Avalanche survivor: Friend died 3 feet away

Forecasters increased the risk of avalanches in the mountains of Washington state Monday, a day after a pair of avalanches left four people dead.

In one case, a snowboarder was swept off a cliff. In the other, a group of expert skiers was caught up in an avalanche on Stevens Pass. Three were killed.

CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker spoke with one of the survivors, Elyse Saugstad, who was enjoying a day of skiing in pristine back country with eight friends, all expert skiers, when suddenly the snow started to shift beneath her.

"We didn't really hear anything and my partner started screaming, "Elise, avalanche! Elise, avalanche!' and at that time I was being swept in. It happened so quickly," Saugstad said.

"I will say that as it started my first thought was it isn't that big. Within a second it immediately became much more," Saugstad said. "It feels like maybe you're in a washing machine and you're being tossed and turned and it's all white and you don't know which way is up and down."

It threw her 2000 feet in 30 seconds.

"I definitely had the fear that this could be the way I ended," Saugstad said.

The skier is convinced her backpack saved her life, because it contained airbags. Saugstad deployed hers as soon as she felt the snow shift. The airbags kept her head above the churning snow.

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"When I landed it felt like my feet were in cement, but my hands and head were above the snow," Saugstad said.

But nearby three of her friends were buried under the snow and died: John Brennan; Chris Rudolph, and former extreme skier, Jim Jack.

"When I was at the bottom and buried and once the first person came to rescue me and we unburied me, others started to show up in the rescue search and we started finding bodies immediately. It was very shocking to know one victim was literally 3 feet to the side of me," Saugstad said.

"It was pretty crazy when you come to, especially because you're buried and then you come to and realize these people were buried right next to me," Saugstad said. "It's hard to discuss. They did not have these backpacks."

Every year in the U.S. about 30 people die in avalanches. Elyse Saugstad says she feels lucky she was not one of the grim statistics.

  • Bill Whitaker

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