Edwin LaMair is just like many of us. He started skiing at the ripe age of 3 years old and for the last 19 winters, he has focused all his energy on finding that ultimate run in the Colorado Rockies. Like any skiers who live in Englewood, a suburb on the east side of Denver, he knows 6th avenue like the back of his hand and he can drive the I-70 corridor with his eyes closed. Edwin and his brother have spent countless days gracing the slopes of many Colorado resorts as well as various backcountry locations. Currently, he is a senior at CU Boulder and is contemplating taking a year off after graduation to work and ski at Vail before entering law school.
Edwin and his brother, Davis, and their friend Jack Edgar, were in the midst of their second run down Abraham Face high up on East Vail Chutes on December 22nd, 2013 when an avalanche ripped and strained Edwin through small trees, tossed him over a cliff, finally burying him with only his face and one hand exposed. Luckily he ended up in the left portion of the slide, which slowed and stopped on a gentle shelf as the center part of the avalanche charged over the roll, down a steeper pitch into the void below. The GoPro footage from his brother’s helmet spread like wildfire across the Internet and found its way onto many news stations, including ABC national news. Miraculously - and to some degree due to his survival instincts and knowledge of what to do in a slide - Edwin ended right side up with his head just peeking out of the debris. His injuries were limited to a torn MCL and ACL in his right knee and sprains in his left knee.
Sportgevity caught up with Edwin to hear about his experience. We thank him for providing such an honest, candid, and detailed account.
"It felt somewhat different than I would have imagined as I was sliding. It was very fluid, sort of like going down rapids in a big river. Even though I had no control while the immense force was thrashing me around, there was a certain liquid quality to it. It was smooth and graceful feeling while at the same time, extremely powerful and overbearing." Edwin LaMair
In the days preceding your ski day, what was going through your mind in terms of your planning, getting ready? Excitement? A sense of thrill? Any fear or rush in the belly?
I had finished finals at CU Boulder the Thursday prior to the event, and had returned home to Denver that evening to gather my gear and spend the night at my parent’s house. Friday morning I drove up to Vail with two of my buddies and stayed at my family’s condo in the East Vail Racquet Club. From the hot tub and pool there you have a perfect view of the Racquet Chute and King Arthur’s. That night in the hot tub I looked up at the chutes, which would not be filled in enough to ski until later in the season. I felt myself anticipating the following days and the season ahead.
Saturday morning we got up early and got on the lifts at Vail. The snow was great inbounds, but began getting crowded in the afternoon. My brother, a couple friends, and I skied a few different lift accessed side-country areas that day and found the snow incredibly deep and soft. We warmed up our minds and bodies on challenging terrain, in preparation for backcountry pursuits later in the week.
Sunday morning, we planned to take two laps in East Vail after only a couple runs in-bounds. We headed up the skin track from Orient Express around 10am. At the top, a few snowboarders were resting after the long hike up and invited us to drop in before them. We did beacon checks, talked through our planned route, and covered all the final details for our first lap of the day. Everything went smoothly and the conditions were amazing, proving to be one of the better runs of my life. Afterwards, we took the bus back to Vail, took a breather in the lodge, and prepared to do a final afternoon lap through East Vail.
Had you hopped on the CAIC forecasting site?
Yes, we checked CAIC the night before and the morning of. The Avy danger was listed at 2 (Moderate) both times.
What type of impact did the CAIC forecast have on your sense of risk or your group’s sense of risk?
We definitely knew with all the new snow from the storm and the weather that wind slabs would be a concern. It was not enough to deter us from venturing in to East Vail but played a role in the terrain we chose to ski. We chose what we viewed as one of the safer slopes in the area, and then tried to pick lines that we assessed to have minimal chances of sliding.
Was the rating successful at hitting home for you that “human triggered” avalanches were possible? Or did you have any figurative sense of distance between the forecast and what you felt your group was going to experience?
