'The whole mountain was coming at me': Snowmachiners describe avalanche that buried them alive
On Saturday, just minutes after he dug himself out of an avalanche, Israel Hale recorded his experience on his phone.
“I was just barely on the edge of it, stuck and I couldn’t get away. I pulled myself out of the snow,” he said, his voice shaking. “There's probably 30 feet of snow that just piled up right here. And I barely escaped. I don’t know where the other ones are.”
Israel said it’s a video he still can’t bring himself to watch, days after the ordeal.
He and two of his brothers, Joshua and Joseph Hale, along with another friend were riding snowmachines in the mountains north of Paxon in an area where the Arctic Man races are held every spring.
Joshua was riding higher on the mountain when he set off the avalanche.
He described driving full-throttle, more than 100 mph, to try to outrun the cascading snow.
“That wave started to bury me at that point, just come over the top of me. At that moment, I sort of accepted the fact I was dying,” Joshua said.
Israel was at the bottom of the slope, digging out his machine.
“I looked up and basically the whole mountain was coming at me. There was a huge ball of snow,” he recalled.
The snow caught both of them and pulled them under.
“I was thinking of my 14-day-old baby at home and my wife and 10 kids,” Joshua said. “I can’t die right now. I started begging God, 'Please, please [...] I don’t want to leave my kids playing on a snow machine.' This is not good.”
The group of four had just three avalanche beacons.
“I said, ‘You guys wear the avalanche beacons. I have 10 kids; I’m not teasing any mountains today,’” Joshua said.
As he was being buried by snow, Joshua was conscious of the fact that he was not wearing one, so his brothers had no way of finding him.
Both brothers describe “swimming” with the snow in an effort to survive. That feat was especially challenging for Israel.He’s a double amputee; he lost both of his legs in a car accident in 2012 and doesn’t ride with prostheses.
“With no legs, it’s a helpless feeling, just not having that ability to move the lower half of your body to push with,” he said.
As he worked to free himself, Israel thought of his family.
“I put my wife and kids through enough with my accident prior and I wanted to live; I didn’t want to die,” he said.
Luckily, both were only swept under a couple feet of snow. Joshua realized one of his legs was sticking above the pile and dug himself out. Israel was able to get a hand free to uncover himself.
The Hales consider themselves to be experienced outdoorsmen. Israel owns Alaska Toy Rental, lending out snow machines, all-terrain vehicles and other off-road vehicles; Joshua owns Alaska Horse Adventures.
But the men said they weren’t prepared for what happened.
“We all weren’t wearing avalanche beacons, none of us had [avalanche air bag] packs and none of us had good avalanche training to know the conditions we were in. That is the number one mistake we made. Where we thought we knew, we were completely wrong,” Israel said.
They hope their story encourages others to think twice about the location they’re riding and make sure they have all the essential gear.
Arctic Man begins April 12 and the Hales hope riders are aware of the danger. Not everyone is as lucky as they were to make it out alive.
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