Contributing Gear Editor

The Inertia

Accidents in the mountains can happen in a blink of an eye.

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, how local you are, or how many times you’ve been out there. Risk is always present when riding snow. And that risk doesn’t just come from things like avalanches. With as much snow as western North America has received in the last month, tree wells are a real and present danger.

Ian Steger can tell you that. He didn’t think he was going to die the day he almost did until it was too late, which you can clearly see in the video above. Six feet down, upside-down, buried and suffocating in natural quick-bonding cement that many people (including myself) take for granted. Snow is the medium but it will trap people like Han Solo in carbonite;  the more you fight it, the tighter the seal becomes.

Let me set the scene: What you’re watching was a classic Mt. Baker powder day; the type where there’s a train of people hiking the Summer Road to chair five and six to line up for first tracks amidst a horde of frothing hardcores, knowing that the best lines will be gone in five or 10 minutes. Ian, a local who grew up on Mt. Baker, bypassed the Summer Road madness for a more civilized, yet tardy chair seven ride to the other side. Doing so put him off the cadence of the front liners who know where to go and where to progressively get fresh lines. Snowboarding inbounds Baker involves a meta-game against other shredders who all excel in that particular talent and all want the fresh. So for those in the back of the pack, the ever-pressing urge to go further out creates a delicate balance.

“The plan was getting right at (chair) seven at the bell, knowing that I was going to miss the first few good runs,” he told me. “I mean, the game plan was actually kinda just enjoy the day, and not do the normal frothing for pow lines, and be the first person in all the zones.”

But, as I’m sure we all know, the stoke can fuel FOMO on a powder day. Especially for a long-time crew of locals who now have to share the finite resources on a mountain that only recently blew up in attention. Hordes of pilgrims who heard stories of Baker’s bountiful winters ended up moving there, all with the purpose to shred hard.

Bill Kamphausen was one of those folks who moved to Bellingham several years ago in search of a lifestyle more in line with his attitudes than his Michigan roots. He befriended Ian, and the two of them became friends and eventually trusted riding partners. In December Bill died from snow immersion, inbounds at Mount Baker. The death shook Ian and his friends, but the cause of death perhaps was all too familiar to them. So on the day Ian ended up in a tree well himself, the irony of that tragedy hit home.

Video of Terrifying Tree-Well Rescue Shows How Lucky Snowboarder Is to be Alive

Upside down and helpless. This rescue was pure luck. Photo: Screenshot

Ian and his friends were lapping a zone just out of bounds underneath Shuksan Arm. It’s a zone that Ian had easily ridden hundreds, but more likely thousands of times. He made it though a small gap in the trees that was a little too small, and the tree well sucked him in. “I don’t know if I clipped a branch, or saw something that caused me to speed check, but as soon as I went through that group of trees, before I knew it, I was upside down”.

This is a guy who knows the mountain as well as anyone. He’s a friend of mine, and I’d trust my life with him out there. So to hear him say how he wasn’t even sure how it happened means it was in a flash.

With his friends waiting down below, and his radio out of reach, Ian was a sitting duck. Or rather, a slippery salmon, like the graphic on his board. That bit of motion is what caught Francis Zuber’s attention out of the corner of his eye. The two were strangers up to this point, yet will forever know each other as victim and rescuer – because someone’s life was miraculously saved.

Ian’s not sure how long he was buried, but it was somewhere between three and 15 minutes. Three minutes is the time it took in the video from when Francis, who’s on skis, sees him to the point Ian’s airway is clear. Fifteen minutes is a conservative amount of time it takes to suffocate when immersed in snow upsidedown.

But as you see in the video, Francis hustled and had he not gone all-out things could have turned dark for Ian very quickly. Thankfully it didn’t, and he has lessons to share with the world.

“The big conclusion that I’ve come to,” Ian remarked, “is that complacency is real. It’s a real thing. I’ve ridden through that zone hundreds of times, and that has never been a place where I have even considered danger.”

So now Ian and his friends have a rigid guideline for not only buddying up, but about ensuring all are within shouting distance. And if going through tight trees, go one at a time with the last person understanding that they won’t have anyone able to rescue them if things go wrong.

You can never eliminate hazards, but you can acknowledge that they exist, and take the steps necessary to survive an accident. Thankfully for Ian, his luck brought him a savior in time. But most of the stories don’t end up that way. Planning for the worst will lead to decisions and strategies that can prevent tragedies.


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