Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
People may think the main danger of skiing through trees is the risk of running into one. But falling into a tree well is a less obvious, but still potentially deadly risk due to the possibility of snow immersion suffocation (SIS). Essentially, the area around the base of a tree creates snow conditions that are quite different than those out in the open. Air pockets in the snow combined with water vapor rising from the tree base turns the snow into a quicksand-like texture that is nearly impossible to escape from—the more you struggle, the deeper in you fall. Skiers and snowboarders die every year from SIS due to falling into tree wells and not being found in time.
That could easily have been snowboarder Ian Steger's fate in March 2023 if not for the eagle eye and quick thinking of backcountry skier Francis Zuber.
Zuber had just begun a backcountry ski run with a buddy on Mount Baker in Washington State when a flash of red caught the corner of his eye. Zuber's GoPro footage shows him stopping and turning to see a colorful snowboard upside-down next to a tree.
“I knew there was somebody attached to it, and obviously they were still alive," Zuber told Vancouver's City News. "I shout out to the guy…he can’t hear me, he’s five and a half to six feet into the snow at that point.” Zuber knew he had to work fast.
As the video shows him struggling to make his way back toward the tree through the deep snow, we can hear him muttering expletives to himself and calling out to the snowboarder. At first, we can't see how Steger is positioned, but as Zuber gets closer and starts digging, it becomes clear that the snowboarder is completely upside-down, with his face buried deep in the snow.
Watch the harrowing GoPro footage Zuber shared on YouTube:
[Warning: This video contains strong language.]
Zuber told the CBC that they estimated Steger had been buried between five and seven minutes, "probably at either a third or just the halfway point of his possible survival time in there," when he found him. Zuber said Steger hadn't been snowboarding alone—he was with a group of three other riders who were carrying safety equipment including shovels, beacons and two-way radios—but as we could see in Zuber's GoPro, getting back up a mountain when you realize someone in your group isn't behind you anymore is no small or quick task.
Steger and Zuber have since become friends since the March 3 rescue and have even gone skiing together on Mount Baker.
Steger told the CBC he just wants to "enjoy being alive." Indeed, after a close-call experience like that, every moment you have would feel like a gift.
This article originally appeared on 4.6.23