I think the rating system was successful at hitting home. I think when anyone skis East Vail those forecasts are a reality. The place has such a notorious reputation, and is literally covered in slide paths. You know when you are out there that there is a very real risk of triggering something. It isn’t like other backcountry areas where you might feel removed from the danger.
Earlier in the day, what was communicated amongst the members of the group regarding avalanche risk? Up top of the run?
We knew because of the CAIC forecast that we were sticking to the safest possible terrain at all times. After the first lap we discussed the stability of the snowpack, concluding that it was relatively safe at lower elevations, but that the wind and all the new snow near the top had created a risk. Because of this we discussed being particularly cautious on the upper reaches of Abraham’s.
At that the top of the run, as you were about to drop in, in your mind, in what you were consciously experiencing, what percent chance did you sense that this run was going to slide?
At the top of the run I eyed a line that went skiers right around a patch of trees. Further right looked like an area that had a chance of sliding. After my brother dropped in to the left, Jack and I discussed the line I was considering. We deemed it to be safe, and thought the percentage chance of it sliding would be very low.
Did you have the sense at all that this is where avalanches happen, as if you felt you needed to get ready? Or did you have a sense of comfort, or a sense of a buffer, that it wouldn’t happen here?
It’s hard for me to remember exactly what was going through my head directly before the slide, but I know I did not feel a sense of comfort or buffer. I had my Avalung in my mouth because I knew that the top section of Abraham’s was the highest risk due to the wind slabs. And, being only a little bit to the left of a large slide path, I knew I was in Avy prone terrain. I felt comfortable with the line I chose, but knew I had to stick closely to it to avoid danger.
Did the 10 sets of tracks already in Abrahams give you any sense of comfort? Would you have treated the situation differently if there were no tracks? Did you treat the face any differently when you skied it in the morning?
I think the sets of tracks may have given me a false sense of comfort when choosing my particular line. I had skied nearly the same line in the morning with fewer tracks and I was more on edge. The zone I picked was a little more open and I likely would not have skied it if it had been untracked or even had only a few sets of tracks on it.
Bring us right into your mind regarding the following parts of the experience:
- Standing up top as your brother skied away from the group
I watched my brother cruise through the trees and lost sight of him after a few turns. I had no concerns that he would get into trouble and knew I would be standing next to him in only a minute or so. We were skiing very short distances between meet up points.
- Right when the slab broke up
I noticed the snow cracking up downhill from me, and my first thought was that I was going to watch a small avalanche slide away downhill while I stood safely above it. I was not particularly concerned at that point.
- When you saw the crown 25 feet above you
Immediately after the slab broke, I looked uphill and saw the snow breaking away from the small roller I had hopped off of. My only thought was that I have to ski out of the slide path to the right. I still felt removed from the slide, as if I was going to get out of it and watch it with relief from a safe zone.
- As you tried to ski out of it to the right and grasped for the small tree
As I began aiming straight for a small tree to hold on and watch the slide continue down the hill, I started feeling the ground beneath me become unstable and moving downhill. An immense feeling of despair came over as I realized I was not going to be able to reach the tree. When the front of my skis hit it and I fell downhill, it immediately became a reality that I was in an avalanche. All traces of thoughts that ’it would never happen to me’ vanished right away. I felt like I was sliding away from a safe reality and I knew things would be very different afterwards, no matter the outcome of the slide. My only concern became getting the Avalung mouthpiece back in my mouth. I was completely indifferent to the thrashing of my legs, even as I could feel tendons tearing. At this point I was still on top of the snow and could see trees above me as I slid on my back, headfirst down the slope. It was extremely difficult to get my hands over to the mouthpiece, but I was eventually able to muscle it into my mouth. Upon doing so, I discovered it was filled with snow and tried to clear it. This was right above the cliff.
