up with dad for our last run he had initially agreed to go out-of-bounds with me in an area just off the ski run below. We had admired two boarders cutting some thick untouched powder there. “Want to check that out with me Carl?” I asked as the chair hauled us up, “Sure,” he said. But when we got to the top and boarded over to the out-of-bounds line, he suddenly changed his mind: “I’m not going to go and I don’t think you should go either Andy.” It was strange for my younger brother to be so forthright with me. But I looked to my dad, and dad said it was OK for me to go as long as I stayed where the others had gone. I took off, and dad headed down the regular ski run on his own too. But Carl could see something coming that we couldn’t. He stayed glued to that out-of-bounds line watching me until I was out of his sight.

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Dad was the second one to know something was going to go wrong. As he headed down the regular run he came across a little girl, maybe about 8, who had fallen and lost her skis. She was alone, with no one to help her. So dad collected her skis and poles and got her on her way. She headed off, and soon after so did he.

But he came across her a second time. Again, she had lost her skis. He helped calm her, as she was more upset this time. He got her skis back on again, and asked where her parents were. They were at the bottom waiting for her, she replied. He sent her off again.

But it was only minutes before the little girl fell and lost her skis a third time! The end of the run was now in sight though. So dad got her kit back on for the third time and sent her on her way. But this time he kept her within view right until she got to the bottom, where he saw her ski into the arms of her waiting parents. One would think that would be a comforting scene to behold. But instead, as he testifies in the Shiver video in Part II of this post, the moment they embraced it hit him like a bolt of lightning that the reason it was given to him to help this little girl was because his kid was going to be needing help he couldn’t give that day. He was immediately alert.

This sense of alarm given independently to both Carl and dad, before they met each other and before there were any concrete signs that something had actually happened to me, proved crucial. The result was that the moment my dad and my brother met at the bottom of the run, Carl said to dad, “Dad, I think Andy is in trouble.” Dad, having just come away from the scene with the little girl, simply said, “I know. Let’s go.” As a result, they didn’t wait for a half-hour to see if I turned up, as would be expected. Instead they went immediately to the search and rescue station and reported me missing. Given how close I would come to death that evening, it is no exaggeration to say that these premonitions were indispensable.

There wouldn’t be a half-hour of margin to spare in the end.

A Miraculous Find

The search and rescue immediately ordered a sweep of all the ski runs on the hill, and nothing turned up. Most often missing skiers are found in that step. “Something’s up” Randy Hook, a seasoned member of the Mt. Baker Ski Patrol, said to himself. My brother Carl was able to then take a group of rescuers up to where I had ducked under the out-of-bounds line. Because he had watched me until I was out of his sight, he was able to point out a flat portion of the hill where he had seen that I lost momentum and fallen in the snow. The rescuers were then able to then find my body print, and follow my track down to a general area down near the cliff. But my track got confused with that of others that I had ran in, and there was a set of boot prints from a snowboarder who had encountered the cliff, but then had (wisely!) un-strapped and hiked out on foot. So the search above the cliff was inconclusive.

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There were many heroes on that day, but Randy Hook stands out. He found me, and descended into the crevasse to be with me. See the video included in Part II of this reflection to hear him personally.

Randy Hook, however, followed his hunch to search down below Gordie’s Gulch. From some distance further down the slope, he looked up toward the base of the cliff I had fallen off and noticed a large chunk of snow that was sitting upon an otherwise pristine surface at the base of the cliff. “That’s strange,” he thought to himself. He concluded that the chunk of snow must have fallen from the cliff face far above and, merely on that hunch, hiked up the slope to the base of the cliff in waist deep snow for well over a half-hour. When he finally arrived there, he was surprised to discover a gaping crevasse!

He yelled down the hole, “Andy, are you there?!” Thankfully, I was still conscious and, panicked as I was at that stage, I told him in no uncertain terms, using very unfortunate language, how quickly I thought he should get me out! If I had not been conscious, it is doubtful Randy would have found me as he could barely make out the tops of my hands, which were caught up above my head, as he peered into the darkness of the hole. If he hadn’t heard me, it would have been much more difficult for him to see me.

And so the rescue began.

Randy radioed Martha Bergen, who was coordinating the search of the mountain from the rescue station, where she stood by my dad and brother. Everyone in the room was electrified that I had been found. Hugs and tears flowed freely. By then, I had been missing for a desperate hour-and-a-half. By the time I had been found, family from as far away as the Island of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, were already notified that I was missing. Calls were made, bringing great relief to many. It seemed that the hard part was over now that I was found. Yes, I was in a crevasse. But I was no longer missing, was responsive, and had well over an hour of daylight remaining. Everything should be OK.

