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‘It’s just overtaking me’: Those who survived the deadly Silver Mountain avalanche say it offers painful lessons

The storm formed off Canada’s west coast, north of Seattle, in early January.

It was a typical winter storm in the Pacific Northwest: heavy precipitation first, followed by a front of cold air.

Barreling off the ocean, it rammed into the Cascade Mountains, dumping snow and rain before passing over Washington’s flat and dry middle. As it reached Spokane and the western slopes of Idaho’s mountains, it again started snowing and raining.

By the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 7, it reached Idaho’s Silver Valley. A weather monitoring site in Kellogg recorded 1.75 inches of liquid precipitation. Forecasters noted the warming temperatures were turning snow to rain.

Still, up high in the mountains it was snowing. Wet and heavy, but fresh snow nonetheless.

Up until then, it had been a slow winter.

The two snow monitoring sites in the Silver Valley – one north of Mullan and one at Lookout Pass – only started accumulating snow in mid-January. There had been a handful of earlier storms, a big one even in late September, but subsequent warm weather and rain washed it away. Winter finally came back in mid-December, but coverage remained thin.

That changed with this Pacific storm, and by mid-morning on Jan. 7, 21 inches of snow had fallen in 24 hours at Silver Mountain, one of North Idaho’s three ski resorts.

All that new snow fell on two distinct layers of older snow.

The oldest, a layer of “rotten” snow dated back to the middle of October. On top of that was a newer layer of snow with a particular configuration of crystals, known as surface hoar and not unlike the frost that accumulates on a car window.

The layer of frost was thinner than a pencil and made for a lousy foundation, one particularly susceptible to shearing force.

As the storm raged, a teetering mass of frozen water accumulated.

This fact pattern prompted the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center, a cash-strapped nonprofit that monitors snow conditions in North Idaho and publishes condition reports, to note on Jan. 3 that a “ doozy of a storm system is final(ly) answering our snow dances, but with it means dangerous avalanche conditions. Plan to stay out of avalanche terrain until we ride out the storm and the snow has time to stabilize.”

But those avalanche advisories are read mostly by men and women heading into the backcountry – that is, outside the bounds (and presumed safety) of a ski resort.

For snow-starved skiers and customer-hungry resorts, the storm was a blessing.

Opening up

Like many on Jan. 7, Ken Scott, 56, was up at 6 a.m. because “there was a ton of new snow.”

Scott, who lives in Mullan, Idaho, has worked in the ski industry since the late 1980s. In those decades, dabbling in a little bit of everything – lift operator, ski patrol, avalanche control and, more recently, representing various ski brands.

Still, three decades of experience doesn’t dampen the thrill and single-minded focus of a powder day. Rushing out the door, Scott and his wife, Ruth, got into a spat, nothing too serious, but enough of a fight that “I didn’t say goodbye,” he said.

Forty miles way, Rebecca Hurlen-Patano’s morning had a similar rhythm, minus the spat.

Like Scott, Hurlen-Patano, has spent her adult life in and around skiing. Both her parents were volunteer ski patrollers, and she’s been skiing at Silver Mountain for nearly two decades. She’s worked as a ski instructor herself.

Both Scott and Hurlen-Patano have jobs that allow them to ski when the snow comes. Hurlen-Patano, 58, owns Doma Coffee with her husband. Scott and his wife remodel homes during the spring, summer and fall.

Winter is for skiing.

By 8:45 a.m. Scott had ridden up Silver Mountain’s 3.1-mile-long Gondola. He went to his locker in the basement of the Mountain House, put on his boots and stashed his lunch. There, he met with Hurlen-Patano.

“We didn’t really talk much because we both knew what was going on,” Scott said, referencing the fresh snow.

By 9 a.m. they were on the hill.

Scott and Hurlen-Patano spent the first hour or so skiing runs on the 6,300-foot Kellogg Peak, before switching over to the 100-foot-lower Wardner Peak.

“It was not powder skiing,” Hurlen-Patano said. “It was pretty heavy. But it was new and lots of it. The skiing was still considered good.”

Their first time up Chair 4, the lift that deposits skiers and boarders near Wardner, they noticed, despite heavy fog, that Wardner was closed, as it had been all season.

