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Sunday, February 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A mountain, an avalanche and amazing grace

Seattle Times staff reporter

First of two parts

THE FIRST LIGHT cutting through the cold fog in Laurie Ballew's mind was artificial, from overhead fixtures in a ski-area day lodge. She awakened to a ring of heads — caring faces, with eyes full of hope, like all those relatives surrounding Dorothy's bedside after her return from Oz.

As the mental clouds slowly lifted, pieces of the day fluttered out: The long, carefree snowshoe trek to one of her favorite places, on the edge of the Mount Baker Wilderness, on a snowy December morning. Deep drifts and casual laughter. Frosty breath and light moods. Three friends, all Western Washington University students, on a spirited day trip to taste the Northwest winter.

Then the chill came crashing back. She remembered a flash of fear as a broad, thick slab of snow crashed over them like a Pacific Ocean breaker, granting no time to move, think, scream or pray. She recalled her struggle to breathe, and panic giving way to an inexplicable calmness — trusting, for some reason, that she would get out of this alive.

In the ski lodge, with feeling slowly returning to her limbs, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply as reality sunk in: She had been right. She not only was alive but might be home for dinner, with a lesson learned and a second chance.

Not until hours later would she learn the more sobering truth.

She was alive, yes, but just barely. The 21-year-old's core body temperature — likely on the rise by the time it was taken, thanks to heaped blankets and warm water bottles — was 85.5 degrees.

She had not been found, as she assumed, on the day the avalanche claimed her, but the next morning. Laurie Ballew had spent 24 hours buried alive in a snowbank in the cartographical equivalent of the middle of nowhere.

Her rescue was by no means certain, or even probable. Some say it's a miracle she is not still up there, deep in the snow, where she might have remained until the warm sun and slow snowmelt of August.

In the Northwest, a region blessed and cursed by steep, easily accessible mountains, ample snowfall and a public thirst for adventure, harrowing avalanche stories are not uncommon. But few, if any, tales of overnight entrapment are ever told by survivors.

Alas, in this case, only two.

For Ballew, the bad news would quickly overwhelm the good.

THE SNOWSHOE TRIP had become an annual ritual. Ballew and Greg Bachmeier, 22, who met as freshmen in Western's dorms, had first trekked through the area with other friends in January 2001.

That year, the group lucked into one of those rare, crystal-clear, Mount Baker winter days that brings people back, year after year, just to see it again. At the high point, atop Table Mountain, stood jagged, glacier-pocked, 9,131-foot Mount Shuksan on one side, Mount Baker, a hulking volcanic snow cone rising to 10,781 feet, on the other.

"You could see forever," recalls Ballew, an environmental-studies major who is considering becoming a schoolteacher. "It was a beautiful thing."

It's a view most people see only during this area's painfully short summer season. On those days, you can drive your car all the way to Artist Point, a scenic viewpoint at the end of the Mount Baker Highway, 56 miles east of Bellingham and about three miles beyond the Mount Baker Ski Area. Those last three miles of road climb through a steep, magical mountain valley known as Heather Meadows.

Summer visitors here are treated to an alpine display perhaps unique in the country, at least in places reached by paved highway — a smorgasbord of hiking trails, small tarns, green meadows, wildflowers and blooming, fragrant heather shrubs. A view of Mount Shuksan in a reflective lake near the Mount Baker Ski Area is one of the most-photographed scenes in the Northwest.

The terrain in all directions is geological mayhem — a fruit salad of rock-and-ice-strewn chutes, gullies, ridges and cliffs, all steeper and more precipitous than most other parts of the Cascade range. People all over the globe have unwittingly seen it: An early movie version of the Jack London classic "The Call of the Wild" was filmed here in 1934, largely because the terrain could pass for Alaska.

But regular visitors — people who get Baker's high country under their skin and can't shake it — know those dreamy summer days are a fleeting illusion. The normal state of affairs here is brutal, cold winter. All of this land, from late October to early August, is blanketed by snowfall that consistently rates as the deepest in North America, if not the world.

In the winter of 1998-99, Mount Baker Ski Area obliterated Mount Rainier's single-season record for snowfall, amassing 1,140 inches — or 95 feet.

BY DEC. 12, when the three students headed out for their annual backcountry trek, the snow base at the ski area had reached 80 inches — with 10 inches fresh from the night before.

When Bachmeier, Ballew and their friend Jacqueline "J.P." Eckstrom, 21, arrived at the ski area's upper parking lot, it was 29 degrees and snowing heavily; visibility was marginal.

That didn't surprise Bachmeier, who had chosen the area, at about 4,200 feet, because the forecast called for warm, sloppy conditions below. The group planned to snowshoe the 800 vertical feet up to Artist Point, at the end of the summer highway, have lunch there and return.

None of the three had checked the avalanche forecast, available by phone or the Internet from the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle. The report for that day warned of "considerable" avalanche danger for West Cascade slopes above 4,000 feet; increasing and becoming "high" the next day.

