Avalanche Survival

Submitted by: Gregg Swanson

Self (Gregg Swanson)'s Success Story

My name is Gregg Swanson and I make my living as coach, mentor, guide, teacher and awakener.

It’s a great life!

It was June of 1998, when I successfully accomplished one of the most significant achievements of my life “ I “summited” Mt. Rainer!

It was a tremendously great and powerfully life changing experience and one that I will always remember for two very distinctly, “polar opposite” reasons! On the one hand, I had effectively achieved a lifelong goal, what some might call a “bucket List” accomplishment by making it all the way to the very pinnacle peak of Mt. Rainer.
I returned having experienced a moment that very few people on this planet have ever shared. That aspect of the journey was a dream come true and an accomplishment that I will treasure forever.

On the other hand, during our descent from top of the mountain, my older brother and I barely escaped absolute disaster by the “proverbial” skin of our teeth, as we scarcely survived being killed in an avalanche on the way down.

In most mountaineering circles, I would be considered a seasoned veteran and highly experienced rock climber, so there was no way that I could ever have imagined that this climb would come to a sudden, cataclysmic end involving a deadly avalanche plowing myself, my brother and 20 other climbers down the jagged face of Mt. Rainer, seriously injuring several of us and killing one member of our team.

A truly exhilarating and wonderfully enjoyable trip suddenly turned deadly and ended in tragedy when the avalanche swept over two of our climbing teams at about 2 p.m. as we were descending from the 14,408 foot peak of Mt. Rainer.

I was lucky in that I managed to get out of the ordeal only suffering two broken fingers and a torn PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) in my left knee. Sadly, not everyone on the trip was quite so fortuitous.

My brother and I were part of a highly respected climbing school, so everyone that was on this excursion had every reason to feel confident that we were fully trained and prepared for whatever nature threw our way. Or so we believed.

With about 20 other climbers, we were camped at Muir Hut on Mt. Rainer at 10,000 feet.
We were learning and practicing some advanced mountaineering techniques and on the very last day of our adventure, we set out as a team for the mountain’s summit at around 3:00 AM.

It was a beautiful clear day and by the time we reached the bottom of “Disappointment Cleaver,” the sun was rising and the moon was setting in that near magical way that allows you to see both of them at the same time.

What most would think was the hardest part of the climb actually went extremely well and we made the summit around 10 o'clock in the morning. It really was a gorgeous day “ and as you looked out across the horizon, you could clearly see Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson and Mt. St. Helen's.

We stayed up there on the mountain’s peak, fully drinking in the majesty and splendor of the moment for about an hour “ and having successfully taken it all in and happily basking in the accomplishment long enough for it to begin to sink in that we best begin heading back down, while weather conditions and light were in our favor, we decided to begin our decent, just as the snow was starting to get a little bit mushy.

It was getting warmer, perhaps approaching 70 degrees and so I shed my clothes down to just the essentials, putting the excess clothes in my pack as we started the decent. Of course the positive side of the comfortably warm weather has a down side to it when your stability and survival depends on the solidity of the snow that you carefully traversing through.

As time and we kept going, the snow was quickly becoming more and more like a “slushy” and soon I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into icy quagmire. As time went on, I began to sink up to my knees with every step that I took in our decent of the mountain.
As we approached the traverse at the bottom of “Disappointment Cleaver,” a few of us snapped onto an 800-foot rope anchored by aluminum spikes hammered into the side of the mountain along the ledge. This would serve as a “make shift” hand railing of sorts.

So there we were ... all attached to one another in groups of five, carefully working our way down the sheer, steep rocky side of Mt. Rainer, trying to maintain our steady footing and a positive, confident attitude n quickly melting snow, while precariously connected to one another by something as slim as a rope attached to our harness.

Then came the loud, panicked cry that you always hope and pray that you will never, ever hear!

It all happened so fast. I can now relive the experience in my mind in slow motion, frame by frame, but in the moment that the event occurred, it all struck like white lightening and nature asserted its self in a mere blink of an eye.

I suddenly heard someone yell "Snow!" Then just a mere moment later I heard the term that you most definitely never want to encounter while trudging through snow on a steep mountain side “ and that word is "Avalanche!"

The last thing that I remember hearing anyone say until after the event had subsided “ was the warning "run, run, run!"

I immediately tried to unclip myself from the rope that connected me to anchor line, knowing that I had a much better chance to survival if I was free to quickly maneuver as needed in hopes of avoiding being pummeled and possible crushed and buried by the approaching waves of slushy snow.

I looked up and saw the avalanche coming directly towards me.

I grabbed on to the rope, and was hoping to be able to somehow hold my ground and safely “ride it out.” However, as soon as I felt the impact of snow, I instantly knew that plan was no longer going to be an option. It just took me with it.