- As you went over the first cliff and found yourself deeper in the slide
Going off the cliff actually felt good. Finally the thrashing of my legs and body momentarily stopped as was suspended in air, surround by snow. I would compare it to going off a waterfall after being tossed around in rapids and rocks. The landing was similarly soft and painless as well. At some point either right before going off the cliff, in the air, or on impact, I inhaled snow. This triggered a survival reaction, the same one I have felt when inhaling water, or being held under water. All that was in my head at that point was getting air. I became violent and fought to the top, gasping and coughing out snow.
- As you realized you needed to start swimming
I’m not sure I consciously decided I need to start swimming or if it was a reaction to inhaling the snow. I think, had I not inhaled the snow I would have realized I needed to swim to the surface, but it may not have happened as quickly.
- As the snow began to slow down
The snow slowing down was an extremely frightening part of the event. While I was sliding, it was kind of surreal. I was fighting against a live force and it was continuous, but this was lost when it began to cement and stop. I realized that this was really when I was going to face the consequences of being in a slide. Either I had done the right things and with some luck would be able to be rescued, or I was going to be deep in the snow and die of suffocation. This was by far the most traumatic part of the entire event. I wanted it to continue sliding so that I would have a chance to grab a tree or somehow get out of the slide path. It was very upsetting to realize it was slowing and settling in to place. It was like the turbulent and surreal ride had just gone into slow motion and the consequences were becoming a reality. I hated the feeling of the snow slowing down and piling up. It got harder and harder to move and I began feeling compressed. I felt very claustrophobic.
- When you realized your face was above the snow
Having my face above the snow was a great feeling after the claustrophobia and fear that had overwhelmed me during the slowing of the slide. I almost felt comfortably squished in place after I realized I could breathe and stick my hand up. I had a lingering fear of more snow covering me and preventing me from breathing.
- When you were there at rest before your brother showed up
At this point I was still quite panicked even though I knew I could breathe. I was very anxious about being buried and completely unable to move. I was also extremely paranoid snow was going to come over my head and bury me completely. Luckily I was only there for seconds before he arrived. The call for help in the video was my first and only and occurred after I had heard him skiing down. I really didn’t have much time to react while I was buried in this position.
- When you heard your brother ski up
When I realized he was there I was extremely relieved, but also very anxious to get out. I was so thankful that someone had come to save me.
- When you were dug out of the snow and free to move around
It was very relieving to be out of the snow and safe, even though I was injured. I was very paranoid about the depth of the untracked snow around us, especially because when I fell over I was unable to stand back up. The fear of falling under the snow again, or another avalanche occurring lasted the rest of the night. I was very afraid to initially leave the slide path where I felt safe sitting atop the avy debris.
Further reflections of the event:
Did you recall feeling the onset of the panic? Did you notice your heart racing?
I felt extreme panic after I lost my Avalung mouthpiece, once I realized it was full of snow, and after I inhaled snow.
What was it like getting snow shoved in your mouth?
Painful. When I coughed it out I could taste blood, and my voice was hoarse the next day.
Did you feel that this is what it was like to die?
I felt like I was going to die as the snow began to slow down. That thought went through my head during the period after the cliff and before I came to rest.
Were you awaiting any bigger impacts with trees, etc.?
I had some pretty big impacts with trees on the way down, and since I was sliding headfirst, I constantly felt like I might slide into a tree and get severely injured. I also knew that I was going to be going off the cliff band at some point and when I was suspended in the air I was afraid of a painful impact.
Was the slide more or less violent that you would have anticipated?
More violent. It literally was ripping me from side to side and turning me in any direction it wanted. It felt like being in a blender with material surrounding you and forcing you in all directions. It was so powerful and violent I could barely get my arms up to my chest to grab my avalung mouthpiece.
Were you aware that your knee was as injured as it was?
Yes, I felt it get twisted as my leg hit a tree and immediately knew I had torn ligaments. I felt the classic pop of tearing an ACL.
Did you feel the pain when you were buried?
A little. But it was more like I could just tell things in my knee were out of place.
When did the pain begin to set in?
The pain really set in a few minutes after I had been unburied and was really able to catch my breath. After breathing was no longer my highest concern, I tried standing and collapsed from the pain.
