It was 20 years ago today…I nearly died

Recently on the internet there was reminiscing of the Northridge (California) Earthquake of 1994, including a faux play-by-play of it on Twitter.  We didn’t live too far from the epicenter, but far enough to not suffer any consequences of the quake.  I’d grown up in SoCal, earthquakes were nothing new, although now we were living with the San Andreas Fault within sight just a couple of miles away – so any quake made you wonder if it was the big one.  But what nearly killed me wasn’t this quake, it was something that happened exactly a month later.

Starting in the early 90’s I was on a hot streak – of ending up in the hospital with a serious injury about every 9 months.  Luckily I was young and healed quickly, but it was getting tiring playing sports and breaking or tearing something for my efforts.  Broke my first bone at around 25 (hand – softball), ripped my head open first time snowboarding, broke my arm in 3 places on my first trip to Colorado snowboarding, then the topper was tearing my Achilles tendon in half (again, softball).

6 months later (after surgery, a non-walking cast, and painful physical therapy) I was cleared to resume physical activity at the level I was used to – which was fairly active.  So a big snowboarding trip to Tahoe with my best friend was planned.  This is what would nearly kill me.

The first day (at Heavenly Ski Area) went off without a problem, foot did well, although I did spend a lot of time in the hotel gym working it and warming it up.  For the next day the weather was moving in, but it never stopped us before.  We were used to any conditions at any time and were pretty good at it by this point.  Our initial plan was Kirkwood, but we were warned by locals that when fronts move in, the wind can be so fierce there it isn’t any fun at all – and lifts could be closed down.  It was suggested that another ski area is more shielded and could be calmer – Sierra At Tahoe, which had recently changed it’s name from Sierra Ski Ranch.  So we decided on that.

That morning it was snowing, but we’d seen worse.  My friend Jason video’d while I was driving, saying the fateful words “Will this be the day Jason and Chris get lost in the storm?” or something to that effect.  We didn’t video on the slopes because of the weather, but may have taken a blurry picture or two before putting the camera away.  How interesting it would have been to have a camcorder with us for what followed.

We’d gone out of bounds at small SoCal ski areas that we were very familiar with, knowing where we’d end up.  But we unwittingly went out bounds this day due to a confusing ski area map and poor out-of-bounds markings.  The “run” we thought we were going down, and it did look like a run, was just taking us further away from the ski area and toward a cliff.  Unfortunately, we didn’t figure out we were on a cliff until it started to collapse, uncovering a frozen waterfall.  We were in an avalanche.

We both went straight down the face of the cliff and stayed in front of the avalanche until we hit the valley and had nowhere to go.  We both got buried up to our necks in snow.  Luckily I was buried in a crouching position and was able to get unburied easily, my friend was buried standing up and more snow was coming down.  We hurriedly got him unburied and looked up to see how far down we had come.  It was going to be a long and hard walk back up.

So we started hiking uphill, but had to offset to the side because of the steepness of the terrain – all the while the storm was getting worse and the snow and wind was getting heavier.  Moving was difficult, we’d often fall into chest deep snow, or big holes near boulders and creeks – it was often two steps forward, one step back, at best.  But those snowboards were life savers, I have no doubt if it weren’t for those (or if we were in regular ski boots) we never would have made it.

Over 4 hours later we could hear the ski patrol doing their final runs, making noise, making sure no one was still out there.  We were still out there, and we’d yell back, or bang our boards on trees – but they didn’t hear us, and shortly thereafter the lifts stopped.  At this point we knew we were screwed, and dark wasn’t too far behind.

We kept crawling up the hill, mostly on our hands and knees.  It was cold and getting colder.  I figured at the very least I was going to re-tear my achilles, get frostbite, and pneumonia as well as I’d been battling a cold.  But as the hours went on, I started figuring those were best case scenarios – maybe we wouldn’t survive at all!  We would occasionally stop to catch our breath (it was over 9,000′ and I would find out later my lungs were filling up with fluid) and argue about which way to go, or how long to rest.

One situation reminded me of the Poseidon Adventure movie where one group wanted to go down and the other up.  I felt we weren’t getting anywhere going up, except for exhausting ourselves and suggested we follow a creek downhill.  This would have been a fatal mistake as the highway I thought was nearby actually turned away and there was nothing but wilderness for a very long distance.  At another point, Jason wanted to sit longer and maybe even nap under a large tree.  I figured if we fell asleep we’d never wake up – so we trudged on, with no food or water.  It’s over 8 hours at this point, in total darkness.