The next thing I knew, I was completely buried in snow for what seemed like hours but I am guessing was probably more like 10 - 15 seconds. Like when a surfer eats eating a wave at the center of the curl and is instantly sent swirling and tumbling to the very bottom of the sea, survival instincts suddenly kick in and take over and I somehow managed to work my way up to the surface of this icy grave, desperately in search of life giving air and heat.

All that I know for sure is that suddenly I popped up and was sitting on top of the snow and just as I was about to release a very enthusiastic and appreciative “sigh of relief” “ the mountain threw me yet another surprise “curve ball” and suddenly I found myself beginning to slide with exponentially increasing speed, down the side of the mountain, feet-first, directly towards a cliff.

I could clearly see where the cliff was dropping off and I could also clearly see that I was heading right directly toward it. I knew then that “this was it” - I was going to die.

Then somehow, some way, I just a suddenly came to an abrupt stop. The snow kept zipping past me and falling over the edge of the precipice, onto the brutally jagged rocks below, but clearly that particular time and event was NOT my “time to go” nor the destines fate of my earthy demise.

After what seemed like a life time but was probably more realistically about 15 - 20 seconds, the avalanche subsided and suddenly was gone just as quickly as it had arrived.

When it was all over, ten of us were spread out over 100 feet, connected by a twisted tangle of rope. The safety line was taut and overly strained while another line was already damaged and fraying.

Six of us would end up having to hang on for dear life for hours.

So with a little extended time on my hands, I decided that the circumstances called for me to take as full of an assessment as possible. First of all, I was pinned to the jagged face of a rock, while across my chest was a rib crushing rope connected somewhere above me and pulled taut by the weight of two people who were dangerously dangling down below me.

My hand was clearly broken and as I was begging to regain the feeling my leg, I was particularly concerned about a sharp, stinging pain in my left knee.

However, the crushing pressure of the taut rope across my chest made each and every breath an absolutely arduous and Augean athletic effort, so that’s where much of my attention was focused regarding my own safety and survival.

What had me even more concerned was the fate and worsening condition of some of my climbing “team mates.” As I looked down, I could now see two of my fellow mountaineers below me, as well as a deep crevasse, which partially obscured by shadow, appeared to darken from light blue to black at the furthest and deepest recesses.

There I was, dubiously suspended over a cliff with a 1,500 + foot drop and knew that survival for myself and others depended on my ability to clear my head, forget about fear and pain and focus my attention exclusively on figuring out a way to come up with some effectively workable solutions.

So first things first, I realized that I needed to quickly give up some of my outer layer clothing in order to help warm and protect those below me on the cliff, who were thoroughly drenched from freezing cold water runoff.

At this moment, I genuinely came to full understanding of the true meaning of what it is to of selflessly give from the heart.

Daylight seemed to be fading, even though it was mid-afternoon.

After doing absolutely everything that was within my power to do, I had to finally come to terms with the fact and resolve myself to the reality that “ from this point on, I would have to simply keep a clear, positive encouraging mind set and be at completely at peace with the idea of waiting for help to arrive.

Finally “ after what seemed to be several hours, “Rescuers” started to show up. The rescue mission was meticulously delicate and extremely slow.

Rescuers arrived by helicopter and then forced to rappel over to each of the climbers, securing each of us with a new set of ropes that allowed us to crawl to a safe and secure large rock on which we could resolutely relax and find reinvigorating rest.

All in all, we were hanging there more than five hours.

When I was checked out by the medics on the Rescue Team, it was discovered that I was hypothermic, dehydrated, had suffered two broken fingers and a torn PCL, not bad considering the desperately dramatic intensity of the experience.

Once the authorities were alerted by walkie-talkie, a helicopter arrived to transport us all to local area hospitals. However even that facet of the rescue efforts were delayed, and we ended up having to wait for an extended period of time for the copters to get to us, due to conditions of sever cloud cover that limited the ability of the helicopters to safely fly up to our location on the mountain.

After the helicopters finally arrived, I had to crawl back up the hill and walk more than a mile, severely dehydrated and hypothermic, with a torn PCL ligament in my knee.

Strangely enough, it’s precisely through experience such as this, that one comes to truly authentic understanding of exactly just how mentally strong one’s mind and body can be.

I don’t write this course as someone who has attained some ultimate level of mental strength; far from it. Rather I wrote this course as someone who has a good understanding of the process that develops mental strength. It’s a method that I have used, and continue to use with much success.

Indeed, all the successful people I know make use of this process, even if they don’t realize it or describe it as presented here. Although there are many elements to developing mental strength, overall it’s a fairly straightforward process that anyone can follow. We can all become as mentally strong as we choose to be.

I’d like to emphasize that the process of developing mental strength first needs to be understood and then followed up with action. Taking the course is not enough; it’s just a first step. You need to understand the process and then act in accordance with it so you can know firsthand and then be able to help your clients.

Through understanding and action you will develop a strong mind. With a strong mind, you will be able to achieve your goals and live your ideal life.