Will You Survive? When Things Go Wrong, Who Lives and Who Dies? - San Francisco Chronicle Magazine
ON DEC.. 20, 1996, Bay Area teenager Harley Augustino and his dad, James, a 48-year-old developer and political activist, lost their way on cross-country skis in a brutal Sierra snowstorm. When darkness fell, they carved out a snow cave and huddled in it. Every half hour they stomped around outside the cave to warm up. Snowflakes soaked their hoods and faces; the bloated sky hung so low it seemed as if they could almost touch it. If they could just sit out the night, Harley thought, the storm would clear and they’d ski to safety.
Two and a half years later, on May 31, just after midnight, Portland resident Amy Horne began hiking up Mount Hood’s West Crater Rim route. The excursion came after weeks of education and training. Clad in layers of new fleece and storm-proof outerwear, the 44-year-old research director felt a mix of excitement and dread: Yes, her guide was one of the best in the area, but this ambitious climb would test her physical skills beyond anything she’d ever done, and she was nervous. Ten hours later, as she crossed a snowy slope, the mountain roared and an avalanche crashed down on her.
On March 23, 2003, Nicole Chupka, 38, a French and math teacher from Carmel Valley, and her friend Judy Rowe skied up a ridge near Donner Summit’s Castle Peak above a Sierra Club hut where they planned to bunk for the night with friends. At 4 p.m. she reached the top of her desination ridge and prepared to crank some turns, but the snow that had looked so alluring from afar was instead stiff as glue. On her fourth arc, Chupka’s body veered left while her right ski zoomed straight ahead. Her right hip twisted weirdly and collapsed, tumbling her into the snow.
Incidents like these are all too familiar to people who study mountain accidents. “You could write a textbook on each one about what not to do with your winter vacation,” said Laurence Gonzales, an author who for 35 years has explored the origins of sports accidents. In his recent book “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why,” Gonzales probes both the causes of accidents and the strains of human nature binding their survivors. While bad weather triggers many winter accidents, something more fundamental often puts people in the path of disaster: “We tend to act on auto-pilot,” Gonzales said recently from his home in Illinois. “The more hazard you are exposed to without getting hurt, the stronger the auto-pilot. We do what we’re rewarded for doing; we avoid what we’re punished for doing. All mammals behave that way.”
When you pair that auto-response with variable conditions present in the backcountry, where unfamiliar features and threatening storms can easily disorient weekend warriors, the risk factors soar. Simple mistakes that in milder weather cause nuisances are now the currency of death. Here, three very different incidents share themes that help us understand how to survive, or better yet avoid, tempting fate in the winter backcountry.
“We shouldn’t have been there”
That Friday afternoon 11 years ago, the Augustinos thought their three-hour tromp would be a cinch. “The weather was fine,” said Harley, now 29. “Usually when there’s a big storm, it hits San Francisco several hours before Tahoe, but there was no rain in San Francisco that morning.” Forecasters had predicted bad weather. But the two had hoped to finish their tour before it hit. That didn’t happen. “We were on a ridge when the storm rolled in,” Harley recalled. “It was just snowing. My dad and I were used to that: It’s nice to ski in the snow.” But when they about-faced to return to the car, they descended the wrong way into unfamiliar terrain.
Amy Horne and her group were on a section of Mount Hood that was very familiar to their veteran guide, but loads of fresh snow and unseasonably warm May weather put the group on a dangerous slope a little later in the morning than they had planned, and this spurred disaster. When Horne had joined a Mazamas club mountaineering class two months earlier, she’d figured she was in safe hands. The mountaineer who would guide her graduation ascent had climbed the West Crater Rim route 14 times. But disaster needs only one wrong decision. Unstable snow conditions and a few judgment lapses formed a fatal collision. Investigators later said plenty of avalanche hazard warnings and clues existed that day, according to a report published in the American Alpine Club’s 1999 volume of “Accidents in North American Mountaineering.” The weeklong cycle of storms had mantled the mountain with new snow, a U.S. Forest Service sign warned of avalanche hazard; and the team’s slow pace put them on an exposed slope after the day’s heat had transformed an underlayer of snow into a stream of slippery granules. Why didn’t Horne’s leaders order a retreat? The accident reports didn’t clarify the details of the guide’s decisions, but Gonzales suggests that the answer lies in human instinct. “People do not believe they can get hurt themselves,” he said. “They don’t believe in their own deaths.”