So they did another run, ending at the bottom of Chair 4. This time, as they got to the top, they saw that the rope was down. Wardner Peak was open.

“Shall we go?” Hurlen-Patano asked.

They went.

The Traverse

Warren Kays, 68, describes himself as an “obsessed powder skier.” He’s skied regularly for 57 years. For the past 20, he’s skied in the backcountry, learning the ins and outs of snow science, safe mountain travel and avalanche awareness.

Plus, he was a volunteer ski patroller at White Pass Ski Area for 12 years and has taken several avalanche-training courses. Since retiring eight years ago, he estimates he has skied 70 days each winter.

On Jan. 7, he headed up to Silver Mountain on his own. For the past several days, he’d been skiing with visiting family, sticking to easier runs. Tuesday was his day to fly solo and hit the steeps. Around 10:45 a.m. he too reached the top of Chair 4. Noticing that Wardner Peak was still closed, he asked a ski patroller if it would open.

Probably after lunch, he was told. As Kays turned away, another patroller drove up on a snowmobile.

“We’re open,” Kays recalled the man yelling.

Wardner Peak is not directly accessed by chairlifts. Instead, skiers and snowboarders must either hike a short ways to the top of the peak and ski down or traverse across its face, intersecting with a number of runs.

Often, that traverse is created by ski patrol. But on Jan. 7 the trail had yet to be made. Kays decided to make it, something he’d done in the past.

As he headed that way, about a dozen others followed.

Breaking trail through snow, especially wet, heavy snow, is hard work. Kays moved slowly. Behind him a line formed, shuffling through the trees. While Kays broke trail, he looked up the hill and saw three ski patrollers standing there.

Meanwhile, Scott and Hurlen-Patano came in at the end of the line. Both stopped and assessed the situation, wondering why the line was moving so slowly.

“I’m a pretty observant skier and take a lot of mental notes as I ski, especially on big powder days,” Hurlen-Patano said. “That’s just the way I’ve always skied.”

Despite that caution, she was still in the “front side” mentality.

“We are looking for the goods,” she said. “Charging to get fresh snow. We do not have our backcountry mindset on. Had we, everyone would have behaved different.”

Scott is a similarly cautious skier. He’s been caught in a minor avalanche himself, has had four friends die in avalanches and recalls well the 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche, which killed three of the nation’s top skiers, two of whom were Scott’s good friends.

While he’d tested a few slopes to see if snow was sliding, things looked solid overall. Plus, ski patrol had bombed the slopes above the traverse. But Scott wondered why the ski patrol hadn’t created the traverse themselves.

“I actually said, ‘Well, they must feel good about it because they opened the terrain,’ ” he recalled. “And they must have done their control work from above because we could see the results.”

Dropping in

As they shuffled along, several skiers and snowboarders dropped in, opting for shorter, treed runs rather than waiting for the traverse to be fully cut.

This attrition shortened the line, leaving Warren Kays up front, Carl Humphreys behind him and Bill Fuzak, Hurlen-Patano and Scott following, plus two others behind them.

The remaining few came out of the trees. Uphill and to their left was an open field of untouched snow. No tracks, just fresh powder. Downhill and to their right was the run 16-to-1, a steep Black Diamond that offers good powder skiing on a deep day. Again, there were no tracks.

(In a written statement Silver Mountain general manager Jeff Colburn said ski patrol ski cut the run the day prior but had not ski cut it on Jan. 7. On the morning of Jan. 7, Silver Mountain patrollers detonated 13 explosive charges on the peak).

The group of skiers worked their way across this open face, making it about two-thirds of the way across. Warren Kays and Carl Humphreys continued cutting the traverse. Fuzak decided to drop in.

Seeing this, Hurlen-Patano followed suit. She looked back at Scott. He nodded. She swung her hips around, bent her knees and pointed her skis downhill.

As she made her move, all hell broke loose.

‘Like going over the edge of a waterfall’

Snow is a notoriously fickle substance.

Predicting how it will move or behave is hard. So hard, in fact, Swiss researchers made headlines in 2018 when they came up with a computer simulation modeling a slab avalanche. The simulation was made possible only after Disney 3D modeling experts figured out how to simulate the movement of snow for the movie “Frozen.”

