John Seibert is still haunted by the terrifying roar: "As loud as a shotgun going off in your ears." On Jan. 20 he was among 13 skiers caught in one of the deadliest avalanches to hit the Canadian Rockies in a century. Knocked 300 feet down Durrand Glacier in British Columbia by a 1,500-ton wall of snow, ice and water, he landed trapped up to his neck.
He was lucky. Seven others perished in the 210-ft.-wide avalanche—among them snowboarder Craig Kelly, 36, winner of three U.S. Open titles. Says their Swiss-born guide Ruedi Beglinger: "I saw the worst nightmare that a human can ever see."
Beglinger's clients were part of a group of 20 skiers who had paid him $900 apiece for a weeklong adventure and stay at his lodge. A day earlier they had spent five hours climbing 6,000 vertical feet just for the thrill of whooshing back down. On this morning Seibert, a geophysicist from Wasilla, Alaska, and the others were heading across the glacier when a great slab broke loose, burying some of them beneath 15 feet of snow. Four got free quickly and ran to help find the rest, using emergency locating transceivers that each was carrying. "There was no screaming or panicking," says Seibert, 54. "Just the sound of people digging in snow that had turned as hard as concrete."
"When evacuation helicopters arrived on the fog-shrouded mountain some 40 minutes later, the survivors were mourning their dead friends, all of whom had been lined up, parkas placed over their bodies. "That night we traded stories about the people who had been with us and were now gone," says Seibert. "It was a celebration of their lives. Most people think people like us are crazy, but we're experienced skiers doing what we love."
When two men plunged into 33° water, Dylan Vollmer kept his cool
The thermometer read 50° on Jan. 26, 2002, but Swan Lake was still frozen solid—mostly. So Dylan Vollmer, 16, wasn't worried when his grandfather Lloyd proposed a jaunt to an island where he had recently discovered Indian burial mounds. The explorers set out from Dylan's Courtland, Minn., home on all-terrain vehicles—Lloyd and Dylan's uncle Chris Savoy sharing the lead ATV, the teen following on his own. The trip took 30 minutes as the trio picked their way around cracks formed by the unseasonably warm weather. On their return, however, Lloyd, 74, didn't see a gaping fissure ahead. "I was shouting, 'Watch out!' " says Dylan. "But they couldn't hear over the engines." The ATV and its riders plunged into nine feet of frigid water.
Chris, 29, was hanging onto the edge of the ice, struggling to pull himself over. Lloyd was treading water and screaming for help. Dylan's Boy Scout training quickly trumped his panic. The 150-lb. teen crawled 20 yards on his belly and hauled his 170-lb. uncle onto the ice. After five long minutes, Lloyd, who was turning blue, managed to dog-paddle near the edge, where Dylan and Chris grabbed him. The three couldn't fit on one ATV, so Dylan lent a shivering Chris his coat, then sped his grandfather home. "I tried to go as fast as I could without bouncing Grandpa too much," he says. After Lloyd grabbed dry clothes, he and Dylan strapped a sled behind the ATV and returned for Chris.
"Dylan is our lifesaver," says Chris, a nursing student. Adds Lloyd: "We would not have made it without him."
Lost in the woods, Olympian Rulon Gardner endured a -25° night
Wrestler Rulon Gardner believed he was the luckiest guy alive when he snagged the gold in the 2000 Olympics. Last Feb. 15, as he crawled to a rescue helicopter in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, he felt lucky just to be alive. "Every day," says Gardner, 31, "I think how blessed I am."
His ordeal had begun the previous afternoon, when he went snowmobiling in the mountains miles from his family's Afton, Wyo., farm. Gardner rode down a gully that proved too narrow to turn around in. As he searched for a way out, his vehicle plunged into a half-frozen river. Soaked, he pulled the 600-lb. machine from the water. By then it was dark. Leaning against a tree, he drifted in and out of consciousness until 9 the next morning, when the copter landed.
His toes were badly frostbitten, but skin grafts saved all but the middle digit on his right foot. The divorced Gardner is struggling to recover fully for the '04 Games. He keeps the toe in a vial in his fridge—a reminder, he says, that "if I find myself in that situation again, I'm an idiot."
Stranded hikers Chris Hoffman and Teri Smith faced 80 MPH winds
Chris Hoffman worried that the timing of his proposal might make his girlfriend doubt his sincerity: "I didn't want it to seem like, 'Oh, by the way, we're going to die anyway, so I promise that someday we're going to get married.' "
When he popped the question on Nov. 10, Hoffman and Teri Smith had spent three days stranded in Yosemite National Park by a blinding snowstorm. Smith, 35, had grown so weak from hunger and cold that she could barely scrawl, "Please help," in the 5-ft.-deep snow. "I thought, 'Oh God,' " says Hoffman, 36, " 'she's withering away.' "
Weather reports had promised mild days when the veteran hikers headed out for a four-day trek on Nov. 4. The blizzard hit on day three. One night they were almost crushed by the snow on their tent. Food grew scarce. Hoffman made daily SOS signs in the deepening powder; at night, by headlamp, he read to Smith from The Princess Bride.
The pair's commitment deepened too. Hoffman, a computer instruction director, and Smith, a swim director at a health club, had met last March and begun sharing a Sherwood, Ore., home with her two kids. By Nov. 13, when a search helicopter found them, Smith was wearing a promise ring made of string. Though they haven't set a date, she says, "What I'm most proud of is that we stuck together."
Injured by an avalanche, Andy Kass rescues a pal who fell 1,500 FEET
Soon after meeting at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden last August, freshmen Matt Wisniewski and Andy Kass made a pact: They would scale all 54 of the state's mountains above 14,000 feet by graduation. On Nov. 16 the duo set out to bag their second, Quandary Peak.
Wisniewski, 28, an experienced climber from Holden, Mass., took the lead, while novice Kass, from Dallas, trailed behind. Just below the top the winds picked up, and they sidetracked to a snowy ridge. Wrong move: Suddenly they were struck by an avalanche that hurled Wisniewski 1,500 feet down the mountain in 15 seconds. "I was flying," he recalls, "trying to expand my chest so if I got buried I would have room to breathe. I hit a band of rocks and felt my lower back break."
Kass managed to break his fall after 200 feet by digging in his pickax. Knocked unconscious, he awoke two hours later. "I was scared because the snow was covered in blood, but I knew I hadn't broken anything because I could move," he says. Heading down the mountainside to search for his pal, he fell again, tearing the cartilage in his left knee. But he kept going until he found Wisniewski. "When I tried to roll him over to see how badly he was hurt, he screamed," says Kass. Wisniewski had three broken vertebrae, a torn rotator cuff, a dislocated shoulder and frostbitten fingers.
"When I saw my friend dying in front of me," says Kass, "my adrenaline kicked in." Despite his own injuries, he ran nearly two miles to the base and got help. By the time Wisniewski was airlifted to the hospital—where he remained for a month—his lungs had collapsed, his heart had stopped twice, and his body temperature was 64°. Now nearly recovered, he remains grateful to his friend. "What Andy means to me," Wisniewski says, "cannot be put into words."