SURVIVING THE AVALANCHE AT IDAHO’S FRENCHMAN CREEK

BY EMILY STIFLER WOLFE

 

The crack sounded like an aluminum bat colliding with a ball. Lesley Martin turned her head and saw the giant cloud of snow coming at them. She screamed.

With no time to run, she turned and dove facedown onto the ground, put her hands up to protect her face, and the avalanche buried her. As the snow slowed, Lesley cleared an air pocket in front of her snowmobile helmet with her hands, and then it stopped. She couldn’t move.

“I kept telling myself, ‘If I [panic], I’m going to die for sure,’” recalls Lesley, then 70. She tried to stay calm and breathe normally.

Soon though, breathing became difficult, and she lost her cool. She had no idea what happened to her three snowmobiling partners—if they were dead or alive, or if someone might find her.

Struggling to move, Lesley twisted her head inside her helmet and noticed a sliver of light in her left periphery. She realized she could move one arm a few inches, so she scratched at the snow beside her face. More light. Retracting her hand, she was able to pull her glove off a bit and extend her reach. She stopped when she felt cold air, afraid of plugging the hole.

“The only thing that I could do at that point was lay there and think,” Lesley wrote a few weeks after the accident. She felt comfortable, but stressed for air. How could this have happened? Her group thought
they were being cautious by sticking to the flats. She worried about the others—her husband George and their friends Sue and Bob Swanton— and thought of their son Chad, their dogs back at home in Bellevue, Idaho. She didn’t want to die like this.

A feeling of warmth overtook her, and Lesley had a vision she was breathing into a sparkling golden globe. Eventually, the cold crept in, and she lost consciousness.

The group set out for Frenchman Creek, with a plan to play it safe in the low meadows and trees where the Martins had ridden two weeks earlier.


THE TWO COUPLES MET IN 1996, when Sue bought a snowmobile from Lesley. They were all living in Washington state and became fast friends, riding together around the West— from the Pemberton Icefield in British Columbia to West Yellowstone, Montana.

The Martins moved to the Ketchum, Idaho, area in 2000, and the Swantons, now living in Oregon, were out for their annual visit. Their first day it stormed so hard they didn’t ride, and when George Martin read the avalanche advisory the next morning, February 16, 2014, the danger level was rated considerable to high. In the two weeks prior, 60 inches of snow had fallen on a weak, shallow snowpack, and both human-triggered and natural slab avalanches had occurred the previous day, according to the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center.

“Avalanches will likely fail on mid-storm weaknesses and could be large,” the forecast warned. “Avoid wind-loaded slopes, steep consequential terrain, and large avalanche path runouts.”

The group set out for Frenchman Creek, with a plan to play it safe in the low meadows and trees where the Martins had ridden two weeks earlier. On the 90-minute drive up Highway 75 from Bellevue, they were impressed by the amount of new snow on Galena Summit.

They followed a lone snowmobile track up the creek for a half mile, then left the trail to play on some small hills. Three of the four snowmobiles quickly augured into the unsupportable snowpack and had to be dug out. After 2.5 miles, the trail opened into a clearing flanked by steep mountainsides, and the old track disappeared.

With such unpleasant riding, they decided to call it quits, but when Bob and George went to turn their machines around, both got stuck. Lesley and Sue helped dig out, an hour-long process that involved crawling across the snow surface in an attempt to avoid post-holing to their waists. Bob turned Sue’s machine around, while 100 feet away George helped Lesley climb out of a chest-deep hole in the snow. The Martins were laughing together when the avalanche broke above them.

Starting on a northwest-facing slope near tree line, it ran 1,500 vertical feet to the valley floor and across the creek. The crown—the top wall where the slab of snow broke loose—ranged from 2 to 5 feet deep and was more than 1,500 feet wide. It plastered tree trunks 30 feet high with snow. The crack that Lesley heard was either mature timber snapping or the sound of the avalanche fracturing, said Scott Savage, the Sawtooth Avalanche Center forecaster who wrote the accident report.

Sue turned when she heard Lesley scream. “I remember having enough time to think, ‘We’re too far away. It’s going to maybe hit my ankles,’” Sue recalls. But the avalanche flipped her over her snow machine and rolled it onto her leg, pinning her. She felt a crushing weight on her back and chest and couldn’t breathe.

Bob heard the warning cry, and took one step before it hit him.

Both Sue and Bob were buried on their sides about a foot deep, and managed to push an arm through the snow to clear their faces and chests, clawing at the cement-like snow with their hands. Approximately 10 minutes after the avalanche, Bob freed his watch arm and took note of the time: 2:10 p.m. Although they were only 6 feet apart, they couldn’t hear each other at first. By 2:45, Bob was out. He grabbed a shovel from the only snowmobile left unburied and tried digging Sue’s legs out, but his frozen hands were unable to hold it, so they dug without it. By 3 p.m., she, too, was free.

They fumbled with their avalanche beacons, icy fingers almost useless. Bob managed to turn his beacon to search, and they made their way to the spot they’d last seen the Martins.

An arm was sticking out of the snow— George’s. Sue grabbed his gloved hand, hoping he would squeeze back. Limp. The skin on his wrist was ashen. They dusted snow off his face. He was dead.

They yelled for Lesley. Nothing. Bob wanted to look for her, but Sue knew the odds were against them. They were having trouble discerning which signal was which on Bob’s old analog beacon—George and Lesley were less than 5 feet apart, and Sue’s beacon was still transmitting—and even if they did find her, they were too cold to do anything. Bob had worked as a bush pilot in Alaska and Sue was a former Navy medic, so they knew how to make decisions during stressful situations.