The exact mechanics of avalanches are still unclear.

One of the most confusing variables is the fact that snow, which usually behaves like a solid, moves like a liquid when it avalanches.

That shift – from solid to liquid – is triggered by a disturbance in the snow.

And so, as Hurlen-Patano turned to ski down the run 16-to-1, the weak, frost-like layer collapsed, likely triggered by the movement of one or more of the skiers on the traverse. In an instant, all that heavy snow transformed from a solid to a liquid torrent.

Hurlen-Patano had time, and the wherewithal, to yell “Avalanche!” to the other skiers on the traverse.

“Cottage cheese is the best way to describe it,” she said. “It undulated downward and upward at the same time and just took off like going over the edge of a waterfall.”

The snow slid out from underneath Ken Scott, who was directly behind Hurlen-Patano. He lost his footing and fell onto his left side, with his head facing uphill. The avalanche swept him downhill in a disconcertingly gentle wave, “almost like a water-park slide,” he said.

He slid 500 or 600 feet, doing his best to stay on top of the snow. And the liquid mass ground to a halt and lost its plasticity.

Scott was buried. But he could see light. It was a shallow burial.

“I’ve been here before,” he said. “Take a second to compose. OK, what can you move? Well, I can’t move much of anything.”

He tried again and realized he could move his right hand somewhat, so he began to clear snow from in front of his face.

Meanwhile, Hurlen-Patano rode out the avalanche standing up, more or less. At first, she said, she thought about out skiing it, before realizing it was a ridiculous idea. Instead, she fought to keep her balance. The wave of snow was right behind her, simultaneously sucking the backs of her skis down while the crest threatened to overcome her.

“It’s just overtaking me,” she said. “Coming up around my back.”

The snow lapped at her shoulders, neared her head, crept up her back. She was in a compressed squat, doing her best to stay above it all. Her view narrowed as snow moved in from all sides.

“It’s pretty scary at this point,” she said.

Then, with a screech reminiscent of a train, the avalanche stopped.

“It stops, and it stops really as quickly as it started,” she said. “And there is this moment of silence. I’m very compressed. My skis are on. But I’m very much alive. I push my head back and look to see others.”

Ken Scott was 10 feet behind her and slightly uphill. Bill Fuzak was 10 or 15 feet downhill to the left. Warren was to her left, somewhere between 25 and 50 feet downhill. All of them were partially buried, but still visible.

“After confirming that those guys are all alive, I’m instantly moving. I know exactly what I need to do,” Hurlen-Patano said. “I need to get out of there. And I need to get to them because they are more buried than I am.”

She fought to extricate herself. Because she was in a compressed squat, the snow hadn’t fully filled in front of her, giving her some room with which to work. She tried to lift her legs, but her right knee screamed in pain. Instead, she used her poles to unclip her boots from her skis, then crawled out of the hole.

Luckily, as she leaned back trying to stay on top of the cresting wave of snow, the tips of her skis were exposed. She pulled them from the snow, knowing that they were the only tool she has to dig out her friend.

She made verbal contact with Scott, who sounded calm. She yelled to Fuzak, whom she didn’t know. He sounded panicked. She turned to go help Scott, but something – one of those inexplicable instincts – stopped her. Instead, she crawled downhill to Fuzak, holding her skis and using them as rudders.

When she reached Fuzak, he was completely buried except for his head. Kneeling behind him, she placed her skis on either side of his head and started to clear snow from his face.

About 20 feet uphill, Scott could breathe and see light. His ski pole and hand were sticking above the snow.

Then he heard a crack followed by a vibration in the snow. The snow compressed around his body, and his little tunnel of light and air went dark.

Hurlen-Patano was tossed 20 feet down the mountain by this second wave of snow. Scott and Fuzak were buried alive.

As the snow settled, every breath became a struggle.

“From the moment I heard the second slide, I know I’m dead. Now the snow is on top of me,” Scott said. “I’m like, ‘Well, that’s it. You’re dead. You’re dead. This is the way it ends.’ From that point on, time is gone. I remember things I thought about. I don’t remember how long it took to think them.”

