Buried Alive in the Backcountry
A slab of snow fell and trapped her in a streambed in a place where few skiers dared to go
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On January 18, 2019, Jackson, Wyoming, resident Jenny Karns, 49, was skiing Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on a ten-inch powder day. At 1:30 p.m., when she was riding between the South and Middle Hobacks, a remote experts-only section of the resort, a small slab of snow knocked her headfirst into the gully. She found herself upside down in a streambed, completely encased in snow and unable to move. She was running out of oxygen and concealed in a spot where other skiers were extremely unlikely to notice her.
Here’s Jenny’s story as told to Outside.
I’ve been a Jackson Hole skier my whole life. My family were some of the first homesteaders in the valley in the 1890s. My dad was an Olympic skier, in biathlon, and I was the state high school downhill champ. I’ve skied the Hobacks hundreds of times, and the gully between the South and Middle Hobacks is one of my go-to powder stashes. It’s not an obvious line.
It was a good powder day—ten inches—but the snow was getting warm and thick as the afternoon wore on. I was bopping down like I’ve done dozens of times and treating the steep walls like a halfpipe, slashing back and forth while my partner Hank was skiing along the ridge just ahead. I dodged a few shrubs and rocks and got ready to pop out of the gully to finish the run to the cat track back to the base area. On the way up, the slope gave way. I’d undercut a slab of snow a foot deep and six feet wide, and it knocked me over and slid me headfirst to the bottom of the gully.
That wouldn’t have been enough snow to bury me, but the snow just beneath the surface of the gully was rotten—large, unconsolidated faceted crystals bridging a creek—and I plunged headfirst through it while the slab I’d dislodged tumbled in on top of me and set like cement.
I struggled to flip myself over but couldn’t budge. My legs were above me, and my arms were pinned to my side. The weight of the snow was crushing my ribs. It was hard to draw a breath, and I couldn’t turn my head a single millimeter. I was completely helpless. There was a small air pocket in front of my face, created by the brim of my helmet, but I didn’t know how long the oxygen would last. I thought about how many avalanche victims die of asphyxiation. I realized then that I might not make it.
The Hobacks are huge: a trio of 2,500-foot-long ridges that together contain more acres than many ski resorts. Especially on powder days, people spread out and ski them fast, plunging through stands of trees and diverging around cliffs, regrouping on the cat track at the bottom of the run. My ski partner was waiting for me there, but it would be impossible for him to wallow back upslope to me, even if he knew exactly where I was. He probably thought I’d lost a ski and was digging around for it, so he would wait ten minutes and then ski to the closest lift, our other fail-safe meeting spot. Once he realized I wasn’t there, he’d call ski patrol, and they’d start looking, skiing down the Hobacks from the top. At best, I figured, it would take 45 minutes for them to get to me. Assuming they could find me at all. I knew the spot I was in was hidden from above, which is why it was a good powder stash to begin with.
It was hard to breathe. I thought of my three kids—how they would no longer have a mother. I knew that for their sake, I couldn’t panic. I needed to breathe calmly to preserve oxygen. No yelling. No one would hear it anyhow.
Eventually, I realized that one of my skis was sticking out of the snow. The only part of my body that could move was the tip of my right foot, and with that I could wiggle the tip of my ski. The bases of my skis were hot pink. Maybe, just maybe, someone would be skiing by and that motion would catch the corner of their eye.
My helmet was touching the rock of the creek bed—I could hear a trickle of running water. How long after someone drowns could they be resuscitated, I wondered.
I thought of my cousin Debbie. Two months older than me, we were like twins tearing around Jackson, wild girls winning ski races. She drowned 15 years ago on a Class V river in California, pinned among rocks in her kayak below the surface of the river. When they got the autopsy back, there wasn’t a drop of water in her lungs. She’d held tight until the end waiting for help, dying of asphyxiation, just like I was about to do. Really, Debbie, I thought, is this going to happen to me, too?
My anterior tibialis muscle in my ankle was spasming from wiggling my ski tip. It felt like all the snow in the world was on top of me. I was talking to God, asking what to do. I felt crushed, terrified, desperate.
Suddenly, there was a hand on my shin, and I started yelling, “I’m under here. Get me out.” Honestly, I felt like I willed it to happen.
Nathanael Reeder was on his last run of the day. He was literally beelining it down the Hobacks to get to his car in time to drive nine hours back to Boulder, Colorado. He comes every winter to ski. In Hebrew, Nathanael means “gift of God.”
Lots of other people might have just skied by, saw the ski, thought, “Some dumb fucker lost their ski,” and kept going. Nathanael went to investigate and realized there was someone attached and yelled out for help. He was afraid it was a dead body.
Two others, Spencer Folley and Josh Spagnato, skied over and helped dig me out. They hauled me out by my belt. I took that first clear breath and knew that even if I died then, I could be revived. Ski patrol arrived. I never lost consciousness, but they told me I had slumped into my lap like a rag doll, my face blue and spitting blood.
I was in intensive care for three days. I had collapsed lungs, a negative pulmonary edema. I also had a Takasubo cardiomyopathy—a heart attack caused by stress, also called broken heart syndrome. It took a month to recover. A lot of slow walks. I met Nathanael when he came back to town in March to ski. He’s an Ikon Pass holder. Jackson Hole is hard on Ikon Pass holders. We blame them for overcrowding our slopes and our town. Not me. My new motto is “all friends on a powder day.” It turns out that’s one of their slogans too.
Forty days later, I finally skied again. I saw the Hobacks from the car, and it felt like vertigo. I burst out crying. My friend said, “You don’t have to do this.” I said, “I don’t want to, but I think I have to.”