The story of an extreme Alaskan heli-skiing trip, guides Adrian Ballinger and Jerry Nance, human error and an almost-deadly avalanche accident.
Heli-skiing guide Jerry Hance took one step forwards and the ground collapsed. The group of five skiers behind him—four clients and a second guide, Adrian Ballinger—was sliced in half as a 40-foot section of the snowy overhang they had been set down on a few minutes before broke away. Kevin Edwards, busy taking photographs on the safe side of the break, turned around to see his friends were gone. David Cole had one foot on solid snow, the other dangling in thin air. Furthest away from safety, Ballinger tumbled into the abyss.
Instinctively, he reached across to his left shoulder to pull the handle on his Backcountry Access backpack. Larger objects rise to the surface in an avalanche, and fully inflated the airbag inside would help ensure that when the snow finally came to a rest, Ballinger would be on top. But he couldn’t find the trigger. Grasping aimlessly with both hands he cursed the manufacturer for making the handle so small, forgetting that the mountain had given way before he’d even had time to put it on.
After a second or so of free fall, Ballinger hit the first of the rocky cliffs below. His helmet and right shoulder took the brunt of the impact. This isn’t going to work, he thought, this is really bad. He was thrown into a tumble, crashing repeatedly against several hundred feet of snow, ice, and rock, then rolling rapidly down a steep snowy incline.
The big blocks of falling snow Ballinger had initially been riding broke up and triggered an avalanche on the lower slopes. He’d been caught in two avalanches before, in Aspen in 2004 and La Grave in the French Alps in 2006, but both times he’d ended up at or near the surface. More than anything, he dreaded being buried alive, slowly suffocating in the oppressive cold. I’m going to be stuck under the snow, Ballinger thought, still desperately searching for the handle on his airbag.
But as the slope leveled out, the violence of the avalanche reduced and finally stopped. Ballinger was on the surface, face down in the snow. He lay there feeling dizzy, but didn’t seem badly hurt. For the briefest of moments the world seemed eerily silent, the roar of the torrent of snow and ice gone. Then the screaming started.
Just a few minutes earlier, that Monday, March 26, 2014, had been an almost perfect day to be skiing the Alaskan wilderness. The sun was shining, with not a single cloud in the sky. Two weeks of snowfall had dumped three to five feet of powder onto the peaks of the Chugach Mountains around Valdez, and even though wind had squeezed some of the fluffiness out of that fresh snow, there were miles and miles of untouched slopes to explore.
The group of clients Ballinger was guiding had spent the first part of the day solo-skiing 2,000-foot runs right down from the mountain tops to the glaciers in the valleys below. Hance was guiding another group on the same mountain, the two parties taking turns in the same helicopter for rides back up to the summit. When one of Hance’s clients snowboarded too low on a traverse and ended up stuck at the top of a 150-foot cliff, Ballinger, who was farther up the mountain, was called in to perform a rescue.
By the time Ballinger had roped the client to safety and met up with Hance at the bottom, Hance’s group had decided to head home for the day. Ballinger’s group, though, wanted a few more runs. Safety rules imposed by Black Ops Valdez, the company Ballinger and Hance were working for, meant that two guides needed to be in the field at any one time, so the two teamed up together.
“My group’s gone, I’m on vacation. You’re in charge,” Hance joked to Ballinger as they waited for the helicopter to ferry the other group home to base and return.
“Woah!” Ballinger hit back. “I just did an hour and a half rescue for you. You’re in charge, I’m on vacation.”
Ballinger had never skied with Hance before, but he knew his reputation. Hance had been working as a heli-ski guide in Alaska for over 20 years, a pioneer from the days when skiers would convince helicopter pilots working for the oil industry to drop them off in the backcountry. And Ballinger was a mountain guide who had led hundreds of climbing expeditions up the world’s tallest mountains, and was the first person to ski down from the summit of 26,761-foot Manaslu in Nepal. A pair of expert cooks in a heli-skiing kitchen.
When the helicopter returned, the group piled inside and it popped back up into the sky. “Where do you want to go?” the pilot asked the two guides. With the engine running the clock was ticking. Heli-skiing costs thousands of dollars a day because fuel isn’t cheap. They needed to pick a destination quickly.
“Let’s go do something rad,” Ballinger said to Hance. “We’ve got this great group, we’ve got two guides. Show me something rad.”
Under pressure to make a quick decision, Hance picked a challenging line he knew that ran down 40-degree slopes through bands of cliffs on a mountain to the east of where they had been skiing in the morning. As they flew up the backside of the peak they spotted a large cornice—an overhang of snow and ice formed by the wind—on the summit.
The pilot headed for a landing spot that looked to be away from the overhang, but Ballinger asked if he could get a view of the run down. He’d never skied this line, and wanted to check out the route through the cliffs in case he, not Hance, skied point. So the helicopter carved a wide circle out over the north face, before cruising back towards the summit.
