Surviving An Avalanche
Christian George of Colorado can personally vouch for the frightening cloud of such wintery slides. Last year he, too, was swept away by an avalanche, and as 48 Hours Correspondent Maggie Cooper reports, he has an incredible story of survival.
It can happen in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a loud noise and a sudden movement. In the wintry mountains of Colorado, almost anything can set off a deadly slide.
"Avalanches are very unusual things," says George. "They have vacuums involved in them, and they'll pack your lungs full of snow faster than you can possibly believe."
Having survived an avalanche, George knows the power of one better than anybody does.
Last year in Steamboat Springs, Colo., George was snowmobiling in the mountains outside of town with his friend Brian Beck.
George had fallen behind, made one wrong turn and then another. He was trying to turn around when the snow gave way beneath him. The avalanche swept him to the bottom of a canyon, but he kept fighting, kept breathing and held his head above the snow.
"The only thought at that point was to stay above the level of the snow, you know, paddle up," George explains. "And then when it stopped moving, I climbed up on top and tried to locate the sled, but that was going to take a couple of months."
George was not injured. But he was lost, and his snowmobile was buried. All he had left was the contents of his pockets: two cigarette lighters and a candy bar.
"When I stopped for gas in the morning, I picked up a little pint of orange juice and a king-size Snickers bar. And, unfortunately, I left the pint of orange juice in my car," says George.
Although George is a skilled mountaineer, a rock climber and cold-weather camper, he was alone and afraid.
"I was scared. I was really scared," says his friend Beck. "But I also, at the same time, I knew Christian¬….He was a person that could handle himself in the outdoors," he says.
"Mother Nature up in these mountains is not something to play with. And you can get hurt, that's for sure," he adds.
"You don't plan for the worst-case scenario," says George. "You think you are, but you're planning, actually, for something that's only minorly bad. And to plan for the worst-case scenario, you'd never leave the house."
"I got pretty worried at that point, and that's when we headed back into Steamboat and contacted the search and rescue," Beck recalls.
As soon as the Routt County search and rescue team got the call, it headed into the mountains, hoping for a quick rescue, knowing that would be George¬'s best chance. But from the beginning, there were problems.
A foot and a half of snow fel in the first 24 hours, and winds howled up to 40 miles an hour. Rescue workers did what they could, but there were parts of the valley they couldn't go into without starting another avalanche.
As the second day of the search began, dozens of volunteers joined the effort, including George¬'s mother, Pamela.
"I had to keep remembering who he is, and I knew that he could do this," she recalls.
Chilled to the bone in the valley, George took one bite of his candy bar. He rationed the rest for later and started hiking.
"I got up about a half hour before dawn and started hiking because I figured I wanted to get as far down as I could and get into a nice wide open spot so they could put a copter down and get me out," says George.
Not able to find that wide-open spot, George waited as another foot of snow fell. Helicopters couldn¬'t be used, so rescuers went in on snowshoes.
George struggled all day, hoping he'd find a house, a phone - anything. When night fell, he used his lighters to start a small fire, tending it till dawn. He says it was the only thing that kept him from freezing to death.
"You can't entertain thoughts of dying," says George. "You can't even allow any thought for, 'Well, I'll just sit down and give up,' because as soon as you do that, it's over. You need to fight every minute."
And that¬'s what he did. George kept moving down the valley, fighting to save his life.
Then finally, after four days in the snow, he got a lucky break. The weather cleared just enough to put a chopper in the air.
Pilot Brent Welch got to work, and his team used night-vision goggles to look for any sign of life in the frozen landscape below.
"When I heard the helicopter, that's when I knew that they were looking for me," says George.
George used the last of his lighter fluid to build one more fire, hoping the helicopter team would see him. But up in the chopper, heavy clouds made for poor visibility.
The pilots thought they saw something flickering on the ground, but they couldn't be sure. They marked the spot on their map and decided to come back the next day.
Back in the canyon, George¬'s lighters were empty, his candy long gone. He made it through that night on hope - hope that maybe, somehow, the helicopter he had heard would come back to pick him up.
"Sure enough, about 7:30 that morning, I heard the copter come back and I started jumping around, and he saw me that time," George says.
George had tunneled his way through more than five miles of chest-deep snow. When rescuers found him, he was just a mile from civilization.
"When he took his face mask off, it took me a moment to recognize him," his mother says. "He'd lost 23 pounds."
The rescue team rushed George to the hospital while doctors there prepared for the worst: frostbite, hypothermia and severe dehydration. But he had none of those symptoms.
Dr. David Wilkinson, who treaed George, found him tired and hungry, but healthy. "We gave him a bowl of cottage cheese and some soda and sent him on his way."
His first stop was to the search and rescue team to thank the volunteers who'd saved his life.
"It's the biggest single thing I've ever seen anybody do that didn't involve prize money," says George.
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