Aspen rider’s avalanche air bag helped her survive slide
Aspenite Onna Konicek’s instincts warned her not to dive into the couloir in the rugged Alaskan mountains near Thompson Pass on Easter Sunday. The big-mountain freerider went anyway – and nearly paid with her life.
Konicek, a founder of the Aspen-based Orange Extreme snowboarding team, had planned to spend the day checking out the course for the following day’s King of the Hill free-ride championship in Valdez and preparing for the competition. But when she was invited to take a heli-tour with a start-up guide service that shepherds snowboarders into the backcountry, it was an invitation she couldn’t refuse.
“It was the first bluebird day after about four days of gray weather,” Konicek said. “In Alaska, when it’s blue, you fly. I ended up saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll go. Absolutely.'”
Their bird took off from Thompson Pass, northeast of Valdez, and whisked four riders plus their guide to a nearby glacier. Konicek, 37, a veteran big-mountain rider, said she heard throughout the morning that snow conditions were questionable. The Thompson Pass area is regarded as the snowiest area in Alaska, with an average of 551 inches per winter. That means there are a lot of avalanches.
“My radar was up. I had some concerns,” Konicek said. The concerns were elevated when the guide targeted a couloir and directed the helicopter down. Before shoving off first, Konicek said the guide warned, “It could pop on any of us.”
She said she’s done more than 60 backcountry runs and never heard anything like that. The blunt assessment by the guide unsettled her entire group. No one was eager to go first even though it is usually an honor and privilege to follow the guide, she said.
Konicek eventually volunteered to go next. She made two turns when the entire left half of the glacier became “a moving sea of cobblestones,” she said.
“My first thought was, ‘I have to get out,'” Konicek said. In the seconds she spent looking for a way out, she was caught from behind by snow and debris.
“I was blasted off my feet by all the snow barreling down on me,” she said. She was thrown on her back with such force that she dislocated her left shoulder. As a medical doctor, she realized she suffered the injury upon impact. Meanwhile, she was hurtling down the mountain on her back, head first. She started suffocating on snow.
“It was just like someone was pouring a mountain of snow on me,” Konicek said. “This is happening pretty quickly. I knew I was screwed pretty much.”
But Konicek said she never thought she would get killed, and her last resort was a life saver. She pulled the rip cord of her avalanche air bag and detected “the best sound I’ve ever heard” when the pressurized air canister released.
The air bag is stored in a backpack. In a nutshell, the bag inflates in two pieces that provide protection from the wearer’s lower back to their head, and it splays them flat.
“It floated me to the surface, which was awesome,” Konicek said.
A Swiss company called Snowpulse equipped Orange Extreme with its avalanche air bag packs last winter. It was the first winter Konicek wore a bag. The previous three winters she rode with an avalanche lung, which allows a person to breath longer if they are buried under snow.
Avalanche air bags are surging in popularity. A blog on Wild Snow, a website for backcountry travelers, said a study of documented accidents show that avalanche victims with an air-bag system survive 97 percent of the time.
Konicek remembers being both relieved when her air bag deployed and horrified that she was speeding down the mountain. The couloir was steeper than Highland Bowl. She figures she took a 1,200-foot long ride. The avalanche had started about one-third of the way down the run. The lower two-thirds slid, she said. She estimated the slide at 50 to 100 feet wide and up to two feet deep. Although she and other competitors in big-mountain events train for avalanches and sometimes wear air bags for competition, depending on the venue, this was the first time she had been in an avalanche.
The couloir where they were riding was U-shaped and, fortunately, had no crevasse in the ice at the bottom. It’s quite common to encounter crevasses at the bottom of runs in the Alaska backcountry, she said.
Konicek rode out the avalanche with no further injury. The guide had stopped on the nearby glacier for safety and didn’t really see what happened. Another woman in her party cautiously rode down and came to her aid as Konicek picked herself up.
They reached the guide and Konicek laid down in an attempt to pop her shoulder back in place. Her injury was oddly “painless” at first, she said.
The guide brought in the helicopter and she was flown back to base, then ultimately transported to a hospital. Members of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center were in the Thompson Pass area for the King of the Hill competition. They interviewed her about what happened, she said.
Konicek suffered the separated shoulder and related trauma, including torn cartilage. Her lungs were irritated from swallowing so much snow. She sprained her neck and back. She wasn’t able to compete in the King of the Hill, an event she had been looking forward to for a year. She finished eighth the prior year at the event in Valdez. Her other top finishes included first place in the 2009 Colorado Freeride Championships and second place in Colorado’s 2008 competition.
While she couldn’t compete in her sport’s pinnacle event, she was alive.
“I would say I would have been buried and at risk of suffocating without the pack,” she said.
She believes it helped that she was so determined to survive the ordeal, sort of a power-of-positive-thinking deal. She wanted to share her story, she said, to promote avalanche awareness and safety. She learned from the incident that backcountry travelers cannot place complete trust in the guide. The final responsibility rests with each person.
“I learned once again to trust my intuition,” she said.
She also said she will only ride the backcountry with a group of people she knows or those who are with people she knows. The individuals in the group need to be aware of one another’s skills and be supportive of one another and their decisions, she said.
“It’s really important to live to ride another day,” Konicek said.
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