Out-of-bounds, out-of-earshot, under the ground, and still conscious after over a 60′ fall and an hour-and-a-half of slowly freezing in the crevasse, it was nothing short of a miracle I was found alive.

This initial sense of relief, however, would vanish as quickly as it came.

The Real Work Begins (and Desperation Descends)

Once I failed to turn up after the initial sweep of the ski runs, all staff on the mountain – not only patrol staff, but even the young adults who ran the many shops, kitchens and chairlifts – were asked to stay on site even though the ski area had closed. Once I was found, a whole team was sent to the location to help the senior rescuers. They used snowmobiles to get equipment and many dedicated and selfless men and women onto the scene.

Their first step was to lower Randy down the crevasse to the point that his crampons were just out of arms’ reach from my head. From there he talked to me, comforted me, and sought to place chunks of snow in order to divert the water that was running down the face of the crevasse down against my bare back, which had been exposed to the ice when my jacket was thrust up around my shoulders and neck in the crunch of the landing. They realised that I had farther to fall if they were not careful.

Their first attempt at extracting me was a feat of mountain engineering. They buried a ski anchor in the slope some ways down from the opening. They had attached to the anchor a pulley system that would significantly advantage any pull on the rope running through it. They lowered the rope, with a shoulder harness on the end of it, down the hole to Randy. He asked me to get it under my armpits so they could attempt a pull.

By that point my hands were significantly mangled and frozen, as I had removed my gloves and bloodied my hands in an early desperate attempt to claw my way out of the hole. Further, my arms were caught above my head because of the way I fell and the snow that packed in around me as I landed. Any attempt at getting the harness under my arms was futile. So Randy then stooped down and tied the webbing of the harness to my bare wrists as tightly as he could.

He gave the OK. The men and women above heaved on that rope. My arms shot in the air. I’m told, with the pulley advantage and the manpower behind the pull, they reckon they could have lifted a Volkswagen Bug off the ground. But my screaming and movement seemed to act in inverse relation the harder they pulled.

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Martha Bergen, here featured in a re-creation of the rescue for the Shiver documentary, actually coordinated the rescue by radio from the rescue shack, supporting my dad and brother as they listened on. My dad would later comment, “She was absolutely amazing.”

They gave me a break. And then they tried again, this time a bit harder. I hollered in excruciating pain as the webbing around my wrists cut deeply into the frozen flesh (I still bear scars on my hands from it – which is no complaint of course!). “We are going to pull his arms out,” Randy yelled up, “his board is anchoring him in the hole.”

The fact that my board had locked me there was thus both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it clearly kept me from descending to the bottom of the crevasse where I surely would have died. A curse because it kept them from being able to extract me from the surface,

Now, with the realisation that the crew had a herculean dig ahead of them, and with the remaining daylight quickly fading, desperation descended on that mountain and curled its icy grip around many hearts. The joy at my being found which, only an hour or so earlier had overjoyed the rescue shack, now soured into despair. Dad and Carl listened on as Martha coordinated the rescue from there, and heard as she quietly instructed that the air ambulance not be called in. The costs involved in bringing the helicopter would be horrendous, and things were all of a sudden looking very bleak indeed.

Instead of the chopper, an ambulance would be waiting to begin treatment on the way to the hospital, should I make it to the parking lot of Lower Lodge alive. But at this point, it seemed likely that the ambulance had a much more subdued and somber task ahead.

Ten Tons, They Reckon

They would have to dig – all hands in. Starting back from the hole some distance, they sliced a swath out of the slope, a triangle about 5 people wide and the 20′ down to where I was. It would prove a dig not of minutes, but of hours. The sun disappeared, generators growled, and the lights they powered cast the shadows of a desperate team, shovels flailing – with men, women, and equipment being replaced the moment they failed. A first line would shovel through legs to a lower line which would try and get the snow to the side. After digging for some time, they thought they were level with where I might be. So they dug a horizontal tunnel into the crevasse. They broke through into it only to see Randy’s head. “Another six feet!” he said, “Go!”

Province Front Page

As the hours passed, I became less and less responsive to Randy. In the video in Part II of this post, you can hear something of his own testimony to what it was like to hang there in that hole with me. He had done so much to save me, only to be given the front-row seat as I died before his eyes. He was helpless as he watched me shiver, then shiver violently, only then to pass into the final stages of hypothermia: ceasing to shiver at all. I stopped responding to him altogether.

“He’s profoundly hypothermic. He’s going!!!” Randy yelled out to the weary team. At that point, I am told, a chorus of determined voices cried out, their pleas ringing through the sleepy trees that had muffled my buried screams only hours earlier. They couldn’t help but wake now: “Andy, we’re coming for you! Hold on Andy!!” they demanded.

