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Survivors Recall Horror on a Snowy Mountain

January 24, 2003|Sue Fox and Carla Hall | Times Staff Writers

REVELSTOKE, Canada — With strips of coarse fur bound to their skis for traction, they zigzagged up the mountain, beyond the tree line. Keith Lindsay and a few others had already clambered up a snowy bowl onto a tiny plateau amid the breathtaking peaks of the Selkirk Mountains, when they heard a loud thump behind them.

"Avalanche!" two skiers cried. It happened in a heartbeat: With a massive shudder, a thick sheet of snow cascaded down the mountain. Lindsay whipped around and skied back to the brink, a 6-foot drop where the wall of snow had broken free. A minute ago, there had been a dozen skiers scattered over the slope. Nearly all of them had vanished.

Lindsay, a 40-year-old lifelong skier from Truckee, Calif., had been laughing, chatting and skiing with the group, which included five friends from home, for two days. They were skilled, fit skiers, the kind who long ago tired of chairlifts. Most had traveled for hours to get to remote Durrand Glacier Chalet, 6,360 feet up in the Selkirks.

By 10:45 a.m. Monday, the group of 21, led by expert guide Ruedi Beglinger, was climbing toward Tumbledown Glacier, northwest of the chalet, planning to ski down. Thirteen were in the lead, 10 minutes ahead of eight others.

The avalanche hit like a bomb. Lindsay and the other unhurt skiers whirled into action, ripping the skins from their skis and racing down to dig their friends out before they suffocated under the rock-hard snow.

"You dig and you dig and you dig," Lindsay recounted numbly by telephone from his home, in his first interview since the ordeal that made international headlines. "You couldn't really be emotional about it if you plan on working fast."

At the end of a slick path where the avalanche had bulldozed over the skiers, Lindsay said, a few people were buried to their chests, flailing helplessly. The snow was packed so tight around them that some could not even yank their arms free. One man was buried to his neck.

These were the lucky ones. Eight others, including Lindsay's pal Kathleen Kessler, 39, lay beneath the snow. They had been virtually frozen in place as they fell, encased in a tangle of skis and poles, their heavy backpacks jammed in with them. All wore transmitters strapped to their chests in case of an avalanche -- when powdery snow swirls fast, melts faster and hardens like concrete almost instantly.

Under the snow, the transmitters were emitting signals. Clutching his receiver, Lindsay scanned the landscape until he picked one up. He jabbed his ski pole into the snow, trying to find someone.

"The first person I dug out was about 10 feet down," Lindsay said. "He was upside down and backwards."

It was Dave Finnery, a 30-year-old chalet employee. Soaked in melting snow and sweat, Lindsay struggled to free the man's head. The hole was now so deep that Lindsay had to carve a ledge to hold the snow he was shoveling, so he wouldn't have to heave it all the way up.

"I worked on him for probably seven minutes," Lindsay recalled. But Finnery was dead.

All around, others were also digging frantically, hollering for collapsible shovels and poles and especially for Heidi Biber, another Truckee skier and a nurse, who was dashing among the victims administering CPR.

Then Lindsay picked up another signal. Ken Wylie, an experienced guide, was buried 4 to 5 feet down, one of his skis pointing straight up. A group of skiers quickly gathered to dig him out, expecting to find another corpse.

As they got closer, they heard a groan.

"Hearing him from beneath the snow made us shovel 10 times faster," Lindsay said. "His theory was that the groans were because we were pretty much standing on top of him and his lungs were expelling air."

Wylie, one of the last to be dug out, was the only buried skier who lived. He told Lindsay later that he had tried to create an air pocket, then closed his eyes and relaxed as best he could. "He pretty much shut his body down," Lindsay said. "I would say that's 99% of the reason he survived. You're not panicky, you're not struggling. He basically made himself pass out."

Fifteen minutes had spun by before rescue helicopters, summoned on Beglinger's radio, began to arrive. The sky was overcast, the fog so thick that the choppers needed several passes to land. In the confusion, Lindsay saw about a dozen paramedics and other rescue workers stream out of the helicopters, looking for victims. By then, the magnitude of the disaster was becoming tragically clear.

As one chopper sped Wylie to the hospital, the 13 other survivors, wet, shivering, exhausted, helped the rescue crew dig out the seven who suffocated, frozen in place. Kessler was dead. So were Craig Kelly, 36, a world champion snowboarder from the United States who lived in British Columbia; Dennis Yates, 50, a ski instructor from Hollywood; Ralph Lunsford, 49, of Littleton, Colo.; and three Canadians -- Finnery; Naomi Heffler, 25, of Calgary; and Jean-Luc Schwendener, 40, of Canmore.

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