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Digging Out: When Surviving Two Avalanches Is Just The Start Of Dealing With Trauma

Ken Scott was buried for more than an hour, unable to move. He had lost hope. In part two of his story, he writes about the anguish in learning to breath again

EDITOR'S NOTE
: In January 2020, skier Ken Scott was caught in two successive avalanches in a developed area at Silver Mountain, Idaho— the second completely entombing him nine feet under in a mass of frozen snow hard as concrete. The first part was a first-person account of his rescue. In this part, he and his therapist Timothy Tate discuss the psychological trauma to learning to live again.

"I have a heightened sense of peril, a twitchy feeling. Where does the aftermath begin? How quickly it turns from the experience itself to surviving the aftermath."  —Ken Scott
​​​​Prelude

By Timothy Tate
                          
It has been three months since Ken Scott was twice buried alive on in-bounds terrain at Silver Mountain, Idaho. Seven skiers were swept up in the violence of two avalanches— the initial one causing a shallow burial for Ken; the second entombed him under nine feet of snow. One other skier was also buried for an extended time and lived. 

Two of the seven were only partially buried.

The other three skiers did not survive.
 
Many readers have asked about how Ken has dealt with the aftermath. Following his rescue, he was transported in a sled down to a mid-mountain maintenance shed and then by Sno-Cat to the main lodge. “The process of trying to cope started for me, with a moment in time that traces to the second avalanche and progresses through everything after. It morphed after leaving the maintenance shed and climbing into the Sno-Cat," he told me. "After I got into the cab of the Sno-Cat and closed the door, I looked at the driver and said, 'it’s unbelievable, insane, crazy, insane. There’s no way I should be alive, no way!’ At that point I was entering the twilight zone.'"

The Sno-Cat driver took a call about a skier injury and as they pulled away from the shed to drive over to midway of chair number four, where Ken and Rebecca had sat heading up into their avalanche destiny hours earlier, Ken’s aftermath sensation registered. He describes it as “a distinct separation from the incident. Such a visceral contrast between being buried alive and everything afterwards. Bizarre.”

Ken wanted to assist in aiding the injured skier until he realized that he was the victim here. Ken’s like that, a thoughtful man who wants to do right by others in need.

After a short time they continued to the main lodge building where the bizarreness continued. “We arrive at the entrance to the ski patrol aid room," Ken related. "I open the cab door and carefully get out. I walk into the aid room. There are people scattered around the room. From the entrance I can see into the patrol director’s office through a window that separates it from the main room. I see the general manager of the ski area, the patrol director and county sheriff. As I walk through the room no one is saying anything. They are looking at me but no one says a thing. Just blank stares. Like I am a ghost.”

All he saw were expressionless faces showing almost no reaction to his being there. No one says anything to him. From behind came a voice shouting: “Ken.”

"It was a ski friend of both Rebecca and I," he said. She was there trying to get information about Ken. She came up to him and gave him a big hug. Then the ski patrol director pulled Ken into the ski patrol equipment closet for a brief conversation. To this day no one has taken a formal witness statement from Ken.

The following, in Ken’s own writing, is how he interprets how he has tried to cope. Bear witness to his account of the aftermath. Telling one’s story is the way that reality transforms from trauma into a livable personal reality.
Photo taken after Scott was miraculously found under nine feet of snow and being buried for 70 minutes in total darkness—him believing he might not be found by rescuers in times.
Photo taken after Scott was miraculously found under nine feet of snow and being buried for 70 minutes in total darkness—him believing he might not be found by rescuers in times.
Aftermath of an Avalanche

By Ken Scott

Shock: “an acute medical condition associated with among other things sudden emotional stress." Yeah, sure, plenty of that, but there is something much more complex than the physical reaction to what happened. I was entering another realm. One filled with mental haze, confusion, disorientation, disassociation, elation, despair, joy, depression.

