VAIL — For Christmas, Edwin LaMair got to be alive, his best present ever.
Edwin says he’s lucky to be alive after he kicked off an avalanche Sunday that came inches from killing him.
“Stay safe out there,” Edwin said. “It was a very unexpected slide, but proof that anything can go anytime. I feel very lucky to be alive and will be taking a serious look at my backcountry skills and judgments.”
Edwin, his brother Davis and their friend Jack Edgar are expert skiers and had the right equipment and training, but it still wasn’t enough, said Dan Smith with Vail Mountain Rescue.
“If you’re getting Mixmastered, with one turn more or one turn less, you’re upside down. He might have been in a much different condition when his brother got to him,” Smith said. “There is plenty of time to ski those areas this winter.”
“That’s an awful lot of good luck,” Smith said. “He might want to steer clear of casinos. He used up all his good luck.”
Speaking Thursday afternoon, it still makes Edwin shake his head. Christmas was spent fielding lots of phone calls from relatives and friends.
“I’m happy to be here,” Edwin said. “It was such a close call. I haven‘t totally processed it yet. I think back on it and still freak out a little bit.”
Edwin and Davis are students at the University of Colorado. Edwin is a senior studying philosophy.
Edwin, 22, Davis, 19, and Jack 19, of Englewood, have backcountry experience and extensive training. They were packing avalanche probes, beacons, shovels and other gear. Edwin and Davis had AvaLungs, a device enables you to breathe for 30 minutes if you’re buried in an avalanche. Edgar had a balloon device designed top lift you above the surface of an avalanche. They were ready.
The three were taking their second lap of the day to a back country area above East Vail, outside the Vail ski area.
They reached the area around 3 p.m., and dropped in about 45 minutes later.
Davis dropped in first, heading into the trees. Edwin headed for a glade, an area they had skied earlier in the day. He was following about 10 sets of tracks already there, he said.
He dropped off a two-foot roll and leaned into a right turn when he saw the snow beneath him crack and begin to slide.
“I looked uphill, to my right, and saw the crown about 25 feet uphill from me,” Edwin said.
He tried to ski out of the slide to his right, and aimed for a small tree that he tried to grab. As he tumbled, the front of his skis hit the tree trunk. He lost his right ski and fell headfirst down into the slide.
As he slid headfirst a couple hundred feet, his AvaLung was ripped from his mouth. The slide dragged him down another couple hundred feet through small trees, still headfirst, as his legs thrashed back and forth into trees. He lost his left ski, but managed to get his AvaLung back in his mouth only to find it jammed with snow.
“I slid over the first cliff band, probably 20 feet high, landed, still headfirst, and continued sliding,” Edwin said.
At that point he was buried much deeper under the snow.
Listen closely to the video and you can hear Davis shout, “Avalanche!” as he kicked over the same 20-foot cliff he’d seen his brother go over, racing down to try to rescue Edwin.
Once he went over the cliff, Edwin said he could feel that the slide was slowing and swam upward as hard as he could.
“I had the same reaction you would if you were swimming and breathed in water,” Edwin said. “I started coughing and swimming for the surface as hard as I could.”
The slowing snow cemented him in place, but he managed to stick one arm into the air. He struggled to get his face above the snow so he could breathe.
Davis and Edgar had seen Edwin go over the cliff and spotted his arm sticking above the snow.
They launched themselves over the cliff even before the avalanche roared to a halt, reaching him seconds after he stopped tumbling. They skied toward him and started clawing at the snow to dig him out.
“Even though I could breathe, I was still panicky because I still couldn’t move any part of my body,” Edwin said.
After he was freed and had calmed down, he tried to stand and realized neither of his legs would bear weight. He said he felt his knee ligaments being “destroyed” as he was slammed into the small trees in the upper part of the slide.
Once they had Edwin dug out, Vail Mountain Rescue was called and helped talk them out of danger.
They found one of Edwin’s skis and with Edwin sitting on it, Davis and Edgar side-slipped to clear a path so he could traverse the face, as they slowly made their way down. They inched their way down 2,000 vertical feet, multiplied many times by their traversing. They made it to the East Vail water tank around 8:15 p.m., where Vail Mountain Rescue and their family were waiting.
The slide was 800 feet long and about 150 feet wide at its widest point.
Edwin tore his right ACL and MCL. Surgery is scheduled for early January. He had a fat lip, a gash on his chin and strained some ligaments on his left knee.
Vail Mountain Rescue’s third mission that day
That was Vail Mountain Rescue’s third mission that day. Before helping LaMair out of the East Vail Chutes, they had come off an eight hour mission, and helped another skier out of the Half Moon Pass area.
Steve Zuckerman with Vail Mountain Rescue is urging caution and restraint.
“Right now, as we get more snow it takes a while for the snowpack to stabilize. We’ll get a foot of snow and guys are rushing out,” said Zuckerman said.
It not only endangers them, but the people who have to rescue them, he said.
“If you go at 10 a.m. and you have to be rescued at 2 p.m., that’s one thing. To rescue someone at night, they’re not only putting themselves at great risk, they’re putting others at great risk,” Zuckerman said.
Avalanche danger is being called “considerable” at treeline or above by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“It’s a typical Colorado snowpack,” said John Snook with the CAIC. “The East Vail chutes had a fair amount of snow
“Hopefully, folks will be careful out there. We hope that these young men learned something from this, and that others will learn something from this, as well.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.