Getting off the mountain:
Was there any reservation about having to call search and rescue?
Yes, we were under the impression, whether true or not, that rescue could cost up to $15k. There are warning signs at the top of East Vail saying, “Rescue can be very costly”. So we initially didn’t want to have to call them, but after assessing my injuries and inability to bear weight on my legs, we decided we had no choice.
How did search and rescue respond?
We called 911; they patched us through to Vail Ski Patrol, and they said they would send someone out to us, but that they couldn’t guarantee anything so late in the day. We sat for about 20 minutes, and then they called us again and said no one was going to be able to come. At that point we were connected with Search and Rescue who said they would send a response team out but that we needed to start moving down the mountain. We talked with them probably 8 times on the phone during our self-rescue. They attempted to guide us down the mountain safely.
Tell us about the descent.
Once we were ready the thought of having to descend 2,000 vertical feet through avalanche terrain was almost overwhelming. Thankfully, Jack Edgar had successfully probed the debris and found one of my skis. He also lent me his poles. Without these I would have been entirely unable to get down the mountain because the snow was so deep. Jack and Davis sideslipped paths down the steeps so I could slide while sitting on my ski. It got dark fast and on the traverses Jack used his phone flashlight to light up my path. Several times I fell into the snow and began to panic, having flashbacks of being in the slide. Each time both Davis and Jack helped calm me down and got be back on my feet to go again.
Jack and Davis' role in the slide was crucial in us getting safely back to East Vail. The judgments they made when crossing avalanche prone terrain, particularly in the dark, allowed us to get down the mountain without further incident.
You came very close to dying, what were the early mental after effects like? What ran through your mind?
One of the main issues was the flashes of panic I continued to have because we were still in avy prone terrain. And really until we were almost back to East Vail I still wasn’t convinced I wasn’t going to die. I was very worried another avalanche would bury us or that I would suffocate in deep snow. It took awhile and getting out of dangerous terrain for me to begin thinking clearly again and to relax. I’ve been quite upset by it a few times, but believe I still haven’t fully processed how close I was to death.
As you made your way down the mountain on one ski, was there any sensation that the incident was not real?
I always felt that it was real, but didn’t feel like it had ended really until I got home. I was so worried that something else was going to happen and that I hadn’t quite escaped death yet. I fell a lot as I was going down on one ski and I couldn’t get back up without assistance. So, during those times stuck in the deep snow I was having flashbacks of suffocating and panic. This lasted a long time.
As you made your way down, and looked around, what went through your mind about your brother?
For the first hour or so I pretty much turned over decision-making responsibility to them. I conceded to all their judgments about terrain and the best way to get out. But as time went on, I realized I needed to step up and help out more. My mental state began improving and I became part of a group trying to survive rather than a victim being saved. He showed great mental composure the entire time. Shortly after we realized no one was coming to extricate us, I became distraught because we were about 2000 vertical feet from safety. I sort of took on a very dismal outlook momentarily and thought it was impossible. He pulled me together saying that we had no other option so we had better get going.
Were there moments that tears welled up, or you got choked up?
Yeah, I got pretty choked up a lot at the beginning of our extraction, especially when we had to cross avy prone areas. And then later in the night as it got dark and we could see I-70 far below I felt pretty emotional hoping that I would be able to get down safely and see my parents again.
DId you feel any judgment from the rescuers?
Search and rescue advised that we meet them on I-70. But by the time we got that low I was able to traverse well. So we opted to have them meet us at the water tower. When we arrived, the recuers and our parents greeted us. After they checked me for concussion and other serious injuries, my parents drove me to the hospital.
In the subsequent days, where did your perspective of the sport travel?
My appreciation of the sport has grown. I've been watching ski movies as I burn around on the couch and find myself analazying all the terrain features for stability.
Do you have any thoughts about how soon you’d be out backcountry skiing again, or whether you’d go backcountry skiing again?