Barely touching down, the helicopter hovered on the top long enough for the guides and clients to jump out of the cabin and grab their gear from the basket below. Then it lifted back up, circled a couple of times, and headed out and down to the north, to wait patiently on the glacier below. No one had realized that with Ballinger’s detour, the pilot had lost his mark on the cornice line, and no one had thought to double-check the drop-off location. Ten feet below the huddle of skiers and snowboarders was empty nothingness. Moments later the mass of snow sheared off with a dull crack.
After the snow had come to rest, Ballinger struggled to his feet, then immediately vomited. He felt dizzy, his vision was blurry, and he struggled to breathe. Two ribs on his right side were cracked and his face was bruised and bleeding.
The radio crackled to life. “There’s three of you,” Hance said, calling down from the summit to Ballinger. “There’s three of you. Three of you went in the avalanche.”
“I’m not OK, I’m not OK,” Ballinger said back into his radio. “I need help.”
“OK, OK, we’ll be right there,” Hance replied. “Can you see two people?”
His mind blurred by concussion, Ballinger pieced together what had happened. Two of his clients had taken the ride with him. Dazed or not, he had to click back into mountain-guide mode and find them.
Ballinger was near the bottom of the snow slide. Debris was strewn everywhere. Looking around, he could see skis and backpacks poking out of the snow. Further up the slope, Aaron Suzuki was screaming. He’d lost his helmet and goggles in the avalanche, and he had a broken and displaced rib on his left side, but otherwise he was O.K. As Ballinger moved towards him, Suzuki called out. “Brad, Brad,” he shouted, “We need to get Brad.”
Partially buried in the snow, Brad Gilbert was conscious but quiet. Beneath his body his left leg was folded backwards. His knee was completely dislocated, the ligaments, tendons and meniscus all torn. He couldn’t lift himself out of the snow, but he didn’t know why. The pain hadn’t yet kicked in.
Suzuki went to find a backpack with a shovel to dig Gilbert out while Ballinger gave basic first aid. By then, Hance had called the helicopter back from the other side of the mountain, and it flew in and hovered close just long enough that Ballinger could pull out the rescue gear. Up above, the remaining parts of the cornice threaten to tumble downwards at any time.
As the pilot lifted back off to go get Hance, he could see Ballinger staggering. “We’re watching you the whole time, our eyes are on you,” he comforted the guide over the radio. “I’m going to get Jerry, we’re watching you.”
Ballinger and Suzuki worked quickly to splint Gilbert’s leg between two pieces of plywood. Gilbert bounced between a state of complete silence—cursing his luck and dreading the long rehab ahead—to screaming and almost blacking out as Ballinger attempted to straighten out his knee. Gilbert was getting really cold, and there wasn’t time to continue first aid and give him painkillers. When Hance arrived in the helicopter, Suzuki and the two guides had to quickly drag Gilbert onboard, each movement creating incredible pain.
The helicopter soared up into the sky with Ballinger, Suzuki and Gilbert inside, leaving Hance, Cole, and Edwards out in the field, and headed for home. Once they were high enough to get radio contact with base, Ballinger called to let someone know what had happened. Then he hung up the radio and broke down in tears.
“I couldn’t believe that this had happened, and we had gotten away with it ultimately,” he says. “The fact that the three of us were alive after a fall like that, after an accident like that, was truly, truly incredible.”
All three were taken to a hospital in Valdez, but only Gilbert was kept in for the night. Back at base camp that evening, Ballinger mulled over the day’s events in his small propane-heated cabin. “We were obviously in this very extreme type of skiing, and I was a very experienced guide,” he says, “but at the same time the mistakes we made are the very common human factor traps that catch people all the time.”
Because of each other’s experience, Ballinger and Hance had never really worked out which one of them was in charge, and who was ultimately responsible for any decisions. According to Ballinger, neither had double-checked the pilot’s landing position. There were other reasons to be concerned, too. Only one of the clients, Suzuki, had a radio, which was turned-off in his backpack, and if Hance hadn’t joined the group, there is a chance that no one with communication gear would have been on the summit within radio line-of-sight with the helicopter. And the helicopter could also have stress-tested the landing site by letting its full weight of rest against the snow before dropping the group off. Heli-skiing in Alaska is almost by definition dangerous, but surviving the closest of calls was a reason to reflect on every decision made, and reevaluate every safety rule.
These thoughts weighing on his mind Ballinger crawled into his hypoxic tent to sleep. He was due to be out in the Himalayas in six weeks to climb Everest for the sixth time. He needed to starve his body of oxygen to stimulate the production of red blood cells, and to speed up his acclimation to extreme altitude.
Even after this accident, there was never a question about not going. “Managing and mitigating risk is what I do, it’s what I love. I’m not an adrenaline junkie in any way. If I’m getting adrenaline it’s because I’ve screwed up. Something went wrong, so I don’t like that,” he says.
Lessons learned the hard way, Ballinger was back guiding within a week. Last month, he was back on Everest yet again, aiming to make the 29,029 feet summit without using supplemental oxygen, and chronicling the whole expedition on social media. On May 24 his climbing partner Cory Richards made it all the way to the top, but Ballinger, struggling from hypothermia in the freezing temperatures, had to turn around 1,200 feet short. Pushing onwards and upwards just wasn’t worth the risk of not making it back down.