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N.Y. man survives Utah avalanche

‘Prepared to die,’ he is rescued by 4 fellow skiers

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Paul Hansen, buried 5 feet under snow that was as hard and solid as concrete, was gasping for air.

He couldn't move his arms to dig his way out or create a larger air pocket to continue breathing. Seconds before he passed out he remembered his life insurance policy would take care of his wife of 35 years.

"I was prepared to die in that avalanche, really," said Hansen, 58, a financial consultant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

About 10 minutes later Hansen was rescued. He's grateful to four other backcountry skiers who saw him swallowed by the massive slide, located him with avalanche beacons and dug him out.

In a bed at LDS Hospital Monday evening, Hansen said he saw the avalanche coming. Earlier that day he was skiing in Big Cottonwood Canyon's Cardiff Fork, about 10,000 feet in elevation. He finished an 11,000 feet vertical run. "I could start to see it go," he said.

Hansen tried to turn off the slope but was unable. He then tried to stay on top of the avalanche, but when he flew off a small hill, he felt the snow topple him.

Other backcountry skiers saw him disappear. They pinpointed his avalanche beacon with their own beacons within about five minutes and had uncovered his face within another five minutes, said David Hughes, a former Salt Lake resident who is now a Grand Rapids, Mich., emergency room doctor.

"He was very ashen and pale, almost blue," Hughes said. "He got pretty cold, but there was no obvious trauma."

Hansen was airlifted to LDS Hospital. He was cold from being in the snow but did not suffer hypothermia, hospital spokesman Jess Gomez said.

Hansen also escaped Monday afternoon's ordeal with no cuts, bruises, scratches and scrapes that most avalanche victims sustain when slides drag them across trees, shrubs, rocks and boulders.

"They did some X-rays and exams, and it looks like he's fine. Basically, we wanted to make sure there was something (internally) we couldn't see," Gomez said.

Hansen was discharged from the hospital Monday night, Gomez said.

"He's really lucky," Salt Lake County sheriff's spokeswoman Peggy Faulkner said.

The slide was triggered about 2 p.m. Monday. Its size ranged up to 200 feet wide and was at least 800 feet long.

The U.S. Forest Service's Utah Avalanche Center will study the slide Tuesday. From eyewitness accounts and information gathered about other recent avalanches, avalanche forecaster Tom Kimbrough believes Hansen triggered it.

The avalanche warning category Monday was "considerable," two categories below the highest.

"The way that level is defined means that human-triggered avalanches are likely and natural avalanches are possible," Kimbrough said.

Since mid-December people have triggered one to 10 avalanches a day. That's because the mountains of northern Utah haven't had heavy snow that's needed to collapse lower snow layers and cause them to slide naturally.

Snow from recent small storms have topped off the weak layers below, but it is not heavy enough to cause natural avalanches.

"So, when someone comes along and tickles that weak layer, down it comes," Kimbrough said.

Hansen's wife, Patricia, who sometimes backcountry skis with her husband, was at their vacation home in Little Cottonwood Canyon when she received the call from rescuers.

"Before he left I said, 'You aren't going to go where there's avalanches.' His comment was, 'What dear?' " she said.

Hansen has been backcountry skiing for 30 years. "I like the exercise. I like the hike up and the easy way down."

Patricia Hansen believes her husband took all the precautions he could by calling the Utah Avalanche Center before he left and wearing the beaker beacon while skiing.

"Things like this happen. They happen when you're prepared and when you're unprepared," she said.

Hansen lost his Telemark skis in the avalanche but said he plans to ski the backcountry in a couple weeks, when he and his wife return to Utah.

"Thank God I can continue to enjoy that," he said.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com