I think I'll go back out next season. If I wasn’t out for this whole season because of injuries its hard to say when I’d go back. But I’m going to use the rest of this year to reflect upon the event and take more avy classes so that I can shore up my confidence for next season.
How was your story received in the news, in online forums?
I felt like I got a good response all things considered. The news didn’t try to spin it at all. They just wanted to portray it as a miracle, which it was. They were interested in the fact that that all things lined up so well that I didn’t die. Online, I posted a thread on TGR about it myself, admitting my faults. I felt like everyone on there received it pretty well. There has been criticism. Some was warranted but most inaccurate. So, other than trolls, people have been respectful while still voicing their opinions and giving some good advice.
What was your response to the critics?
Most of the heavy criticism came from people who had only seen the YouTube video and had drawn false conclusions. Since my brother used his hands to clear snow from my mouth, some people thought he didn’t have a shovel. So I just cleared up some of those kinds of misconceptions. There has been some criticism about the way we were skiing. We were giving 10-15 second intervals between the three of us, which is enough time to get down to our designated meet up points. We were all watching each other ski. The reason our buddy didn’t see me trigger the slide was because of all the trees. It was impossible to watch each other ski the entire line at the very top. But we had such short distances between meet up points, and knew exactly each others line, that they immediately knew when I didn’t make the rally point, and spotted me in the slide quickly.
Familiarity: Did a sense of having skied the run the year before and earlier in the day factor into your decision to ski the run?
It did factor into me skiing the run because I had taken nearly the same line right before, so I felt fairly confident. We even chose slightly less prone terrain on our second lap.
Terrain feature trigger points: Do you think taking the small entrance air over the roller with a sharp turn was a factor in triggering the slide? If so, will this adjust how you ski through featured terrain when navigating avalanche terrain in the future?
Yes, definitely airing off the roller was the impact that triggered the slide, altough the slide could have happened without it. I will be much more cautious about the way I ski across terrain like that in the future.
Group Dynamics: Do you think the crew you were with had any effect on your decision-making?
As far as group dynamics go, I trusted both of their decision making completely and don’t think it had any negative influence on me or affected the outcome.
Skiing expertise and confidence: All three of you are very high level skiers. Did the confidence that comes with being a great skier affect perception of risk? How did that change?
I was feeling pretty great after our first lap and before the slide in terms of my skiing ability. I definitely didn’t feel immune from avalanches at any point, but I was feeling very confident in my skiing. It serves as a wake-up call that I need to deeply examine my backcountry skills and judgments.
Line of Sight: Online, several posters have brought up this issue. Even though there was a meet up spot, it seemed each of you skied out of sight from one another. Will you shift your protocols in the future?
The thing people don’t realize online is that in order to stay in safe terrain we were skiing through fairly dense trees. This makes complete line of sight nearly impossible for more than 15 yards. Because of that we were picking meet up spots that were very close together. I had dropped second and cut around a small patch of trees, behind which I started the slide. Jack who dropped third didn't see me there, but got to the rally point and realized I wasn't there. I credit the short distances between meet up points and the fact my brother and Jack realized I wasn't there on time, for the quick scan my brother made, spotting me in the slide.
Probability: What would you say to people who are just getting into backcountry skiing about the potential for being in an avalanche?
I think it’s important to realize how avalanches can potentially start at any time in prone terrain. If you are a backcountry skier and you enter avalanche terrain, it is possible you could be caught in one. Also important to know is that zones you think might be safe may not be. There are no true safe zones anywhere when you are in avalanche terrain. So you have to keep your wits about you at all times.
Decision making and preparation: What would you say to other people your age who have experience in the backcountry and tend to ski things similar to East Vail Chutes?
That it is a high-risk activity and you have to take all the proper precautions and really trust your partners and your judgments. Never go out if anything doesn’t feel right, and always be prepared for the worst. I will be investing in an airbag and have a lot more survival gear in my pack next time I'm in the backcountry.