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Francis Zuber was enjoying the kind of powder skiing you’re lucky to get once a season. Just out of bounds at the Mt. Baker Ski Area, Zuber was enjoying deep turns when he caught sight of something weird. A snowboard, still attached to a pair of boots, stuck out of the snow next to a partially-buried tree. The skier sprung into action, and this video of his rescue quickly went viral. Listen to Zuber narrate the rescue, with commentary from snow suffocation expert Paul Baugher, in this special video episode of Out Alive.
Host: Welcome to this episode of Survival Shorts by Out Alive, a podcast dedicated to showcasing extraordinary feats of survival and courage. There is a shorter video version of this story at backpacker.com/outalive featuring the actual video of this rescue. What you’re hearing today is an extended audio that we didn’t have time to include in the video version.
Our team was recently forwarded this video, and it’s the kind of thing you hear about, but rarely are these stories recorded. While you’re watching, you can’t help but feel an alignment of fate and circumstance as if the universe conspired to bring the hero to the exact spot at the perfect moment. During this episode, you’re going to hear from two people.
One voice you’ll hear is Francis Zuber, a Washington local who was skiing Mt. Baker during a huge powder day. Francis was wearing his GoPro and just out of bounds when he happened to see a snowboard sticking out of the snow. It took him a few moments to realize the snowboarder was buried alive and unable to get out of the tree well he’d fallen into. You’ll also hear from Paul Baugher, the global expert in snow immersion suffocation. Since 2001, Bauer has logged. Every publicized case of snow immersion suffocation, or SIS, in the United States. After a 30-year career on ski patrol, Paul has now devoted the last 20 years to educating resort skiers on SIS.
So without further ado, here is Francis Zuber.
Francis: My name is Francis Zuber. I’m currently living in Bellingham, Washington. It was on Friday, March 3, and it was an incredible day. The snow was extremely deep that day. It was probably the best week of the year, honestly. It snowed, I think, 4 feet throughout the week. So the conditions were all-time.
I was texting a buddy and he and I were like, “Okay, well, let’s check out some out-of-bounds areas, go over outside the rope area at Mt. Baker.” We had our proper beacon shovel probe, all that stuff with us. So we headed over there, and he took off and I’m right behind him, and we started going through those trees.
Host: One danger of skiing the trees in deep snow is tree wells. An Outside editor explained it like this. The fuzzy green branches of a pine tree often obscure the well created by the trunk, which can be several feet deep depending on the height of the snowpack. Loose snow or powder in the pit can act like quicksand for an unlucky person who falls in headfirst.
Here’s Paul Baugher, the snow immersion suffocation expert.
Paul Baugher: These happen at ski areas or they are related to ski areas. This isn’t a backcountry thing, even though yes, they do occur in the backcountry, it’s all about the exposure to risk. On a good day, backcountry tour might get four or five laps in from some peak, but if you’re riding a lift, you might make 20 laps and get powder and so forth, and you’ve got a whole bunch of more people with you that are competing for that same powder, which brings us to the next piece of this. Anything where the timber is tight, and you get closer to the trees and think now “All the easy snow is skied out, that’s in the middle. Now we’re going in closer to the trees to get that last little bit of powder,” and that’s when we tend to see accidents. That’s really a western U.S. and Canada type thing. And what that means is steep coniferous forests in the Western mountains where you have deep unconsolidated snow, often associated with a storm.
Francis: I start going through those trees. They’re a little tighter than I would’ve liked. I was going quick, so I just do this jump-turn kind of thing and fall over on purpose, dump all my speed.
If I had come flying out of that second sort of grouping of trees there, I definitely would not have seen Ian’s snowboard sticking out of the snow because I was going so slow out of those trees. It caught my attention. Just this flash of red made me stop, and it looked uphill.
Oh shit, you all right?
I saw his red board wiggling back and forth. I was like, “Oh my God.” There’s somebody stuck there. At first glance, I didn’t realize he was buried initially, but then when I yelled up to him and he didn’t answer, I knew there was an issue in that I needed to get to him and that he was buried. As I’m sure you know, if you’ve been in deep snow, it’s very hard to move uphill.
So that 10 feet or so might as well have been a mile. It was very difficult and it was also the scariest part of the whole thing because I didn’t know how long he’d been in there for, so I was really scared that he was going to die in there as I was struggling to get to him. I tried sidestepping up to him at first, and I stepped out of my skis because I realized that sidestepping wasn’t going to work at all. You hear me start cursing because I just sunk. The snow was essentially bottomless. I sink in, and I’m really pissed at myself at that moment. I was like, “God, was that the wrong call? Was that a bad thing to do?”
It was certainly exhausting getting to him and I pretty much sunk. Essentially when I started really trying to scramble uphill, I was chest-deep in the snow and I’m trying to use my skis as a ladder at one point, and that’s not really working too well, and I basically just had to clear the snow out in front of me until I could reach for his snowboard and use that for leverage, and then using his snowboard for leverage, get up over him and have a better angle to start digging him out with my hands.
Paul Baugher: Most of these people have had partners, and the partners get below them. The partners never see them. They usually wait at the bottom of the lift. Sometimes they call patrol, sometimes they don’t, but 10-15 minutes, that’s your window. Sometimes that amount of time is not enough.
Francis: If you’re in the snow, like he was, he was that far down, you can’t hear anything. You can’t see anything. Your air’s running out. You’re in the pitch black. You might as well be in concrete.
