I Survived an Avalanche in 1984. It Took Me Decades to Pick Up the Pieces.
While climbing Alaska’s Eagle Peak, Joe Yelverton’s life changed in a single moment. His account of the experience won our inaugural survival-stories essay contest.
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This piece won our inaugural survival-stories essay contest. Learn more about the contest and how to enter here.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free from anywhere in the United States at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
There would be no warning of the horrors to come. No alarms. No sirens. Like a concealed bomb, the mountain detonated.
High above us, the snow-covered slope released tons of violent energy. Struck with panic, I looked up toward the peak to see an enormous white wave cascading over the cliffs, building momentum so fast I would have only a split second to brace for impact. There was no cinematic escape. In one traumatic heartbeat, an unimaginable force consumed us.
The moment of impact, knowing my friends and I were about to die violently, has become the single most formative event of my life. That experience pushed me to make impulsive decisions, drove me to addiction, racked me with guilt, and plunged me into the depths of depression and the painful contemplation of suicide. Trauma profoundly shaped the trajectory of my future. The story was so personal, I hid the details for nearly four decades.
It was a picture-perfect spring day in early April 1984, on Eagle Peak in the Chugach Range of Alaska. We were a climbing party of three: Steve Campbell, my best friend and regular climbing partner, Barry Silver, another close friend and avid climber, and myself. We were all in our early twenties, and we lived to climb and ski. We were strong and capable rock and ice climbers, but our eagerness for high places exceeded our patience for waiting out dangerous conditions.
“I had no way of knowing that our heartfelt conversation would be the most important of my life.”
A recent storm cycle meant the avalanche danger was high, and Steve had reservations about the conditions. Our ascent route, a mixed rock, snow, and ice climb up the exposed north ridge, involved plenty of loaded slopes. So we agreed to turn back if it seemed too dangerous and tried to mitigate the risk by staying off loaded slopes and climbing through rock bands. But it did get dangerous, and we didn’t turn back. Instead I pushed on, and Steve followed.
After a couple hours, with half of our ascent completed, Steve and I stopped to eat lunch on a sunny ledge while Barry scouted the route above us, staying within shouting distance.
Surrounded by sweeping views, we enjoyed the full embrace of our favorite mountains.
Steve and I talked. There had been tension between us in the days leading up to this climb and we needed to clear the air. I had no way of knowing that our heartfelt conversation would be the most important of my life. Afterward, we shouldered our packs, grabbed our ice axes, and prepared to join Barry, who was now several hundred feet above us.
That’s when I heard a thunderous roar, and then quickly turned to yell at Steve, who was standing about ten feet away, his back to the mountain.
I swung my pick into frozen ground and dropped down on top of it, then turned my head to see Steve get hit before he had time to react. The wave hit with so much force it catapulted us from the ledge, toward a series of cliffs and steep slopes.
Swept up inside the front of the avalanche, I became airborne. Flashes of light, then darkness, over and over. The mountain views we had just been enjoying now appeared like a hallucination, everything chaotically spinning around me.
When my body finally hit the rocks below, I felt the first of many devastating impacts. The first knocked the wind out of me. Next I felt my leg bones snap. Then my knee joints pulled apart. As the injuries compounded, I was certain I was being ripped to pieces.
Then came one final slam as my limp body crashed into the ground at the bottom of a cliff, coming to a full stop even as the slide continued on the surface above. Buried underneath the immense weight of accumulating snow, I desperately wanted to clear an airspace around my mouth, but I couldn’t move.
Suffocating, and in total darkness, I heard the avalanche thundering over the top of me. I fell deeper into panic as the pressure forced the remaining air from my lungs. I knew these were the final few seconds of my life.
I’m going to die now, I thought.
Suddenly the slope shuddered. Everything began moving, and I tumbled inside the avalanche all over again. Unexpectedly, I came to rest near the surface of the snow, my feet pointed downhill. I sat up and found myself in the middle of a wide swath of avalanche debris.
Snow had packed so tightly into my mouth I struggled to breathe. Frantic, I dug it out with my bare and bloody fingers.
I had been strained out in a boulder field, and I emerged from absolute violence into surrounding silence. I looked around, confused by the vertical distance I’d traveled so quickly.
I reached for my transceiver and switched it to receive. No signal. I assumed my partners were buried and dead.
Still sitting, I swept snow from my lower body, revealing my disfigured legs. Splotches of blood covered the snow. I knew I’d suffered severe injuries, but I felt strangely disconnected from any sensation. I would later find out I had broken bones and torn ligaments in both legs, a dislocated knee, fractures in both hands, a concussion, a back injury, and multiple contusions and cuts, some that penetrated all the way to the bone.
Among the avalanche debris, I finally got a glimpse of a dark figure a few hundred feet away. I recognized Steve’s clothing. When I tried to stand my legs collapsed. I tried to scream for him, but my voice was gone.