“Our hands were so cold, we couldn’t grab a shovel or curl our fingers around anything,” Sue said. “It just kicked in that in order for there to be any chance, we had to get help.”

An hour after the avalanche struck, they made the difficult decision to go for help.

At the trailhead, the Swantons flagged down a car and asked the drivers to call search and rescue. When they pulled into Smiley Creek Lodge, a mile away, a group of experienced backcountry skiers overheard the story. Two of them, Nate Scales and Justin Stevenson, had just taken an avalanche class. They fired up their snowmobiles and pinned it to the accident site. Right behind them, the lodge general manager Alan Rooney followed them on his snow machine, and Bob Swanton, still at the trailhead, geared back up and headed in five minutes later.

Lesley was buried under the snow for 105 minutes.


LESLEY CAME TO when she heard the sound of a snowmobile. When Stevenson arrived at the avalanche debris, he started a beacon search and followed the signal to its lowest reading, 0.3 meters. The snow on the surface was soft, so he started digging with his hands. He bumped Lesley’s helmet, and she moaned. His heart jumped.

“Nate, this person is alive!” he yelled. Scales, assembling his shovel, ran over and they dug frantically, clearing her face and chest. Finally, Lesley could breathe freely.

“What’s your name?” Scales asked, digging her legs out. She told him, then looked to where she’d last seen her husband. She saw Bob bent over his body, and knew George hadn’t made it.

Bob walked over to Lesley and told her that Sue was all right. As Rooney drove Lesley out the bumpy trail, she slumped in front of him, trying to relax as the cold gripped her. She felt grateful Bob and Sue were alive, but hollow inside.

At the highway, Lesley loaded into a warm car where Sue waited—the same one the Swantons had flagged down. She shook violently as people removed her wet clothes and wrapped her in blankets.

The Ketchum Fire Department ambulance soon arrived and transported her to St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center, treating her for hypothermia. She was admitted in stable condition, and physicians determined she had suffered a small heart attack due to hypothermia or lack of oxygen. She was released the following day.

Lesley was buried under the snow for 105 minutes.

Only about 47 percent of people survive full avalanche burial, according to research by Dr. Pascal Haegeli, an assistant professor and the research chair in avalanche risk management at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. As burial time increases, the probability of survival plummets: Survival rates are between 80 and 90 percent for non-trauma victims recovered in 10 to 18 minutes. Between 19 and 35 minutes, the probability drops to 34 percent. Beyond that, it’s around 10 percent. However, as Haegeli reported in his 2011 paper published in the Canadian Medical Associates Journal, “a buried person who is still alive after 35 minutes has a relatively stable chance of surviving the ensuing 60 minutes.”

As Savage wrote in his analysis, there can be a fine line between “safe” and “unsafe” when traveling in the mountains.

“If the group had stopped 20-30 feet farther away from the slope, none would have been buried in the avalanche. If the group had stopped 20 feet closer to the steeper slope, all four would likely have been buried deeper and all four members of the group may have perished.”

They didn’t realize they could remotely trigger an avalanche from the creek bottom, and that if they did, they were in the runout zone.

If the group had stopped 20 feet closer to the steeper slope, all four would likely have been buried deeper and all four members of the group may have perished.


THREE YEARS LATER, LESLEY MARTIN CLIMBED BACK IN THE SADDLE. She and her son had moved to Bozeman, and in December she rode up Moose Creek, in the Gallatin Range, with a friend and her son. She was apprehensive, but it turned out she was just happy to be in the mountains. She speaks openly about the accident, her tone soft-spoken but matter of fact.

“I lost my husband of 40 years, [and] I will miss him every day for the rest of my life,” she recounted. “[I want] to help people learn, help someone else not get in that kind of trouble.”

Some of the takeaways are obvious—like getting avalanche education, practicing with rescue gear and choosing your partners wisely—but others may be harder won.

When Lesley realized she wouldn’t be able to outrun the avalanche, instinct told her to lay down flat. It was a gamble, and it worked. All three of the survivors had the mental control to stay calm and the grit to keep fighting.

The very instincts that kept Lesley alive in Frenchman Creek have allowed her to move on and thrive. “I won’t quit,” she said. “I’m a very strong woman, and I just go on with life. I like to have fun. I like to live.”

WHAT IS A REMOTELY TRIGGERED AVALANCHE?


The group caught in the Frenchman Creek avalanche didn’t recognize they were in avalanche terrain.

“As I remember, we were out in the middle of a meadow, a long ways away from the base of the hill,” Lesley later wrote. “The last thing on our minds was an avalanche.”

But when conditions are dangerous, it’s possible to trigger an avalanche remotely, even from below.

“[Remote triggers occur when there is] a widely distributed weak layer beneath a stronger, thicker slab of snow—and something causes that weaker layer to collapse,” explained Simon Trautman, an avalanche specialist with the National Avalanche Center and former director of the Sawtooth Center. “You could think of it as a building collapsing if you knocked the pilings out from under it. Once the collapse happens, that fracture can move throughout the snowpack. In this case, it moved up the hill and caused the slab to break free and avalanche.”

Trautman recommends taking a class to learn how to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain and always reading the avalanche advisory. Beyond that, carry a full kit of avalanche gear including a shovel, probe and modern beacon on your person and practice with it regularly.

Find educational materials and national course information at avalanche.org.

Emily Stifler Wolfe is a writer, climber and skier who lives near Bozeman, Montana. She and her husband are raising a 2-year-old daughter and a spotted donkey colt, although who is schooling whom is still up for debate. She was the founding editor of Mountain Outlaw.