FAIRBANKS—Buried in snow over his head Saturday in the mountains near Summit Lake, memories of hugging his children flashed through snowmachiner Sean Herring’s mind.
The Fairbanks resident had just become the second person in two weeks to be fully buried by an avalanche in the area, despite more than a decade of experience riding in mountainous terrain and having avoided the steeper, snow-loaded, seemingly more dangerous slopes all day.
Herring said in an interview Tuesday that he forced himself to calm down while he was under the mass of snow. He realized that panicking would result in his death.
“I was kind of feeling like I was already dead, and I was saying goodbye to my kids. It’s hard to explain. It’s like I was losing my kids,” Herring said. “I kept thinking, ‘There’s no way this is happening.’ It felt like a dream.”
“It was like, ‘You’re going to die or you’re going to get out of here.’”
Herring was part of a group of six friends, all of whom were wearing avalanche beacons and carrying probes and shovels in case of a burial.
Another member of the group, Clyde Hewitt, said the men had been enjoying riding in several feet of powder on top of a deeper base, the product of strong storms that have hit Interior Alaska and the Eastern Alaska Range this winter. They knew the snowpack was wind-loaded in spots, and they had seen some natural slides, Hewitt said. The snowmachiners were mostly just looking at the steeper mountains, taking pictures and staying away from the slopes they thought were more prone to slide.
They stopped to take a break a little before 4 p.m., with the sun setting in the subarctic sky.
“Nature called” for Herring, who started up his 2013 Summit X 800 and rode away from the group, out of sight, Hewitt said.
What they did not know was that Herring changed course after they could not see him any more.
Herring’s friends saw what looked like a small snow slide, but they surmised it had not hit Herring because they had seen him leave heading in a different direction, Hewitt said.
About 15 or 20 minutes went by.
“We were sitting there waiting and waiting. He’d been gone for kind of a long time,” Hewitt said.
Meantime, Herring was struggling for his life.
He had ridden down a frozen riverbed and parked a few feet above it. There was a small hill about 50 feet tall next to him, Herring said. He guessed the hill’s steepness to be roughly 40 degrees.
All of sudden, Herring noticed snow moving below him in the riverbed, and when he looked up, snow was sliding at him from above.
“The whole hillside was sliding at me,” he said. “Not like a chunk, but the whole little hill.”
Herring was wearing a backpack with inflatable airbags that can deploy in an instant and are designed to help keep the wearer from sinking deep into an avalanche. But the slide happened so fast that he was not able to pull the cord that triggers the airbags.
He jumped upward from the snowmachine, and the snow hit “like somebody dumped a loader bucket of snow on me,” he said. He tried to swim through it before it set up like concrete around his legs.
The top layer kept moving, pulling on his backpack and pouring into his helmet, choking him, Herring said. It eventually locked his right arm in place, but his left arm stayed free.
“The snow was getting higher and higher, and I could see for a minute there that it wasn’t a super gigantic slide, but I was getting really concerned because it wasn’t stopping,” Herring said. “I just kept punching the snow until it stopped. When it did stop, thankfully, I was still able to see light.”
Still, Herring’s head was now under the snow, some of which he had inhaled, and his fear was intense. The claustrophobia was almost unbearable, he said.
“You hear people talk about it all the time, but you have to stop yourself from panicking to even do anything,” he said.
Forcing himself to calm down, Herring used his free hand to clear snow away from his face and, eventually, made a hole to the surface through which he could breathe. He thought about waiting for his friends to dig him out, but loose powder was still falling in the hole and there was a chance that more would rebury him.
So Herring slowly unburied himself, sawing through the now hard-packed snow with his hand and popping out chunks by flexing his back. He crawled out of the hole uninjured, collapsing on the snow’s surface right before his friends drove up worried about him. Hewitt and the others were cursing and angry at themselves for not coming sooner, said Herring, who estimated his friends arrived 20 or 30 minutes after the avalanche.
Hewitt said he was amazed that his friend was able to claw his way out.
“It was a superhuman feat,” Hewitt said. “He was there kind of gasping and exhausted.”
The six men spent the next two hours digging out Herring’s snowmachine, which was buried under about 7 feet of snow. The avalanche’s depth appeared to be about 8 feet total and beyond the reach of their probes, Hewitt said.
“It was so deep,” Hewitt said. “So deep."
That night, when the friends were safe at a cabin closer to Summit Lake, Herring had trouble falling asleep, reliving the nightmare of being trapped in snow, waking repeatedly with a jolt.
He had been lying there thinking about how if the circumstances were slightly different — maybe if there had been another 6 inches of snow covering his head, or if the avalanche had not left him in a mostly upright position — he would be dead.
“It was an unbelievably close call,” Herring said.
Herring said he was not mad at his friends for not coming to rescue him sooner, though he said he has had time to reflect on that in the days since surviving the avalanche. One lesson from the incident, Herring said, was the importance of investigating any avalanches near a snowmachine path, just in case.
Staying together, even when seeking some privacy to answer nature’s call, and keeping away from terrain traps like the riverbed were other lessons learned, Herring and Hewitt said.
The men admitted the risk of an avalanche, of which they were well aware, was higher than anticipated, especially on a small hill that Herring, an experienced backcountry traveler, described as “micro-terrain.”
“I felt confident before this. This just reset that for me,” Herring said. “That was just a clear, pure shot of how you can think you have everything under control, but you don’t even know how far from that you can be.”
After the avalanche, Hewitt contacted the new Eastern Alaska Range Avalanche Center to share their story in the hopes of warning others about the avalanche danger in the region.
Harry Penn, a volunteer with the center who serves as its secretary, said even though Herring had dug himself out, it was commendable that everyone in his group was carrying a beacon, shovel and probe, and that they had the knowledge to use those tools effectively.
Penn said many of the comments the avalanche center has gotten following the slide that buried Herring have focused on how the snow-laden hill did not appear big enough to be dangerous.
“The photo suggested it’s a fairly innocuous slope,” Penn said. “You know, it’s not your Hollywood mountain ravine with snow barreling down it. It’s a fairly simple looking hillside. And a slide on that was sufficient to cause an incident that could’ve been far more serious than it was.”
“In terms of info we’d like to keep bringing up to the public is that anything that has the potential to slide can slide. It doesn’t matter where it is or, necessarily, how big it is,” he said.
Sharing the recent avalanche stories on the center’s Facebook page serves the center’s goal of keeping an ever-growing user group of snowmachiners, skiers and snowboarders informed of the conditions and risks in the area, Penn said.
To that end, the center has upcoming educational opportunities. That includes a free workshop Tuesday night at REI in Fairbanks and avalanche safety classes for Level 1 and 2 certification based out of Black Rapids Lodge in March.
There is also a benefit at the lodge Saturday and Sunday to memorialize skier Erik Peterson, who died in an avalanche in the area last December on Rainbow Ridge, and to raise money for the avalanche center.
In the meantime, the center’s volunteers will continue to post weather information and updates from mountain-goers and its steering committee in the form of trip reports, which have often included results from snow tests.
The center will also continue sharing information about any avalanches they hear about or observe, Penn said.
“Our main mission with regards to education is to let people know that these incidents are occurring,” Penn said. “The Summit area is a huge area for snowmachiners. It’s well-populated, so we’ll be letting them know this is happening in their zone.”
Contact staff writer Casey Grove at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @kcgrove.