I hadn’t really thought about dying before. Other than a fleeting, “That would suck,” wrapped in a thought about someone else, death was not on my radar. Too busy enjoying life I guess. So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself submerged in a torrent of snow, windpipe packed with powder, tumbling between crushing blows, thinking to myself in the darkest darkness of my life, “This is it. I’m gonna DIE in Japan. Sayonara Seth.”
Words and Photos by Seth Lightcap
In late February, my wife Allison and I took an impromptu shred trip to Hakuba, Japan. Itchy passports, cheap plane tickets and the promise of local tour guides made the spontaneous mission a no-brainer. The adventure that ensued was that of our greatest fantasies followed by a horrific nightmare. Ten days into our trip I was nearly killed in a backcountry avalanche accident.
I am alive today because my rescue went just right. Here’s hoping you never participate or require such a rescue in your lifetime of backcountry skiing, but odds are many of you will. In light of that, I wanted to share a few scenes from my survival story and relay the lessons learned. Hopefully hearing about my sufferfest will better prepare a few of you when faced with a similar scenario.
Thank god the stoke was high before the suffering began. The first ten days of our trip we were living the dream. I had been connected with two Japanese pro riders, Daisuke Ojima and Takashi Minimiura, who adopted us into their crew. Takashi’s mom owned a small hotel in Hakuba where we stayed along with him and his family. These two rippers showed us the local goods every day for nine days straight. The terrain varied from trees to spines and the snow conditions hovered between awesome and ridiculous.
Day eleven dawned much differently than the previous ten. We had decided on a whim to go splitboarding with a Japanese couple that we had met the night before, Tetsuya and Reiko. They picked us up early a.m. and we set off for a peak north of town known for tree runs and mellow gullies.
Our ascent to the summit ridge was cruiser. We climbed up through east facing tree glades breaking trail through 4-6 inches of fresh on a soft base. The snowpack felt solid and showed no signs of instability as we switchbacked up short steep pitches.
Cresting the ridge the wind was nuking. We doubletimed to a slightly protected spot and started changing over the splitboards. With a flip and a clip the boards came together as all of us rushed to get out of the wind. I was ready first so I popped up and said I was gonna slide out to the slope and scope out a descent. This was my first mistake. I was rushing into unknown terrain.
Arriving at the slope’s edge the wind was still hammering, so of course, I decided to drop lower. Goodbye visual and verbal communication with my partners. The slope below held two wide gullies separated by a shrubby scoured ridge. I dropped down the ridge about fifty feet and hung out by a small tree. Once posted up, I started eye-ing the gullies. The left looked better so I nosed into it a few feet to check the conditions. Pawing the snow with my glove I found exactly what we had seen climbing up – four inches of fresh with no apparent signs of tension.
I waited at the tree for another minute. Still no sign of my partners. I wasn’t worried as I knew they would drop straight to the ridge but I wondered if they would see me standing by the tree. So I swallowed the bait. I decided to traverse across the left gully and post up in plain sight on the far wall.
Despite what you expected, nothing moved upon my traverse. I stopped mid-way across the far wall and turned to look back up at the ridge. I figured as soon as I made eye contact with someone I would drop in and rip the sh!t out of that four inches. That didn’t happen.
What happened was that the first rider to hit the ridge saw me below and immediately rode into the gully right at it’s convex apex. The gully cracked ear to ear with their first turn – an angry 4-6 inch crown. The rider stopped and avoided the slide but not me. Before my brain could even process moving my feet, the rug was pulled out from under my boots.
Should I have been surprised? No. I was parked in a danger zone! Even if I thought the snow was perfectly stable and too shallow to rip big (which I did) it was a foolish place to be. I had also completely removed myself from any drop-in discussions. Might we all have noticed the sketchy convex rollover at the top of the gully had I been waiting at the ridge?
So they say to fight and swim when you get caught in a slide. I was definitely flailing but my efforts were no match for the raging power of the snow. After a hundred feet of sliding I was sucked under the surface. My world instantly went black. The darkness was as crushing as the snow.
I slide nearly 800 feet under the surface in the coffin position – flat on my back. Though I didn’t get tumbled, I got crushed by every undulation of the gully. A few times it felt like I was falling off a cliff. My body would feel weightless for a few seconds then I would hit bottom and get folded in half. There were no cliffs below me however. I imagine I was getting caught up in the aerated surface snow and literally falling down the mountain with it, much like a river rapid. Every minor flat spot in the gully was a crushing hole. Hitting one of the ‘holes’ dislocated my left shoulder. Another major ‘hole’ hit blew my right binding off my snowboard. This was an unfortunate development as the board attached to only one foot promptly levered open my pelvis like a bottle opener.
In between body blows my mind fixated on one phrase, “I’m gonna DIE in Japan?!” The question mark on the statement expressed my disbelief; the exclamation, my helpless plea. For the first time in my life, death seemed a real possibility. Sliding into the blackness, I expected nothing less than a complete burial when I stopped.
Thankfully, I was dead wrong. No pun intended. As I slowed down the light filtered back into my goggles, until lo and behold, I was stopped and sitting on the tongue of the slide debris. I wasn’t buried an inch.