High above me, something caught my attention: glimpses of Barry descending. It was only then that I realized he’d survived. It took him a while to get down. Barry went to Steve first, but his expression revealed what I already knew.
A strong athlete, Barry, who was unharmed, carried me to a high pass next to the avalanche. He bundled me up with his extra clothes, even the clothes he wore except for his base layer. He left me with food and water and began to prepare for the arduous trek out.
This was years before satellite SOS devices, and we were six miles from the nearest trailhead, so Barry was my lifeline. I couldn’t stand, let alone walk. I didn’t want him to leave—I was certain I wouldn’t live to see him again. I could tell he was conflicted, but his quick movements reflected an undeniable urgency.
Kneeling down with his face close to mine, he looked me in the eye.
“I’m coming back to get you. You hang on, OK?”
“It felt like pieces of me had been left behind, back in the mountains.”
I watched him disappear into a labyrinth of alpine terrain below me, then looked up to see Steve’s lifeless body. Then began some of the loneliest, most desperate hours of my life, a memory I would relive thousands of times, feeling the devastating loss of my best friend.
It was midday, getting colder, with weather moving in.
Hours went by as I drifted in and out of consciousness mixed with violent hallucinations. Episodes of shivering became shorter as hypothermia sank in.
Sometime near sunset I heard distant rotor blades, getting closer and closer, then fading away. Another dream, I thought. A light snow fell. Visibility worsened. The sky darkened. I estimated it had been about ten hours since Barry left.
Sometime later I regained consciousness and awoke to the realization that I was being dragged. Two men moving me up the mountainside. I heard Barry’s voice as they struggled to load my body into the helicopter.
The next thing I remember, I was surrounded by doctors and nurses, some of them frantically cutting off my clothes. Every one of them was attending to some part of me. But it felt like the different parts of me were scattered everywhere. It felt like pieces of me had been left behind, back in the mountains. With Steve.
Shielding the bright lights above me, a nurse’s face appeared directly above mine. “You are safe now,” she said.
I was alive, but didn’t understand why.
Steve and I were polar opposites. I was hard-charging and impatient. He relished the moment, often hanging on your every word during a conversation. He was curious, full of humility, and rarely driven by ego. He was everything I admired.
Two weeks before our climb, we had a rare disagreement that strained our friendship. He was in love with a close friend of his, but she was unaware of his deeper feelings for her. I was dating multiple women but was indifferent toward all of them. Steve was shy but possessed integrity and honesty. In every way imaginable, he was a perfect gentleman. I was not. So one day he told me the truth about my own behavior. His words hurt only because they were accurate. I disappointed the person whose opinion mattered more to me than anyone’s. A week went by without us talking.
A difficult climb would be good for us, I thought. I was right about that, at least—my last two days with him were some of the best we had, right up until the avalanche.
While we ate our lunches that day, I told Steve I was sorry for disappointing him, that I was sorry for my behavior. For reasons I still don’t entirely understand, I knew it was imperative to share how I felt. And, in a moment I still remember vividly, I told him I loved him.
He repeated the sentiment, emphasizing how excited he was for our upcoming adventures. Sitting next to each other on that ledge, we put our arms over the other’s shoulders, and in those few minutes everything was right in the world.
A few minutes later my best friend was dead.
I spent the next 30 years running from this experience, a futile attempt that often left me obsessively returning to those visceral seconds before the avalanche struck. The moment of impact is embedded within my subconscious. Old injuries still plague me, but the emotional wounds hurt more.
I spent most of my adult life coping with frequent flashbacks and PTSD. Out of a fear of intimacy, I sabotaged my relationships and moved away from Alaska to work in Seattle. I dealt with substance abuse, crippling anxiety, and frequent suicidal ideation. Finally, after a long stretch of insomnia, my physician convinced me to see a therapist. During my first few sessions I barely said anything—just sobbed uncontrollably for nearly 45 minutes. But, slowly, my sleep improved. She taught me tools, like meditation, to help me cope and, eventually, move forward.
Over time I learned to accept that healing isn’t linear. It’s a staircase that goes both up and down, a deliberate journey that lasts a lifetime. The most important thing I learned was the difference between happiness and purpose: one is fleeting, the other more enduring.
Purpose inspired me to quit my job and move back to Alaska, seeking out lost connections with both people and place. Trauma shaped my life, but over time I began to find an undeniable solace, not only in the continual journey of forgiving myself, but in rediscovering the joy of the Chugach, the place where some of my most powerful healing has occurred, on frequent forays into the range, sometimes alone, but often with close friends who I’m incredibly thankful for.
These mountains are where my life began a challenging, reckless trajectory, but, after many years, they’ve started to feel like home again. And when I’m there I always feel the presence of my best friend, Steve.