The search

Somehow, despite being tossed 20 feet downhill, Hurlen-Patano was not fully buried.

“Another partial burial,” she said. “Super lucky.”

She stood up and looked uphill, to where Fuzak and Scott were seconds before. The “whole landscape has completely changed,” she said.

Where were they buried? She looked for trees, to judge distance, but it was too foggy. She called out to Warren Kays, who also was only slightly buried. He called back. She hiked uphill.

The first recorded 911 call came in at 11:03 a.m. Possibly two people buried, maybe more, the caller said.

“We are digging, but we don’t have appropriate tools,” he tells the dispatcher.

The scene was chaotic, as is clear in the 911 recording. Nobody knew who was buried or where they were buried. Plus, there was the lingering threat of another avalanche.

“Get off the hill,” the man on the 911 call screamed at one point to skiers up above him. “They need to close this run right now.”

By 11:06 a.m., the 911 caller told dispatch that ski patrol had arrived.

Meanwhile, Hurlen-Patano was totally focused on surviving and finding the “people I know that are alive,” Fuzak and Scott. She started digging with her hands, which was basically useless. As other skiers and snowboarders arrived, they used ski poles to probe the snow and snowboards to shovel.

Meanwhile, the snowpack was still settling, sending out a whumphf sound.

“The terror that sends through your body, it’s like a lion’s roar,” Hurlen-Patano said. “It froze everyone.”

The rescue was chaotic.

The man on the 911 call described it as a “cluster,” but progress was made and the rescuers formed a probe line, using ski poles, probes brought by ski patrol and 10-foot metal conduit poles. Meanwhile, Hurlen-Patano continued to do her best to guide rescuers to where she had last seen Fuzak and Scott.

Beneath the snow

Once an avalanche stops, all the elasticity that had made it fluid freezes and it takes on the consistency of cement.

If you’re trapped beneath anything more than a couple of inches, you might as well be interred under dirt.

When Bill Fuzak was caught in the second slide and buried alive, he focused on slowing his breathing. And then he passed out, waking only once rescuers pulled him from what should have been his grave, as he told The Spokesman-Review shortly after the avalanche.

Ken Scott wasn’t so lucky.

As the snow from the second slide settled on him, breathing became difficult, “I can’t physically inflate my lungs,” he said.

His very first thought was cold and logical: “I’m dead.”

He was not wearing an avalanche beacon. He didn’t know if Hurlen-Patano was also buried. Because they were skiing inbound, he knew few people would have the necessary rescue equipment.

Plus, he was buried deep. The more snow above, the longer it takes to find and dig down.

Surviving an avalanche is all about speed, with most survivors dug out within 15 to 30 minutes, according to the U.S. Forest Service. For victims buried longer than 30 minutes, chances of survival are 30%, according to data from Elsevier, an information-analytics business. The National Snow and Ice Data Center says U.S. statistics show people buried longer than 45 minutes rarely live.

Scott knew all this. He figured he had five to 10 minutes. Tops.

He decided to do what he could to survive. Cycling through his avalanche and whitewater rafting training, he started to control his breathing and focused on staying calm, as best he could.

He thought about his family. His wife and daughter. His grandkids.

“After that I thought, well, you know, I don’t have to worry about work anymore,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about knee replacement. I don’t have to worry about bills. I don’t have to worry.”

Then, although time lost its meaning, Scott realized he was still conscious somehow. Trapped by the snow he could move only his toes and his eyelids, protected as they were by his boots and goggles.

“I’m vacuum-packed like a piece of meat,” he said.

Several times over the course of the next 40 to 50 minutes, the terror of the situation overwhelmed his training and resolve and he screamed and pushed against the snow, a desperate and doomed act of rebellion. He pushed so hard, in fact, that his goggles bruised his face around his eyes.

“Why am I still breathing? How am I still breathing? Why can’t I just pass out,” he remembers wondering. “Why can’t I just stop breathing? Come on, let’s get this over with. I want to pass out. This is just torture. Why am I still breathing? How is this dragging on for so long?”

The rescue

Above him the search was growing. Ski patrol and volunteers were working in a grid pattern, using long poles to probe deep into the snow hoping to “strike” someone and thus locate them.

