For the past few years, I have been traveling the world, running away from snow and the cold. After one winter in northern Maine in 2011 and waking up mid-spring to three feet of snow, I bought a one-way flight to the Caribbean and hadn’t spent a winter farther north than South Carolina since.
Last fall, while living in Mongolia, I decided I was ready to attempt another real winter and applied to work at the Taos ski resort in New Mexico as a line cook. I had never learned how to ski or snowboard and thought they would be fun new sports to add to my repertoire. What could possibly go wrong?
I loved my job ― the people, the real work I was finally getting back to after years of traveling around the globe and working odd jobs to make just enough money to buy a flight to my next destination. The only problem ― I was too busy working to really get out and enjoy the snow the way everyone else was at the base of the Rockies. Instead, I had to settle for going on long hikes in the deep powder until I finally found the chance to learn how to ski or board. I was planning on working at the resort for a few seasons, so I figured I had plenty of time.
That all changed on March 13. The mountain had been getting heavy and wet snow for two days and that Wednesday was a lighter powder day but with winds gusting at 75 mph. By one o’clock that afternoon, all of the resort’s ski lifts had been closed due to the high winds and the mountain was emptying of people.
Two snowboarders, I learned later, had been frustrated with the weather and lack of accessibility to fresh snow, so they entered private land above the house where I was staying in hopes of getting a few runs in before nightfall. A half mile below them, I had just gotten out of the shower and was laying in bed, reading a book ― basically the safest thing anyone could possibly do in a ski valley.
Suddenly, I heard what sounded like snow falling off of the roof ― only louder. I looked out the window above my bed and saw trees and snow rushing towards me.
And then there was only darkness.
When I regained consciousness, I was buried under eight feet of snow and I had no idea what had happened, where I was or why I was freezing. I literally thought I was dead. I tried moving my body to shift the snow off of me, but all I could move was my left arm from the elbow down.
When I had arrived at the resort, I had learned a lot about snow and avalanches. I learned that when snow settles, it settles like cement and it’s virtually impossible to move out from under it. I also learned what to do if I was ever caught in an avalanche ― spit so you know which way is up, always wear an avalanche beacon so rescue workers can find you, move with the snow and try to cup your mouth to create an air pocket. But because of how I was trapped there wasn’t much I could do. Stuck under the weight of all that snow, I couldn’t think of a worse scenario: I was in my underwear and I couldn’t be sure if anyone even knew where I was when the avalanche struck.
I screamed with everything I had inside of me but I couldn’t breathe deeply enough to make much noise due to the lack of oxygen, my bruised lungs and the crushing weight of snow on me. I knew one of my roommates had also been at home and I hoped he was okay and could help find me. I had to believe he was fine because I didn’t want to imagine him being hurt or killed ― or what would happen to me if he wasn’t OK and wouldn’t be able to save me. I realized it was only a matter of time before I ran out of air and passed out, so I had to do whatever I could to be heard.
I panicked and screamed more and then tried to control my breathing because I knew I was using too much of my precious air supply. I started getting light headed and stopped screaming. I thought of my roommate, knowing he would do anything to get to me but the trauma of seeing me dead might destroy him. I thought of all the things I still wanted to do with my life ― like my plans to hike the Appalachian Trail the following summer and my upcoming trip to a dog sanctuary in Bulgaria. I thought of my family and all of my friends. I knew I was close to losing consciousness and if I didn’t muster the strength to yell one more time, I might never yell again. I yelled and then slipped into a deeper darkness.
I didn’t know it at the time, but eight feet above me, my roommate and a neighbor heard that one scream. A twelve-by-twelve foot room isn’t very big but when it’s filled almost to the top with snow and trees, trying to find a body is a daunting task. Before that scream, they weren’t even sure I was in there.
They dug. They yelled. They hoped. After 10 minutes they found my left arm sticking up straight and the color and limpness of my hand inspired them to dig faster and harder. When they found my head, it was partially covered by a section of my wall and I wasn’t breathing. As they were debating what to do ― how to save me ― I suddenly took one giant breath and they began to dig again. It took another 20 minutes to get me out from under the snow, the bedroom wall and trees that laid across my body.
When I awoke above the snow, I found it odd to be experiencing someone else’s life ― to be in their body while they were being rescued and to know my own body still lay under the snow beneath me. It wasn’t until I was at the hospital that I realized I was me ― that it was my body that had been saved and that I hadn’t died in that avalanche. I had been buried under eight feet of snow and trees and wall for forty minutes and was a frigid 94.5 degrees ― officially in a hypothermic state ― when my rescuers got me into an ambulance.
I know now that if you are buried for less than 18 minutes, you have a 91% chance of survival but it drops to 34% sometime between 19 and 35 minutes. If you’re buried under six feet of snow or more, your chances are almost 0% as it’s unlikely anyone will be able to dig fast enough to get to you before you run out of air or succumb to injuries or hypothermia. These statistics make me realize how lucky I truly am.
It took almost five hours to get my body temperature back up to normal and even now as I’m typing this one month later, I still don’t have proper feeling in some of my fingers. I had a black eye and cuts on my face from where a part of the wall had smashed down on me, which luckily created an air pocket where I could get enough breath to yell. I have a C7 transverse process fracture in my back and torn ligaments that cause two of my vertebrae to slide around. I’m currently wearing a neck brace to help stabilize the area.
It wasn’t until I was at the hospital that I realized I was me -- that it was my body that had been saved and that I hadn’t died in that avalanche. I had been buried under eight feet of snow and trees and wall for forty minutes and was a frigid 94.5 degrees when my rescuers got me into an ambulance.
The mental and emotional effects will take longer to heal, but that too will happen. The trauma of waking up in a darkness you didn’t know existed, the feeling of thinking you are dead, the anguish my ill fortune caused my friends and family, the panic attacks ― those feelings are the real mental killer for me.
What if the avalanche had taken out more of our house? What if someone else was injured or buried and they had been saved first? What if my neighbor hadn’t been outside or had waited just one extra minute to call 911? What if my wall hadn’t fallen down, creating the air space? What if my roommate hadn’t been home? What if?
It took 50 people to save my life that day ― an entire community working together to save just one life. A roommate who wouldn’t stop. A neighbor who called 911 and rushed in with a shovel despite her asthma. A cop who didn’t know how to climb over all the snow but refused to let me die. An off-duty rescue worker who was walking by the scene and at first thought it was a domestic violence case. Ski patrol members who had just gotten off their shift and raced over to a house not in their jurisdiction. A mayor of a village with 69 registered voters who helped dig and later searched above the house for more people. A foreign visitor who didn’t fully understand what was being said but understood “Dig!” and did just that. A snowcat operator who drove up my road to help get the ambulance access to my house. Skiers and snowboarders who set aside their differences to save my life.
The love and care from the community and my friends has been overwhelming. In the past I’ve sometimes thought, My life doesn’t matter, I am just a little nobody, and then something like this happens and I realized the impact you can have on strangers just by surviving.
I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know if I’ll ever want to spend another season with snow. I don’t know if I was saved for some specific reason, a life mission. I do know I am not done with my story. I still want to travel, volunteer and work. I want to continue to live my life how I want to live it. I want to live and thanks to so many incredible people, I now have that chance.
Meagan Hunt was raised on the East Coast but has spent the past decade living out of a backpack while traveling the globe. She is a strong advocate for animal rights and volunteers with various shelters and dog sanctuaries around the world. Her two favorite places in the world are New Orleans and Gulbache, Turkey.