Risk takers are wired to seek the positive results they’ve had before, despite the dangers. If trouble hasn’t found them in the past, they believe it won’t again. There were 100 climbers on Mount Hood that weekend day, according to investigators. Many later admitted choosing to leave their avalanche beacons (devices that send and receive locator signals through snow) in their cars. A few reported they thought an avalanche couldn’t occur on such a nice day. From her home in Truckee, where she moved a few months after the avalanche for a new job, Horne reflected recently: “We shouldn’t have been there.”
Nicole Chupka, too, shouldn’t have been on Donner Summit slope on that afternoon in late March. A few hours earlier, when she and Judy Rowe had announced to their companions that they planned to make just a few quick turns before supper, one friend had warned that he’d noticed blustery winds outside, indicating an impending storm. The storm would have been only a minor nuisance had Chupka not made another mistake: She forgot that on warm spring afternoons in the Sierra, melting snow coalesces into heavy slop. When the friend tossed them a two-way radio, Chupka joked: “This will be fun to have.”
“It’s telling that when he gave her the radio, she concluded unconsciously that nothing bad could happen,” Gonzales said. “It’s what psychologists call the ‘confirmation bias.’ It’s a deep part of our neurological system. All of the behaviors flow to that one conclusion. We are all suffering from this. It takes an intellectual effort to not do it.”
Later, lying awkwardly in the snow, Chupka imagined that her injury was only slight, despite the pain in her right leg. “As soon as I moved my leg, I felt the pain,” she said recently. “It felt like I was being electrocuted.” Rowe used the radio to call the hut. It was Chupka’s good fortune that two friends there were medically trained, one a doctor, the other a physical therapist. Thinking she might have dislocated her hip, Chupka hoped that with help she could just pop it back in and return on her own to the hut. “I had major denial,” she recalled.
Outfitted for survival
Once the weather plays its cards, the knowledge and tools people carry, and the actions they take in the first hours of trouble, are critical. Cotton clothes do not contribute to survival. Horne and Chupka wore storm-proof outerwear on top of moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics such as fleece. James Augustino was similarly dressed, but Harley wore cotton jeans, a school letterman’s jacket and a hooded sweatshirt. Wet cotton conducts cold and fails to insulate, according to survival experts. After thrashing about in the snow for several hours, Harley was soaked. “We found a tree well, and my dad got some branches to cover us a little bit,” he recalled. “We wrapped around each other to stay as warm as we could.” Their outside exercises warmed them only temporarily. One of Harley’s socks got wet and froze, encasing his foot in an icy cocoon. “It was the longest night I can remember,” he said, “except that the next two nights were even longer.”
The snowstorm churned over the Sierra Crest all night. “In the first morning, the powder was up to my hip,” Harley said. “We plowed through it. Then our equipment started to fail. My left ski kept falling off. My pole broke that second day, and my dad’s boot was coming undone. Luckily we had some duct tape. It’s something I usually carried in my pack.” When the second night arrived, they made a cave in another tree well. “Snow was getting heavy on the branches,” Harley recalled. “We would be huddled together, and a huge clump of snow would fall on top of us.”
James Augustino had studied backcountry survival and knew about snow caves and hypothermia, a deadly condition in which low body temperatures impair mental abilities and shut down the body’s organs. Similarly, Rowe and Chupka had learned about the mountains from past experiences, and Horne had studied mountain survival during her hours of class. The knowledge helped them make important decision in the early stages of their ordeals. “We tend to remember what we practice the most,” Gonzales explained. “We tend not to invent new strategies on the spot. Although that’s not true of everyone; some people just freeze.”
Horne’s mind did not freeze. While the avalanche spun her through a dangerous boulder field called Hot Rocks, she remembered her lessons. Finding herself being hurled downward feet first, she released her ice ax, as teachers had instructed. She also kept snow away from her nose and mouth by punching into the snow that was tumbling in front of her face, so when the avalanche stopped, the snow wouldn’t block her airway.