Finally we saw a sign of civilization, a power line overhead – but even this seemed like an optical illusion with all the wind and snow.  But we decided to follow it and the ground seemed more firm and we were able to mostly walk upright, but still uphill.  Then I saw a faint white light in the distance.  Only problem was Jason didn’t see it, and doubted it’s existence.  This created an interesting feeling and discussion as we continued walking towards “the light”.

While I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic classes, was even an altar boy once, and married in a Catholic church, I rarely attended church once out on my own.  Then, like now, I’m not a big joiner in groups, causes, etc – which naturally would include church mass as I’m also not a big fan of big crowds.  Doesn’t mean I’m an atheist, just means I don’t have to prove to anyone what I believe.  My friend Jason on the other hand was raised differently and probably pretty close to an atheist.  I only mention the above because of the fact I saw this light and he didn’t.  As it was occurring, I knew either that light was our salvation (where we’d be found or find a way out) or where I or we would die.

The last couple of hours, walking towards that light, we talked about life and death and often wondered if we were already dead.  Oddly, the storm had abated some and we weren’t suffering and shivering as much as we had – sort of a warmth and peace had come over us.  Yep, we figured we were goners.  The only problem for me was all I was thinking about was my wife and my baby son.  I couldn’t be dead, I didn’t accept it, and wouldn’t accept it.  Finally, Jason saw the same light – it was real, it was atop a ski lift.

Once we got to that light, which was not just atop a ski lift, but at the top of the ski area (we had hiked a long way and gained a lot of altitude) we saw it included a little glassed in area for the operator to keep warm.  We figured we’d be spending the night in that when we saw the lights of the larger warming hut in the distance.  So we hiked toward that, hugging and realizing we’d made it when reaching it.  Luckily, the doors were unlocked and we went in.  Unluckily, the lights were off and it was as dark as dark can be.  I had to use the remote from my car lock (which was a small red LED) clicking it repeatedly to see anything in front of me.

I stumbled around in complete darkness (think Silence of the Lambs darkness) clicking the remote and trying to see or sense anything.  At one point I realized I was in front of a mirror, then urinal – I was in the men’s restroom!  I finally stumbled to the closet with the circuit breakers and turned on all of the lights.  To the cafeteria we went as we were famished and running on fumes.  We found lunchmeat, and Jason found beer – which I didn’t think was the best thing for the kind of dehydration we were facing – but we were just glad to be alive.

Our next goal was to find a phone (this was before portable cellphones), which we found in the first aid area.  We were soaked from sweat and shivering, so we cranked up the space heaters and put some of our wet socks and sweaters over them to dry.  We called 911 and they didn’t believe our story.  We asked them to call the ski area, but of course it was closed.  Somehow they got ahold of the owner of the ski area and with some questions and answers relayed through the 911 operator we convinced them we weren’t prank calling them.

I then called my wife to let her know I was okay, but she didn’t know anything was wrong.  Then we got a call from the ski area owner saying he’d try to get us off the top of the mountain.  First they tried to start the lift, this failed as it was way too windy.  Then it was a snowmobile – he couldn’t make it very far in the deep snow and got stuck.  Then it was the snowcat that was due to groom the runs.  At this point we were starting to fade, and laid in cots and started really feeling awful physically.

Finally, the snowcat arrived and took us down the mountain.  When we got to my SUV, it was buried up to the windows in snow – and was the only vehicle in the parking lot.  Jason passed out on the drive back to Lake Tahoe, I struggled down the highway back to our hotel.  Our ordeal lasted at least 12 hours, and we had to check out of our hotel in just a few hours.  After telling the hotel about happened, they let us check out late – we passed out for hours.

After arriving back home (a 6+ hour drive later the same day) and telling my wife the whole story, she was pretty horrified.  I still felt lousy and went to urgent care where I found out my achilles tendon held up, I didn’t have frostbite, but I did have pulmonary edema and it appeared as if I’d run 2 marathons back to back.  The doctor said that if I was out there just a couple hours longer I would’ve drowned because of the fluid buildup in my lungs.  Turns out I also had PTSS (now called PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as I’d have night sweats, flashbacks of the event, etc.  Jason didn’t seem to have any physical or psychological issues – although he started drinking fairly heavily after this.