For some this may sound like everyday life, and I suppose that it is. But the intensity is somehow completely different. A world where breathing, the ability to take a full deep breath, is a luxury.  Not just because of the physical or emotional ability of being alive.
 
My “significant unpleasant event” lasts much longer than a moment of remembering. The intensity and duration are difficult to relay to those who have not had a similar experience. The 60 to 70 minutes that I spent entombed in utter darkness, under extreme pressure, like a piece of meat that has been vacuum sealed, unable to move at all, unable to breathe without agonizing labor, no sound, no connection to anything outside my head, stripped of all ability to act, left with only what goes on inside your skull. And initially feeling colder, then after an eternity of struggle, sliding into the grim comfort of numbness.

In a sense it is distilled as a moment. A singular event so intense that once freed it rapidly, almost instantly, morphs into a single unrelatable horrifying extended moment.

My ski friend informed me that Rebecca, [Ken’s ski partner and whom he credits with saving his life] had left the mountain on her way to the hospital. She took my things with her thinking I would be going to the hospital. Friends from the ski school and I headed upstairs to get a Coke. We made a plan to get me off the hill and back home to my wife, Ruth. Two friends would drive me and my car back to my house. I look across the room and there is Bill, the other full burial survivor. We nod and raise our glasses.

We make our way to the gondola to leave the mountain. While waiting to load two ladies come in and tell Bill, that he needs to come and see this. I follow them out to the top of chair 3. From there you can see the top of the avalanche, the slide path, and the other avalanches that occurred.

My mates and I load the gondola aware that there will be media waiting at the bottom. I don’t want to talk to them! “Let’s get me off and away as quickly and quietly as possible,” I am feeling very intense anxiety. As we approach the bottom, we can see the news vans, sheriffs’ cars, and lights. We make a clean escape and I am in the car, anxious to get out of the parking lot.

Driving home I’m thinking how do I possibly begin to tell my wife, Ruth, what happened? Coming through the door of the condo I let her know that we have company. She says, “Okay, good.”

I tell her I was under the snow for at least 45 minutes and she asks, “What are you talking about?”

I tell her I was buried for at least 45 minutes in an avalanche. Shock! Ruth has been in the ski industry for over 25 years and is fully aware of what this statement means. I sit down beside her and lose control. Within a few minutes we are packed and out the door on our way to Kellogg. We stop at the hospital in Kellogg. It is dark now, around 6 in the evening. From the parking lot I can look up and see the ski area. I see the lights being used to continue the search. There are still people buried under the snow. My heart is heavy and my head hurts.

We decided to proceed to Coeur d’Alene, so that I can go to the emergency room at Kootenai Hospital. We arrive and I walk into a very full waiting area. Turns out there was a major accident on I-90 as a result of the snowstorm. Not wanting to draw attention I quietly tell the attendant that I was involved in the Silver Mountain avalanche. “Let’s get you seated and get some oxygen for you,” she says.  This is the first oxygen supplement I have received post burial.

After a short wait I am wheeled back to an exam room. Soon, Rebecca and her husband arrive. The nurse does all the vitals and the doctor does the initial exam. She has the nurse draw some blood. We wait for the results. Rebecca relays her own experience of the events. The doctor returns and informs me that all is normal. My blood work and vitals are all within normal range considering what I had been through.

We decided to spend the night at our friend, Mike’s house, in Coeur d’Alene. I am really hungry. So, we go and get burgers at Wendy’s. It’s now about 11pm.  Back to Mike's and into bed. Before I slip into sleep, I ponder the reality. I should be dead now! Still up there on the mountain. The connection with and simultaneous separation from those still in the snow is absolutely inexplicable, and haunts me to this day.
The connection with and simultaneous separation from those still in the snow is absolutely inexplicable, and haunts me to this day.
I sleep until about 7:30 the next morning. Then I have to get out of bed, I can’t be laying down anymore; I have to move. I jump out of bed, alarming Ruth. She asks if I am alright. “No, not really”. I can’t lay down anymore. I have to be standing. I move just a little, mainly standing in the middle of the room. Staring at nothing. Just standing. After a while I can lay back down, and as I do, I lose control again this time much more intensely and for much longer. Ruth holds me until I am settled.