At this point, they were looking for two people identified by Hurlen-Patano: Ken Scott and Bill Fuzak.

At 11:15 a.m. they got their first strike and started digging.

According to a report put out by the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center, first-person accounts from Silver Mountain ski patrol and the 911 call recording, the first person uncovered was Fuzak.

His face was blue and he appeared dead. It had been nearly 50 minutes. But then the man on the phone with 911 had unexpected news: “He’s moving! He’s moving! He’s talking.”

In the background, there was cheering.

Shortly after, at 11:46 a.m., Carl Humphreys was found. He was dead.

The discovery of Humphreys was the moment that rescuers realized they were actually looking for three people.

“It confuses me because it was a skier that I didn’t know was on the hill,” said Hurlen-Patano.

When they found Fuzak, Hurlen-Patano was able to reorient and direct rescuers to where she last saw Scott.

They started probing and got a strike.

A miracle

After a certain point, Scott said, he almost got used to the terrible confinement. He still had moments of panic, but his body adapted to the compressed breathing. For a while he was cold but then he warmed, a sure sign of hypothermia.

And he was still, somehow, conscious.

Then he felt pressure on his hip. A pinprick of change. A crack of hope, about the size of a nickel.

“Either I’m hallucinating or it’s a probe,” he said.

At this point, Scott had been under the snow for a minimum of 40 minutes.

He should have been dead, but he wasn’t. He shouldn’t have been found, but he was.

The nickel-sized object disappeared.

When doing a probe search, standard protocol is to leave the probe in the snow if you get a strike. This way you don’t risk losing the object. Then other rescuers are supposed to probe around and confirm where the object is.

Scott waited for another strike.

Nothing.

“Well that’s it. That was the one remote chance,” he remembers thinking. “The searchers have moved on. (It’s the) equivalent of being stranded on a desert island and the search party flew over and didn’t see you.”

He’s getting colder and colder by the minute, until suddenly he’s no longer cold.

And finally, after an hour of unbearable confinement, he started to lose consciousness.

“I can feel myself fading out,” he said.

Then his sealed and darkened tomb changed. First, the pressure of the snow eased. Then he saw light.

People were digging. Toward him. To save him.

“I started to yell,” he said.

Aftermath

“Helmet, come on, get him out, get him out,” said the man on the 911 call. “He’s moving, he’s moving, he’s moving. Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Scott continued to yell as they uncovered him. When Hurlen-Patano came over to him, he hugged her and wouldn’t let go.

He’d been buried under 9 feet of snow for an hour. When ski patrol tried to put him on a backboard, he refused, unable to stand another second of immobilization.

Both Fuzak and Scott declined to take an ambulance to the hospital. So ski patrol brought both of them back to the lodge. Scott’s skin was still blue from his long burial.

Despite their condition, Scott said he was never offered oxygen.

In the patrol room, Scott talked to the Silver Mountain patrol director. He told the patrol director that he thought there were two people behind him on the traverse before the avalanche happened.

Rescuers continued searching for Scott Parsons after it was reported he’d been skiing with Humphreys. He is found dead at 6:30 p.m. The next morning, rescuers realized that Molly Hubbard was also missing. Her body was found two days later on Jan. 9.

Back at the avalanche scene, Hurlen-Patano lost track of Scott. Exhausted from hours of nonstop movement, she decided to leave. Skiing from where the avalanche was to the lodge felt like “the hardest thing I’ve ever skied,” she said.

And her frustration with Silver Mountain grew. No one offered her a ride, she said, and having to ski back to the lodge in her fragile physical and emotional state was horrendous.

She made it, though, and was told by ski patrollers that Scott, for whom she was looking, was at the hospital in Kellogg.

“They never took my name,” she said. They “saw that I was limping. Saw that I was in absolute tremendous shock. Nothing.

“They let me leave the scene. They never gathered Warren or Bill or Ken or I together for an interview. We had a lot of information.”

She took the gondola down and met her husband and son at the base. Together, they drove to the hospital, only to find that Scott was still on the mountain.

Frustrated and exhausted, her husband drove her home to Coeur d’Alene.

