...to be buried alive in an avalanche and live to tell the tale
By As told to Megan Malugani by Shannon Christiansen
While competing with a friend to see who could make it higher up a peak known as “Super Chicken Hill” in Colorado’s Arapaho National Forest on New Year’s Eve, snowmobiler Shannon Christiansen triggered an avalanche and was buried alive under three to four feet of snow for more than five minutes. Christiansen’s friends—who frantically scrambled to locate and dig him out—described the avalanche that engulfed Christiansen as “a plume of snow dust that looked just like when the World Trade towers fell.” Christiansen, a construction worker from Kasson, miraculously walked away from the avalanche with a dislocated shoulder and “lots of bumps and bruises.”
I had already turned out and was on my way down. I didn’t see it or hear it coming. It just slammed me in the back, like getting hit by a truck and instantly, as soon as it hit me, it dislocated my shoulder. I was just along for the ride, just like a rag doll. There’s nothing you can do.
I rode the sled for a little bit. Then it started rolling and flipping. I was thrown from the sled. The rest of the way down I was just tumbling. It was 1,200 feet that I slid down, like four football fields.
As far as what was going through my head, it was ‘when is it gonna stop?’ It kept on going on and on and on. Then off the second stage of the mountain, the snow was traveling so fast that I launched off the top of that. I was a good 40 feet in the air and just flew for another 100 feet before I even hit the ground again. I had this sensation; I knew I was launched off the side of a cliff, but you can’t see anything. It’s like taking a white piece of paper and holding it in front of your eyes.
Soon after that is when the whole slide just kind of stopped. That’s when it’s all dark, and everything gets real lonely.
I was buried deep enough that there was no light, and it’s so compact that you don’t know if you’re right side up. Even if you could dig you wouldn’t know which way to dig. I could move my fingers just a little bit and my toes inside my boots. Other than that you couldn’t move anything, not even a half an inch. That’s when, for lack of a better term, you freak out.
That lasted just a few seconds and then you realize you have to relax. You gotta get your breathing under control. As I was laying there I was sure hoping a foot was sticking out of the snow.
It ended up being that I was buried at an angle, with my feet essentially up and my head buried deeper than my feet. I remember laying there thinking ‘this is real good’ because I was the only one who had the backpack with the shovel in it. So you got three other people that are up there but they don’t have anything but their hands. I was probably 10-12 feet from my snowmobile and that’s what they used as a reference point. About 12 to 14 inches of ski were sticking out of the snow. The rest of the sled was completely buried.
I remember laying there. My last thoughts before I lost consciousness were that I knew I was in an avalanche. I knew what had happened. I knew approximately how much time I had before I ran out of all air. I thought that this was it, that this was the way I was going to go out: die in an avalanche.
I don’t have a real good concept of time, but it seemed from when it stopped to being unconscious was two or three minutes. There was no air pocket or anything in front of me. I was just breathing right up against the snow that was packed inside my helmet.
That’s when my friend Justin found my boot through a little hole in the snow. The avalanche field was 300 or 400 feet wide, so if it wasn’t for [the snowmobile ski sticking out] it would be like trying to find a hole about the size of a coffee cup in the parking lot of the mall under everything that looks the same. A lot of things happened right for me to be here now talking about it. If there was a snowball covering the hole ... some people said there was a snowball there but God looked down and said ‘oh no, we don’t need your kind up here’ and moved it aside, kind of like saying ‘here he is, he’s over here’...
My first memory was seeing light, and it wasn’t the light that you’d think I’d see. I just remember seeing the bright snow in front of me. They’d dug down to my helmet and I was unconscious for maybe three minutes before I opened my eyes. Then it took a minute or so before I said anything. I guess the first thing I said was ‘I think my arm is broken.’ I don’t remember, but that’s what I’ve been told...
The way I look at luck is that luck is finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. This was something more than luck. Not being killed on the sled itself is really a miracle considering what I went through.
This may sound kind of weird, but throughout all this, I had the easy part. My friends and girlfriend who were with me that day had the hard part. They actually had to see everything, and then see the incredible task in front of them, the ‘What do we do? Where’s he at?’ They had no idea. To me anyway, that would be the hard part, not knowing. I just fell asleep. If I would’ve died it would have been the most comfortable way that a person could possibly go.