Later that morning I learned that they found Scott, one of the three fatalities, at around 8pm the night before. But there is still another victim yet unfound. A woman. She was behind me on the traverse: one of the two people I was talking to. One of the two to whom I said, “Have a good run” as they skied away. She would not be found until Thursday afternoon under at least 20 feet of snow. Requiring the use of a helicopter equipped with specialized search equipment.

I am processing many different emotions. By this time my head feels like a baby rattle that some unruly child is holding and continually shaking. Absolutely nothing feels real.  I have no connection with what used to be real. Everything is foreign. I literally feel like I have been gutted. Like someone stuck a knife in at my groin and ran it up to my sternum. I walk around like this for weeks. Drained, disconnected, disoriented, dazed, with all the confusion. Self-doubt doesn’t come until later when my head starts to settle a little; then there is space for plenty of that.

​​​​​° ° ° °

I wanted to ski again.

I left our home in Mullan, Idaho Tuesday evening after the avalanche, with everything I would need to be able to ski the next day. The gravity of what had occurred obviously had not hit me full force at all. It is instead a slow lingering seepage, the ability for your mind to comprehend what has happened to you and all those around you. To process, or even want to process the events of a few moments is endless.

The mountain was closed Wednesday due to the ongoing search. We, the skiing community, monitored the situation via the local news networks and word of mouth. Rebecca and I were in very close contact during this time of suspension, waiting to hear news of our fellow skiers that might have been caught in the snow with us and not made it out alive.

Thursday afternoon we heard the news that the final victim of the avalanches had been found. Ruth and I met Rebecca at a restaurant adjacent to a local golf course. We got a table next to a window so that we could look out on the fairways and greens. As we sat together talking about the incident, I was able to overhear people sitting at the bar just across from us talking about the Silver Mountain avalanche.
It’s surreal to hear your near-death experience described third hand and not exactly accurately. What would you even say?
As the conversation continued, I had to get out of there. My anxiety was out of control and I had to get out. It was the first time I overheard people talking about the incident that I had been the last person to survive. It’s surreal to hear your near-death experience described third hand and not exactly accurately. What would you even say?

I woke up Friday thinking about going to the mountain. It is what I normally do nearly every day during the winter. I could not even bring myself to look out our windows at the mountains. On Saturday, Ruth and I made our way to the mountain. I had to go up to see and thank some of those responsible for my survival. I had received word that there were those on the traverse with me that felt a deep personal responsibility for what had occurred. One individual reportedly felt like he had led the lambs to the slaughter! I needed to tell them that they could not take that guilt on themselves. I also conveyed a similar message to the ski patrol director.
What happened that day was a culmination of many individual decisions; overlaid by the natural environment we exist in. Mother nature makes up her own mind and no human logic, reason or skill will prevail! If we cross her, she has the final word. To say that any one person or for that matter group of people are at fault is not true. Yes, we as skiers were most likely the physical means to trigger the slide. Yes, the handling of the snow conditions leading up to and including that morning should have been different. The system failed. As individuals, members of the ski community, we all share a part in that.
A photo of the traverse taken by skiers on their way to slopes that slide twice with avalanches.
A photo of the traverse taken by skiers on their way to slopes that slide twice with avalanches.
I stayed home Sunday trapped in an ever-increasing fog of pain and anxiety. Sunday afternoon I reached out to my friend, Tim Foote in Big Sky for help. By that evening I received a lifeline in the introduction to Timothy Tate, whom I was told worked with victims of such outdoor incidents. We exchanged emails and arranged an initial conversation for Tuesday morning. In anticipation I got up and got dressed in my ski layers so that I could get to the mountain after the session. 