Fuzak, the other man who was buried for more than 30 minutes, drove himself home.

Scott for his part, got a ride with friends. Going into his home in Kellogg, he sat down next to wife, Ruth, on the couch.

With no preamble, he said, “Best estimate it was 45 minutes or more.”

“What?” she asked.

Ruth had no idea what happened.

“He was breaking down emotionally as he said it,” she recalled. “Then he collapsed onto the couch and into my arms.”

Changes?

Since Jan. 7, the four who were buried and survived have all had different reactions.

Fuzak has expressed, many times, his gratitude. To Silver Mountain. To the patrollers. To Hurlen-Patano.

Meanwhile, Kays believes the resort did everything it normally does to mitigate avalanche danger on Wardner Peak. Still, he hopes the tragedy prompts change. In particular, he believes they should ski cut runs more consistently and never open Wardner until the traverse is cut.

“It would be a job that I would never want to have,” he said. “There is no point in being overly critical.”

Barring gross negligence, ski resorts are mostly shielded from litigation following inbound slides. In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing under the state’s Skier Safety Act. The state law doesn’t specifically mention avalanches but does mention other possible dangers, including terrain and weather.

For comparison, Idaho’s applicable skiing law specifically mentions avalanches as a risk assumed by the skier. Meanwhile, Washington’s skiing law does not specifically mention avalanches, instead referencing the “inherent risks in the sport of skiing.

As for Silver Mountain, Jeff Colburn, general manager of the resort, said that in his 50 years of skiing and 17 years of working in the industry he had “never faced a more heartbreaking experience.”

There is a “50-year history specific to Silver Mountain Resort and the Wardner Peak terrain that our avalanche routes are based on,” Colburn said in a written statement.

And an extensive review of protocols and processes post avalanche is ongoing.

“As a result, we have changed several aspects of our snow safety program,” he wrote. “For instance, we have expanded our avalanche rescue dog program, a RECCO detector was added and additional mitigation measures were implemented.”

He emphasized that Silver’s patrollers train to industry standards.

Jeff Thompson, the director of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center, investigated the avalanche. And while he emphasized that IPAC did not analyze or comment on Silver’s avalanche control work, he commended the rescue effort.

“To be that deep for that long? Someone wanted them to live,” he said. “It’s unheard of. Kudos to the group that got it done.”

The families of those who died have had varying levels of contact with the resort and IPAC, and they have expressed different sentiments about what they hope happens as a result of their losses.

Carl Humphreys and his brother, Paul Humphreys, had skied Silver Mountain since the late ’70s when it had only one chair lift, and neither would want any harm to come to the ski community. But Paul Humphreys has concerns about whether the ski resort’s safety measures will be evaluated to prevent future tragedies.

“When mistakes are made that result in death, there should be some accountability,” Paul Humphreys wrote in an email. “When skiing out-of-bounds (as Carl and I often did), it’s understood that skiers assume responsibility for their own safety. But when skiing inbounds on an open run, there are reasonable expectations that the ski area has determined the run to be safe.”

Parsons’ sister, Jennifer Ocheltree, said family members are still waiting to learn more about the tragedy from reports by the agencies who responded to the avalanche.

“My wish is to just understand what happened and make sure that doesn’t happen again,” said Ocheltree.

Among the issues she hopes are investigated further are measures that would have led to a quicker rescue for her brother.

Hubbard’s parents have simply expressed gratitude toward those who helped find their daughter.

“We were treated with the utmost kindness and care,” her mother, Mary Hubbard, wrote in an email.

Scott and Hurlen-Patano are both thankful to the rescuers. But they urge Silver Mountain to make meaningful policy changes.

“It would be nice if they could work to earn our trust,” Hurlen-Patano said.

More broadly, both her and Scott hope the tragedy on Silver Mountain highlights a fundamental reality: mountains can be dangerous, even in seemingly controlled environments. Skiers, snowboarders and resorts need to be aware of that.

“Blame does not do anything,” Hurlen-Patano said. “There were mistakes made, perhaps by everyone.

She added, “I really hope something valuable can come from it. Change that is long-lasting.”

Spokesman-Review reporter Jared Brown contributed to this report.

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