After telling some people about what happened, I made the front page of the local paper as well as the local TV station.  The picture on the front page showed my snowboard, so I sent the article to the manufacturer (Sims Snowboards) and told them that snowboard was the difference between life and death (as it was) and they posted it at their factory and sent us two of their best jackets to help us if we ever get in that situation again.

The ski area was a different story.  At first they tried to blame us for what occurred.  I talked to an attorney in the Tahoe area and he said no attorney will take the case as none want to hurt the ski resorts or the skiing industry.  I then found news articles of other skiers who had the same thing happen to them – and not all of them survived.  I didn’t want to sue them (although my family felt differently since I nearly died), but just to have them change the signage so this couldn’t happen again.  They didn’t want to “be like Heavenly” with ugly signage all over the place.  When I let them know I knew about the other incidents there and that I’d publicize them, and that the same thing happened again after us, they changed their mind.

Still suffering from night sweats and flashbacks, I mentioned it to my supervisor at work and he said I should talk to the free counselor the FAA provides on premises.  Not believing much in head shrinks or any of that nonsense, he pushed harder and said just go once and see what she says, it’s free and on work time.  So I did.  At the same time there were people with PTSD seeing the counselor over the Northridge Earthquake.  These people lived near the epicenter and were adversely affected by it.  But she said what I was experiencing was far worse as what they went though lasted minutes, but what we went through lasted hours thinking we were actually dead.

The counselor said the best way to deal with it is to confront it – I just wanted to quit reliving it.  I suggested that I go back and do exactly what we had planned to do and finish it.  Apparently, this was a good plan and seemed to work as the symptoms slowly went away.

The ski area’s public relations person gave us a free pass (with lodging) indefinitely.  We went back a month to the day later and finished what we had started.  While I could have taken advantage of that free pass, I only used it one other time.  I wasn’t out to hurt them financially.

We were invited to visit in the summer to see what they were doing to address the issue – which included posts put in the ground were trees were sparse with out-of-bounds signs.  During that visit, we got to retrace our steps from beginning to end, and videotaped it as well.  We camped nearby and reflected on what occurred, something we did repeatedly and still do to this day.  We have totally different takes on the event.

Jason says he’s glad it happened, that it “tested our mettle”, etc.  I didn’t need my mettle tested, and I had a young wife and a new baby – he was single.  All I could think of was that I was going to leave behind a widow and a fatherless child.  I could have easily lived without that event ever occurring.  The only upside is that it’s an interesting story.

If anything it tested my faith, if not nearly killing it altogether.  I felt utterly alone up there on that mountain.  I have family who think they have psychic abilities, some have even told me I have these same abilities – sure didn’t seem so that night up there.  I still try to find meaning in it – a test of sorts?  Something to remind me of what I had?  The old story that “God was carrying you”?  No one was carrying me but me.  I felt no help.  I pretty much felt abandoned and that I was the only thing that was going to get me out of it.

We have some serious gallows humor in my line of work, and people did make fun of me about what happened – but I found no humor in it at all.  I didn’t need testing, I knew I loved my wife and son and were lucky to have both, I knew I had been blessed (used ironically) with my good fortune over the years – as I was after this event as well.  But I didn’t need a lesson in humility – I knew all of these things and was grateful.

On the other hand I know I was given a second chance and everything after that day is just icing on the cake.  I started writing a story about it, even a song, but they both just stopped unfinished.  The visits to the FAA counselor eventually lead to my transfer to Colorado, something I’d always wanted.  So, in a way I guess I can indirectly thank this event for getting me out of SoCal.  But I think that would’ve happened anyway.

Now, 20 years later looking back, I can’t imagine the ramifications if I would’ve actually died on that mountain.  Not only would I have had a fatherless son, but my second one would never had been born.  There are times, with both Jason and myself, where we dream we are still up on that mountain.  We often wonder if everything since then is the actual dream and we’re still up there.  Or if we really did die.  He likes to get all Matrix-y about these things, even before The Matrix came out.

Me, I take things more at face value.  And I really hope we’re really not still up there, that would suck.

About Chris Rodriguez

Chris is the editor/publisher of LightningRod Blog - as well as founder/editor of Wrongmont, Longmont Advocate, Vote!Longmont, Longmont Politics, the LightningRod Radio Network, as well as being the original Longmont Examiner. Chris is a writer and talker - whether it be blogs, podcasts, music, or public speaking. When he's not heard on Air Traffic radio, he can be heard on his podcasts or seen in the local paper causing trouble.
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