I thought this would be a good way for me to clear my head after our talk. The session lasted an hour. I was exhausted and had pain in my head from the emotional drain. I went and laid on our bed with Ruth; curled up laying with my head on her lap. We talked a little. Mainly I just laid there reeling from what had just occurred. 

After a while Ruth said, “If you're going to go you had better do it now or you won’t.“ Not wanting to face another day trapped inside, I got up and went out the door to go up to the mountain. I arrived and got geared up, went out and found two good friends to ski with. We made our way to the top of a run. 

They had no idea of the inner turmoil. I felt like my guts had been ripped out, and I knew I should just ski the Cat track to the bottom of the run and meet them there. But we stood and talked for a few minutes, and then I said: “Let’s go.” In the state I was in, that is something I would never do if I were standing alongside a whitewater run. And yet somehow in skiing this level of self-awareness was still being overwritten, even though I was a mere seven days out and within view of where I met near annihilation.

I dropped in and made my first turn then it all went to hell. I had absolutely nothing. I could barely stand let alone ski. No balance, no legs, flailing all over the place. At the bottom of the run I tipped over backwards into the soft snow. 
Luckily the snow did not cover my face but I was stuck unable to move, out of energy and laying in the snow a few hundred yards from where I had been buried just one week earlier.
Luckily the snow did not cover my face but I was stuck unable to move, out of energy and laying in the snow a few hundred yards from where I had been buried just one week earlier. I lay there knowing that my friends were waiting. Eventually I gathered the strength to continue. I got up, skied down to them, and said that was stupid. I should not have done that. I should have skied the Cat track. They were trying to understand but I don’t think that they really could. For the next hour or two I spent the chair rides wondering if this was the end of my skiing life. A conversation with myself; that previously I would have only thought possible if I were handicapped in some life altering manner.

For the next few weeks, I would get up in the morning and debate going skiing. The majority of mornings the skiing option would lose and instead I would spend the day hiding. I spent time listening to the same song over and over and over for hours at a time: Under the Milky Way by The Church. I spent time hiding under the covers, my head buried and breathing compromised. This felt comforting and still does months later.

And now we are in the time of Covid-19. Breathing turns out to be a very big deal. It is what I fought for every second of my burial. It is also what I fought against when the ordeal of my situation drug on for so long. I remember thinking “Why can’t I just stop breathing” so that the end would come.

I wanted to fight the automatic, built-in need, to breathe. I didn’t even have control over that along with being frozen in place. I wanted to stop breathing and could not do it. Now breathing, my hyper awareness of it, is linked to my trauma.

Hiding under the covers and depriving myself of oxygen feels good; it feels like home. I have episodes where I lose control of my breathing and am unable to breathe normally for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. I have gotten a sudden cold sensation, not chills, but a cold that reminds me of where I am, back in the hole, and I lose control of my breathing. Breathing is such a luxury. 
Breathing is such a luxury.
After a few weeks in Mullan I had to get out; I had to get away from the whole area. We went to visit our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in St. Anthony, Idaho. While there I drove up to Bozeman for my first face to face meeting with Timothy. By this time, we had developed a good relationship over the phone. I had some trepidation about our first in person meeting. Talking over the phone felt very comfortable. I could be in my own environment and have no one else around me. 

This was very much like being back in the hole. I would close my eyes, cover my face with my hands, and allow myself to be transported back to the experience of being buried or being on the traverse before the slide, any number of the many memories surrounding the avalanche. I did not want to lose that. Sitting across from someone is more vulnerable. By the end of our two-hour session I did not want to leave.

I spent that night at a friend’s house in Bozeman. He informed me that Big Sky Ski School was still hiring full-time instructors. I felt like returning to teaching skiing could be a safe, friendly environment and therapeutic for me. I went and spoke to a supervisor I know and he said they would love to have both Ruth and I teach for them. 

By the following Thursday we were on the hill in uniform. It was better being in a new place and not feeling as haunted. The welcome of the ski school instructors was overwhelmingly supportive and friendly. It was indeed a very positive place for us to be. I was able to help others learn to ski and at the same time work on myself. I could stay on the lower mountain and feel no pressure.