Chupka’s friend Rowe was prepared with a lightweight snow shovel she used to dig a shelter in the slope. The cave’s protection became increasingly critical as time passed and night descended. The doctor and PT at first couldn’t locate Rowe and Chupka. They returned to the hut for extra sleeping bags, food and clothing, and asked two others there to ski out for help. Four hours after the fall, the two medical experts finally reached the women. Confirming that Chupka probably had a broken femur, they carefully wrapped her in a sleeping bag, slid her onto an insulating foam pad and propped her against a backpack. She refused to get into the cave because any big movement caused shooting pain. Everyone hunkered down to wait. They hoped rescuers would come quickly. What arrived first, however, was a snowstorm.
Tools and resources are critical to survival, but what often makes the biggest difference in the end is attitude, researchers say. In all three of these survival cases, the victims reported unusual optimism or clarity. These are manifestations of two habits of the mind, according to Gonzales. Some minds are able to focus on the positive; others cannot. Those that do are more likely to survive (as long as they are not entertaining delusions of safety). Another factor is the tendency for perceptions to warp under stress. During the long wait in the chilly cave, the Augustinos maintained good spirits. They joked about football and yearned for Mexican food and beer. “There wasn’t any talk about not surviving,” Harley said. Being optimistic wasn’t so much a conscious choice, he said; “we just did it.”
Horne’s experience was different. While tons of snow tossed her 1,250 feet down the mountainside, she experienced a mental acuity that even now intrigues her. “My thoughts were like banners in Times Square. I thought things like, ‘All I can do is the best I can in the moment, and I’ll see how this turns out.’ There was no point in panicking. I could easily have thought, ‘I’m going to die,’ but I didn’t. My sense of it is that the organism, my self, was so focused on surviving that emotion was a luxury I couldn’t afford. So I was completely calm and analytical.”
Horne’s experiences fit a known pattern, Gonzales said. “There’s a fairly large body of work on perceptual distortion under stress,” he said. Much of it was done with police officers involved in shooting incidents. “Nearly 100 percent of them reported extreme perceptual distortions, including time slowing down, tunnel vision, and odd perceptual points of view. A whole complex of perceptual distortions goes along with tense situations.”
Chupka’s thoughts, too, remained optimistic. “I wasn’t going hysterical or crying,” she said. “I had no fear. My mind was completely present. I’ve gotten into Buddhism since then, and I can say it was the most present I’ve been. I didn’t think I was going to die.” Like the Augustinos, she focused on the business of getting home.
Twins: luck and fate
Amy Horne’s battle with the mountain ended within minutes. “I stopped. I went, ‘Oh, phew.’ ” Then there was a powerful jolt. “I opened my eyes. I could see sunlight coming through the snow, which meant I was near the surface. I dug myself out to the chest. I was going to stand up, but an ache started and I realized I was hurt. I had no idea if I was the only one alive or if I was alone.” In five minutes, a Portland Mountain Rescue team member reached her. One of her climbing partners was alive nearby, but partly buried. The other lay somewhere invisible beneath the snow. An hour later, searchers using probes recovered his body.
Horne was lucky. During the slide, she missed hitting massive boulders; once she stopped, she didn’t suffocate. Terribly injured, however, she was flown to a Portland hospital. Later she learned that the taut rope connecting her to the two other climbers had crushed her pelvis.
The Chupka rescue was trickier. Blinded by fog and snow, neither Chupka’s group nor Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team skiers dispatched by the local sheriff’s office to find her could see each other’s lights. Finally Chupka and her friends spotted a flare. “We were excited,” Chupka said. “They were with us in minutes.” It was after midnight, and Chupka and the others shivered uncontrollably in the early stages of hypothermia. The rescuers transferred Chupka to an emergency sled and guided her down the slope to a waiting snowcat.