It never occurred to them that they might be in peril. Bachmeier knows this sounds silly in retrospect; he is no mountain neophyte.

The Bothell native rides a snowboard and has spent a fair amount of time in alpine country. His older brother, Jon, is a trained ski patroller who lives and works in Squaw Valley, Calif. Bachmeier had no avalanche training, but the concept wasn't foreign to him.

Likewise, Ballew, who grew up in Steilacoom, Pierce County, and Eckstrom, a Shoreline native, had the kind of confidence many Northwesterners gain after repeated mountain treks.

Like many other snowshoers and backcountry skiers, they didn't carry avalanche beacons — radio transceivers that send out a signal to help locate people buried in the snow. They were, however, well-dressed and relatively well-equipped. Each wore multiple layers of synthetic clothing: thermal underwear, at least one warm insulation layer and a waterproof shell and pants. Waterproof hiking boots, warm socks, hats and gloves completed their outfits. And each carried a day pack with extra food, clothing, water and supplies.

All in all, they were well provisioned — at least for an activity they considered far from extreme.

"I just made the assumption: It's a common trail; it's a road in the summertime," Bachmeier recalls. "It didn't strike me as an area that would be prone to avalanches. Snowshoeing, you basically think of as safe."

THE FIRST HOUR OF THE TRIP, on a route roughly following the contours of the summer highway, was uneventful, save for the struggle of breaking trail through about 2 feet of fresh snow that was deepening every minute.

This early portion of their climb followed a popular, though unmarked and unmaintained, route that skirts the southern boundary of the ski area. Not far from here, the stately, 100-room Mount Baker Lodge once stood, symbolizing the "taming" of this terrain by earlier Northwesterners. Open for only four years, it burned to the ground in 1931, never to be rebuilt.

For decades since, the only signs of civilization in this cold, silent place have been the handful of buildings and lifts of a ski area considered a mecca to the world's powder-hungry snowboarders.

While the heated, lighted buildings and whirring lift motors of the ski area imply conquered nature, the hills around here are anything but. Mount Baker Ski Area generates its own power, and no phone lines reach this far into the North Cascades. In truth, it is little more than a tiny outpost on the western edge of one of the most rugged, untamed expanses of wilderness in the Lower 48 states.

It also can be one of the most deadly. The record snow season of 1998-99 saw five people vanish in the chutes around Mount Baker. Most of them died in avalanches on Shuksan Arm, an alluring but perilous cliff band just east of the ski area. To get there, those thrill seekers passed — and ignored — large DANGER signs and roped-off ski-area boundaries.

Just one ridgeline away, no warning signs greet snowshoers at Heather Meadows. Bachmeier, Ballew and Eckstrom were feeling carefree.

ABOUT AN HOUR into their steady, uphill ascent, the trio ran into some backcountry skiers, who warned them vaguely about venturing all the way to Artist Point. Ballew, Bachmeier and Eckstrom agreed to aim, instead, for the top of a saddle not too far away, near the highway's last big switchback to Artist Point. It looked like a good lunch spot.

They were just about there, at about 4,900 feet, when they were stymied. Facing a steep upward slope with heavy snow cover, Bachmeier attempted to lead straight up but couldn't get enough traction. He retreated slightly and regrouped. All three paused, standing in a vertical line, within several feet of one another, looking for a better route.

Then the slope came alive.

Without warning, no cracking sound, no rush of air, no anything, the ground was moving. Because the snow slab fractured only about 50 feet above them, they had not even a split second to react. A wall of snow Bachmeier estimates was 80 feet across was on them in an instant, burying all three right near where they stood.

Ballew remembers the suffocating weight of 3 to 5 feet of snow, which felt like quick-setting concrete. Her mind flashed back to some distant avalanche-safety material she had seen — a drawing of a person in the middle of a small air pocket cleared by waving the arms.

"I guess that's what I was doing," she says.

When things stopped moving, she could faintly see lighter snow above her head, so she knew she was more or less upright. She tried to move her legs, instinctively calling on them to do what they had always done — lifting her up and out of there, right now.

When they wouldn't budge, fear shot through her brain.

"I just remember trying to breathe, really hard, making myself some breathing space. I remember going between prayer and panic."

She coughed, gasped, collected herself, then held still. Think, she thought. Assess. Ballew was able to breathe, barely, but could not see, feel or hear anything around her. She had no idea if her friends were close by, beneath the snow or on top of it, dead or alive.

It is a blessing, she now believes, that she did not recall other things she might have read about avalanches — statistics showing how few people survive for more than 45 minutes, even under a just a few feet of snow.

Some part of her brain convinced her that panic would just make it worse.

"For some reason, I knew I was going to get out," she says. "I didn't know how. But I think I was pretty calm."

Then everything went black.

Tomorrow: A desperate escape, a daring rescue — and a tragic death.
Plus, avalanche safety tips.

Ron C. Judd: 206-464-8280, or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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