What if I had been wearing an avalanche air bag backpack? Would I have stayed above the surface, avoided the violent darkness and ridden away freaked but unscathed? Hard tellin’ not knowin’ but statistics don’t lie, nor do avy survival videos like this one by Thomas, an air-bag wearing skier who survived a slide in Engelberg. Dozens of avy vicitims have reported noticeably rising to the surface once their airbag deployed. It’s no theory. The air bag works based on a law of physics. The added surface area floats you to the top like the ‘biggest chip in the bowl’. Only in this case it means less chance of getting eaten before your ‘life salsa’ is gone. No doubt I’ll never step foot in a foreign mountain range without an airbag again.
Allison, Tetsuya and Reiko found me pretty quick. I assessed my injuries with Allison and narrowed down the pain to my left arm and left leg. I thought my humerus and hip might be broken. This wasn’t a pleasant realization, but all things considered, it was a huge relief. I was alive, breathing normally and seemingly had no fatal wounds. Thoughts of death vanished as I figured I was in for some suffering but would surely survive.
Less than a 1000 feet below us lay an access road littered with sled tracks. The rescue plan was to drag me to the road then have a snowmobile ferry me to the trailhead. Tetsuya had cell phone reception and started making the sled calls. Dragging me down the mountain proved slightly easier than expected as Tetsuya also had an emergency tarp in his backpack. I laid on the tarp while all three of my partners pulled it downhill like a magic carpet.
A couple minutes into the rescue I started to feel the need to pee. I ignored it at first, but the urge kept building so I stopped the train and asked Allison to help me roll over. I was gonna pee. My eyes saw the red snow just as the burning sensation hit my brain – only blood dribbled out.
“Call a heli! Call a heli!”, Allison screamed as she saw the blood on my nuts. I was speechless.
Internal bleeding (aka trauma) is the cause of death in about 30% of all avalanche fatalities. I knew it as well as Allison. We were now dealing with a timebomb in my belly. Depending on the damage there was a chance I might bleed out before reaching the hospital.
Time blurred for me at this point. I stayed alert but I was distraught about the bleeding. I kept thinking I could feel the blood seeping into my abdomen. Thankfully, no else started slipping. Tetsuya made the call for the heli, and meanwhile a couple other skiers had come on scene and begun helping drag me. In what seemed like a matter of minutes I was laying on the access road. In reality, reaching the road had taken us nearly two hours since the accident.
The heli showed up within ten minutes of us arriving at the road. It was too windy to land so they lowered a rescuer on a cable. The rescuer put me in a vinyl body harness, clipped it into the cable and away we went. The heli had no gurney so I laid on the metal floor while they checked my vitals. I tried not to hear the results.
I hit the hospital door about three hours after the avy. Twas a damn good thing I didn’t take any longer. After a quick CT scan I was instantly in the OR undergoing a procedure to patch a hole in my pudendal artery. Supposedly my systolic blood pressure had dropped below 50. Little doubt I would have died had I waited for the snowmobile ride.
Looking back I’d pinpoint three things that sped up the rescue and therefore saved my life. Number one was Tetsuya’s cell phone. Immediate communication with the heli dispatch was critical to my survival. It makes me reconsider all the wilderness missions I go on where the nearest phone is a day away. Call me paranoid but I’ll be packing a SOS beacon, if not a SAT phone, next time I step out of cell reception for any serious adventure. And i’ll also be renewing my Cal-Star membership – a Sierra based heli-evac insurance.
Number two was the efforts of the lead rescuer, my wife Allison. As I faded, she stepped up and took charge. She was the drill sargent of the dragging operation, ordering how and when to move me, and later, demanding everyone drop their packs to lighten up and speed up the operation. Appointing a leader is crucial to avoid the chaos of everyone trying to help all at once. Typically the leader is the rescuer with the most medical training. Allison is a wilderness first responder and it showed.
Number three was Tetsuya’s emergency tarp. That rectangle of nylon kept my ass out of the snow and became a very powerful tool that significantly sped up my rescue. It was a sil-nylon tarp that was much more functional than the old emergency space blanket, yet nearly the same size as the space blanket when compressed. It’s one of those things you could smash in a crevice of your pack and forget about until you needed it.
I ended up spending seventeen days in two different Japanese hospitals. I had my shoulder relocated at the first hospital and my pelvis “fixed” at the second. The earthquake and tsunami hit while I was in an ambulance transferring between the two. Thankfully I moved to a hospital even farther from the epicenter. Although we felt the tower shake a few times during aftershocks.
I returned to California late-March. I was walking with a limp but feeling pretty good. Plan was to start physical therapy the next week and start building strength. Sadly, fate didn’t play along with those plans. Which brings up my final piece of hard earned advice.
If you are seriously hurt and require a major surgery, get a second opinion before you go under the knife. In my case even the second opinion wasn’t enough as the supposed “best pelvic surgeon in Japan” neglected to see the full extent of my pelvis injuries. The result was that I broke my internal hardware two weeks after surgery and had to undergo a revision operation in Reno to remove the shrapnel and put in new, beefier hardware.
So what’s the punchline to all these dramatic morals? Funny enough, I’ve yet to find anything humorous about seeing blood on my nuts. Turns out multiple surgeries are no joke either. But that’s OK, there are a lifetime of other things to laugh about. Which is the whole point of the story. Enjoy life’s fun and games until someone gets hurt. Then you better be ready to get serious.