I have my Avy 1 certification, just read up and watch rescue stuff whenever I can. That was my first time doing something like that. I was hoping and expecting him to actually be sitting up a little bit, almost a little more horizontal than he actually was, but he was pretty much inverted, just about not totally upside down, but pretty close.
It took much longer than I expected to dig down to him. Come on, help me out. I mean, that being said, I think I still made the right call digging with my hands first rather than taking the shovel out, just not knowing how long he’d been there for. I needed to get to his airway first and foremost before doing anything else.
I did not expect him to be as far down as he was.
Go Pro: You okay? You all right? Okay. You’re good. You’re good. I gotcha. You okay? Can you breathe? Oh, yeah. Okay. All right. We’re both going to catch your breath for a sec. I’m going to dig you out. Okay. Thank you. Yeah, no problem, man.
Paul Baugher: The guy that did the rescue was just, he did everything right. When you watch it, and I’ve been in the rescue business for a long time and him huffing and puffing and cursing and using his hands instead of his shovel, he did everything right. It was so real, he nailed it. Hero status, perfect.
Good job, all that. The fact that he noticed it, I mean, you saw how close he was and how difficult it was to get from there, and he didn’t even have to go uphill.
Francis: No one else showed up at any point, even after the video ends. When I turn the GoPro off, coming back to my senses and ring that the thing even existed. I shut it off and dig him out the rest of the way and then I pull him out and give him a big hug and say, “I’m glad you’re okay.”
Go Pro: Okay. You all right? I’m good. Okay. Okay. I’m going back up for a second. Get my shovel out. Okay. Thank you. You’re good, man. You’re good.
Francis: He’s like, “Thank you for stopping. You saved the life today.” We just reconvened and debriefed for a quick second and he radioed down to his buddies and let them know that he was buried, but he’s okay now that I dug him out.
Paul Baugher: This was a great lucky example. If that guy didn’t come by at the time that he did, and then his partners had to go back and look for him, he’d be dead for sure. No question about it. I’m just positive. I can say that.
Francis: My ski partner that I was with, he could see me, you can’t see him in the video, but he’s down on the other side of this valley that we were initially going to cut across there so he could see me and he thought that I had just lost the ski and that I was digging for a ski.
Then he heard another voice and he realized that something bigger had happened, but no one came by throughout the entire time that this whole thing happened. Ian’s buddies that he was with his other three ski partners, I think they said that maybe two other groups passed them because they were also in the same area that my ski partner was.
I think two other groups passed them, and they asked if they had seen a guy with a blue jacket and they said no.
Paul Baugher: If you don’t want to ski in deep powder, your chances of snow immersion are greatly reduced. If you don’t ski the trees your chances are greatly reduced. It’s what you do and when you do it, and if you do it during periods of unconsolidated snow, which let’s face it, that’s the main time you want to be in those locations I just described, right?
It’s very much a dark side of powder. We all love powder, myself included. It has that extra risk that comes with it. It’s all about keeping a partner in sight that is close enough to be able to render assistance to you if you need it. You have a discussion with your partners, and you decide how you want to ski the terrain, do whatever you can to avoid falling forward.
If that means skiing with your weight back a little bit. I know that sounds bad, but at the end of the day, it’s the forward fall that becomes lethal. If you’ve found yourself unlucky enough to be propelled forward, heading for the tree, spread out, make yourself as big as you can. Do whatever you can to grab branches. Stay out of the inverted position.
Francis: I think he was a little bit in shock for sure, because initially, when he fell into the tree well, he had expected his buddies to come get him pretty quickly, and then a minute or so passes. They’re not coming, and he hears them on the radio asking where he is.
That’s when he knew he was in trouble and tries to get himself out, which obviously would’ve been impossible to do. He struggles for a minute and then just goes back to being still and trying to slow his breathing down and preserve his air. I think probably at that point he was just waiting to die or just hoping that somebody else would come around. Then I showed up and was able to dig him out. So I think there was definitely a little bit of shock, but he was fairly calm and I think I made that remark to him at some point that I was like, “Man, you’re really calm for this whole situation. I’m freaking out.”
I told that to my wife later, and she’s a veterinarian and she’s like, “Well, he was probably in shock, Francis. I think that’s why he was so calm.” So, never been stuck in a tree. Well, never had to dig anyone out of a tree well or an avalanche, anything like that. That’s my first time.
It’s certainly made me reassess my protocols with my ski partners, just staying in communication with each other at all times. Trying not to get the powder panic and just charging down through the trees or through the deep snow because it’s so good. Looking back, hooting and hollering, making sure everybody’s in the vicinity and stuff like that.
It’s definitely made us, me and my ski partners, reassess the way we do things in the backcountry, in the side country and even inbounds on through the trees and stuff like that.
Still processing it, I think coming to terms with it. It’s still hard to put into words honestly. It feels good. It’s an incredible feeling, saving someone’s life and dealing with the whole sort of existential aspect of it and people giving you praise and stuff like that.
It’s a lot to take in, and it’s going to be a while before I fully process the whole thing, but mostly a shout-out to ski patrol and search and rescue crews out there that they’re doing this stuff. Every day all the time, you don’t really hear about the incidents as much, but they’re out there doing some incredible work.
They just don’t have GoPros on their heads as they do it. They don’t get nearly enough recognition. So I just want to shout them out and say that they deserve way more gratitude than they get.
Host: This episode of Out Alive was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese. My co-producer is Zoe Gates. Music, scoring, and sound design by Jason Patton. Thank you to Frances Zuber and Paul Baugher for sharing your stories with us. If you have a burning survival question or a story you want to share, you can email me at email@example.com.