When someone reports a person lost in Lake Tahoe’s backcountry, the sheriff’s office dispatches searchers on skis and snowmobiles as quickly as possible. Because lost people usually aren’t discovered missing until late in the day after someone doesn’t return home, rescuers are accustomed to overnight missions in bad weather. However, the Augustinos’ storm was worse than most. It hammered 8 feet of snow into the Sierra. Avalanche hazards prevented an immediate search. On Dec. 23, Harley left the tree-well cave to gather pine boughs in order to spell a “Help” sign on the snow. He felt OK, but he’d noticed that his dad’s speech was slurring, indicating advancing hypothermia. “I don’t remember a panic; it was like I knew what was happening; it was going to happen. I held him and tried to keep him as warm as possible.” His dad’s clothing was better insulated than Harley’s, his feet weren’t freezing in wet socks like Harley’s were, yet he was dying. When James stopped breathing, Harley tried CPR, “but I knew there wasn’t a whole lot I could do.”
Harley eventually emerged from the shelter. “Right when he died, the snow stopped, the sky opened up, and I could ski on top of the snow for the first time.” He crested a ridge and spotted Interstate 80, a snake of gray about 3 miles away in the cottony landscape. He skied downhill toward it, and promptly fell. Now it was 3 p.m. and he realized that if he weren’t smart, he’d spend yet another night out. “I remember wondering if my father had lived a full life. Obviously, he died before his time. But I had a lot more I needed to do and be in my life.” He climbed to a clear knoll. A half hour later, a rescue helicopter zoomed in and picked him up.
Horne spent four months in a wheel-chair and two years in physical therapy. She used the recovery time to process the accident’s trauma. In a quest to examine every detail, she interviewed people involved, scoured incident reports and wrote and rewrote her recollections in diaries. “It’s a story like too many others,” she reflected. “An accumulation of little mistakes that at other times didn’t matter, but this time did.” Today, she said, she has finished that process. “I don’t want Mount Hood to be my life,” she explained. A senior writer now for UC Davis, she reports having little pain related to the injury. Outside of her busy job, she skies, rides bikes and hikes.
A weakened hip has kept Chupka from skiing since her injury. She does get outside for snowshoe and backpack trips; however, Buddhism is her new focus.
Augustino, too, has experienced a renewal. “Losing my father really opened me up emotionally,” he wrote last year in a letter to Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team members. “I cried a lot of tears that following year, and I learned to trust and accept my emotions.” Augustino finished college, and in the spirit of his dad’s activism, became executive director of a Santa Barbara group that helps low-income residents organize for political action.
“I read on the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team Web site that most, if not all, of these accidents are preventable,” he said. “Unexpected things happen, but there are a lot of things we could have done. We had a cell phone, but left it in the car. Maybe we couldn’t have gotten coverage, but maybe we could have. Now I always tell people where I’m going, and when I’m coming back. Even on summer day hikes, I bring two days of food and more water than I need.”
Why would people who know better err when the stakes are highest? Gonzales believes the tendency is reinforced by messages of American culture. “We’re sold these complex ideas that make us drop our guard,” he said. “The first is we have the right not just to live but also to be comfortable and have fun experiences.” It’s a recent idea, in the grand scheme of things, he said. “The other idea is that everything is safe. You take these attitudes into the wilderness where you’re given a false sense that it is Disney World or something, and it’s not. Your cell phone, your avalanche beacon, your GPS can give you an idea that you are in control: You’re not.”
The good news is that people can change, he said; it just takes practice. Everything people do involves a calculation of risk for some amount of reward. “There’s a scale: Watching a DVD at home is at one end; risking your life in an avalanche is at the other. You have to ask yourself what are you trying to get and how much risk are you willing to pay for that kind of reward.” If life is the ultimate cost, he said, people taking such risks might rethink their choices.
The wilderness trials of Horne, Chupka and Augustino changed their lives. “In many ways my life started on Dec. 23, 1996,” Augustino said. “Ten years later, I at least know that I have given this life of mine a good shot. In many ways, I have had it easier than most, and I’ve tried to do the best with what I have. I am thankful that I was given another chance.”
Freelance writer Laura Read lives in North Lake Tahoe. Her husband, Doug Read, helped found the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team 32 years ago. She has been involved in the team’s education and search dispatch operations for 12 years.
All Photos Copyright Laura Read