The digging then again drove through that hill at a frantic pace. They attempted their second tunnel, estimating that they were now on the level with me. A search and rescue volunteer, who was also a pastor – a giant of a man named Jim Millson – was using a shovel to hack the last few feet to my location through the ice that encrusted the hole. He cracked and cracked at it, chipping it away, until he got to a portion of ice that wouldn’t break away anymore. He hit at it and hit at it, only to then brush the area and realise he had been hitting my knee with the steel spade! I didn’t make a sound.

Jim cleared a hole big enough to remove me. Then a paramedic named Bill Boyd ducked in and tied a further piece of webbing to me so, if I fell further at this crucial stage, they’d have a hope of recovering me. Jim then reentered the tunnel. He cut the bindings of my snowboard with a bread knife from one of the kitchens. He bear-hugged me with a rope tied to him. They pulled on him, and he gently drew me out. After about six hours trapped inside of the crevasse, I was now free from it. But all signs seemed to verge on it being too late.

I had only a very faint pulse, my skin was a deep blue colour, and I was barely breathing. They gently placed me on a rescue sled and began to hand me down the hill ever so slowly, being careful not to jolt the sled in any way, knowing that any sudden shock could be all the excuse my heart needed to take its last beat. The batteries on the portable defibrillator had died due to the cold, so they needed to be extremely careful. Right then, a fresh band of rescuers arrived and took up the task of mushing me down the hill.

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Jim Millson, a pastor and volunteer with search and rescue, pulled me out of the hole and, once home, prayed for me through the night.

As they hand-bombed me down the slope toward the Lower Lodge parking lot where the ambulance waited, many stayed behind to begin cleaning up the gear. One of them was Jim. He later told me that he felt like there was a dark heaviness resting on the scene of the accident, like a “spirit of death” was brooding there, to use his own words. At one point he knelt in the snow and pleaded to God for me. He would soon return to his family’s cabin home, not far from the mountain, only to find himself so disturbed that he wouldn’t sleep, but instead would pray for me through the night. In the morning, after his all-night vigil, he found an assurance rest on his heart that if I lived, I wouldn’t just live, but would live a new life with Jesus Christ at the heart of it.

Near where he prayed on the hill stood a massive mound of freshly turned snow – a testament to the heroic efforts of so many who had done all they could. Some of them, who of course spent a good portion of their job moving snow around with heavy machinery, reckoned that the massive heap would weigh approximately 10 tons.

Amazed to have found me, it was now yet another miracle that they got me out of the hole before it could become a treacherous coffin. All knew, however, that another rescue would have to be executed throughout the night, by very skilled medical professionals, if the thread of life slowly slipping through my fingers was to hold.

 



Remembering Randy Hook

I didn’t ever get to know Randy Hook well, but I can say that I owe my life to him. As you can see from the story above, there were many heroes involved in my rescue that day. But I am sure each of them would acknowledge that Randy stood out.

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There were many heroes on that day, but Randy Hook stands out. He found me, and descended into the crevasse to be with me over the 5 hours it took to get me out.

Randy found me, and he descended into the crevasse to be with me throughout the rescue. He sought to keep me conscious, talking to me until I became unresponsive, and he tried to divert the cold water that was running over me, which no doubt helped a great deal. Crucially, he provided the vital link of communication between our situation in the crevasse, and those working to rescue me on the surface.

Sadly, Randy passed away on January 1, 2017, at only 67 years of age. He was found by one of his Ski Patrol friends hunched over on his snowmobile on Mount Baker, having suffered a fatal heart attack while checking the rope lines for the ski boundary area. He died doing what he loved on a beautiful spot of the mountain with an incredible view of surrounding valleys. It is now called “Hook’s Corner.” I hope to visit it one day.

Randy leaves behind three-step daughters Michelle, Melinda, and Melissa, and a number of grandchildren. I’ve had the privilege of conversing with Michelle since his passing, and to share with her my enduring gratitude for Randy and what he did.

You can find Randy’s obituary here, and the best tribute to him that I can find online is by The Mount Baker Experience magazine: Ode to Randy Hook: Remembering a Mount Baker Legend. The article highlights Randy’s central role in my rescue.

As you read the comments people have made about Randy, his selfless dedication to others is highlighted again and again. I am sure Michelle’s personal comment to me grasped it best when she said, “I am overwhelmed by how many lives he touched.”

I am honoured to count myself as just one among that great number.

You can hear Randy’s own testimony to his experience of my rescue in the Shiver hypothermia documentary embedded in Part II of this reflection.



To continue the story, see Snowboarding to the Edge of Death ~ An Easter Monday Reflection, Part II

There you will also find the Shiver hypothermia TV documentary done on the story, a link to the Reader’s Digest ‘drama in real life’ article, the second page of The Province newspaper, complementing the front page above, and further highlights of key rescuers involved.

Continue Here.

 

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