Rebecca came to visit us at Big Sky and she and I were able to ski together. Her first day we went straight up to the top of the mountain. This was my first time to the top of a tram since the incident. It was great to be able to share this with Rebecca—it was her first time ever to the top of the tram. We were skiing with a brother and sister from Jackson Hole, but Rebecca did not want them to know about our experience with the avalanche. She thought it would freak them out. And she was not comfortable being the hero of the story. 

Later I shared what had happened with the brother on a chair ride when it was just him and I. Over the course of the morning, the whole story came out and Rebecca was able to be okay with it. She and I had lunch together and were able to talk about sharing the story of our experience. 

Big Sky closed for the season on March 15, 2020 due to the growing Covid-19 pandemic. Ruth and I returned to the condo the following Saturday and since then have been self-isolating in an effort to protect her from the virus. Ruth is one of those that is more susceptible to the effects of the virus due to her previous history with pneumonia.

Our lives during this time have been very restricted. Many days we only see the outside world through the windows of our under 500 square foot condo in a tiny, sleepy mining town. We go days at a time seeing no one. I have been coping with the situation more and more by retreating in and not feeling like interacting with the outside. Much of the time I actively don’t want any contact with anyone at all. It is a very interesting situation to find myself in less than three months after being buried alive. 
Survivor Ken Scott and his wife, Ruth, at Big Sky. Photo courtesy Ken Scott
Survivor Ken Scott and his wife, Ruth, at Big Sky. Photo courtesy Ken Scott
Postlude 

 By Timothy Tate 

Therapy is a process of self-revelation. It is deeply personal and intense. There is a reason why typically the one on one work between therapist and client is not shared. Ken hopes that sharing his experience might serve a useful purpose for others dealing with trauma. 

The morning after the event this became a strong desire for him. I thought about it for weeks; he and I went back and forth; we waited as he processed; I wanted him to feel comfortable; he wrote of his encounter and we discussed it before he shared it with Mountain Journal in the first part of this story package.

In the aftermath, Ken would sit in his home and listen repeatedly to a song to console and soothe him. That Ken listens to the acoustic version of Under the Milky Way is both inspiring and ironic that he would choose this song. Are we not all under the Milky Way?

To survive a burial and look up at the heavens with those eyes, aftermath eyes, must be a vision of gratitude and loneliness. Ken has contemplated with me on how “there are worse things than death.” I hear this not as some displaced sorrow or self-serving misery but as a measure of the adjustment needed to abide an unbidden new lease on life. 

He did not head to the mountain on that brisk January morning aiming at death, but is now facing the pain of rebirth. He and hundreds of other ski enthusiasts were simply excited to take advantage of a powder day on their local ski hill. 

Choice, responsibility and blame are slippery functions of the human mind. It is mentally sloppy to cast blame. It is a lifelong challenge to refine our capacity to choose wisely. And only mature people take stock of their choices to refine their personal sense of responsibility and thereby hold others likewise accountable.

In these times of unprecedented challenges that we face with an invisible virus that does not play by rules we comprehend, may we take solace from Ken’s story, realizing that we can all feel buried by unforeseen forces that make breathing difficult. 

After all, do we not measure our life by our breath? Our first breath initiates life, as our last breath signal its conclusion. We see stories of how Covid-19 patients struggle for air, gasping for life, as Ken had only his hushed, closed in breathing while buried alive. May we take mindful, full breaths of life confirming gratitude, now.

About Timothy Tate and Ken Scott

Timothy Tate is a practicing psychological therapist in Bozeman, Montana and a Mountain Journal columnist writes "Community Psyche." Since his writing for Mountain Journal began Tate has been enlisted to serve as a counselor for outdoor athletes who are part of The North Face Adventure Team.  Ken Scott lives in Idaho. He is a ski instructor, guide and a now-retired downhill ski industry equipment rep.
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