Survivor tells story of terrifying plunge inside an avalanche

A relaxing Sunday in the mountains near Jasper took a terrifying turn when Dana Ruddy found himself being carried down the side of a mountain by an avalanche.

Dana Ruddy skied then swam through ice and snow until crashing into a tree

Dana Ruddy with his friend Sean Elliott at University of Alberta Hospital, two weeks after an avalanche at Jasper National Park. (Terry Reith, CBC News)

A relaxing Sunday in the mountains near Jasper took a terrifying turn when Dana Ruddy found himself being swept down the side of a mountain by an avalanche.

Ruddy was with his long-time skiing and climbing buddy, Sean Elliott, hiking and skiing through mountain passes about 25 kilometres southeast of Jasper.

Avalanche survivors describe desperate situation

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Sean Elliott and Dana Ruddy recently survived an avalanche in Tonquin Valley, Alta. and go over all the details of the event and rescue. Ruddy feels lucky to be alive.

"We knew the hazard was considerable in the alpine," said Elliott, but the experienced mountaineers had no intention of entering any danger zones. In fact, because conditions in the area were far from ideal, they were having an easy-going day.

Suddenly the snow gave way

But as they worked their way down a mountain pass above the Maccarib Campground, a large piece of ice and snow Ruddy had just crossed gave way.

Dana Ruddy in an Edmonton hospital room. He suffered nine broken ribs, damaged his knee, and punctured a lung along with various other cuts and bruises. (CBC News)
"It was just like basically a big steep dinner plate that kind of all started breaking up," Ruddy said. "So I kind of pointed my skis downhill and did the best I could to get out of the way, and try to ski out of the avalanche."

Elliott was above the avalanche, watching in horror as his friend was swept away. "I called out 'avalanche' as soon as I knew that it was happening, and Dana tried really, really hard to outrun it, to ski out of the avalanche. But it was too big, too broad."

Ruddy, on his skis, tried desperately to outrun the mass of broken trees, ice and snow the avalanche stirred up.

"And I accelerated really quickly, because it was a steep slope and I was basically going downhill kind of launching off these chunks of moving snow and ice. And I just hit one and the skis blew off my feet and I kind of got swallowed up into the slide. It's like something out of an action movie."

Friend watches in terror

High above the scene, Elliott watched his friend disappear. "Airborne, lost his skis. That's the last I saw of him." 

For Ruddy, what came next was a blur of darkness and disorientation. He has no idea how long he was inside the roiling pile of debris. He remembered something from an avalanche survival course - swim. So he reached out his arms and began trying to swim through the snow. Suddenly he popped out the avalanche and crashed into a tree.

Elliott was already on his way down the mountain, hoping to rescue his friend, though he thought there was little chance Ruddy had survived.

"Just seeing what he had gone through, I knew there had to have been severe trauma, just based on the kind of terrain. You know, small trees and that, that usually kill a person or tear them apart." 

Elliott expected he would have to dig, long and hard just to find his friend. But he got a welcome surprise.

"Just then I hear a yell and I just thought, 'It can't be.' But sure enough, I skied down to him and there he was." 

Seriously injured

Ruddy was awake and conscious. He had a punctured lung, nine broken ribs, his knee was torn up and his heart and lungs bruised. He not only felt the trauma, he could hear it.

"I was making some pretty bizarre noises, you know, kind of grinding bones and gurgling slurping kind of noises. So I knew I'd suffered extensive trauma."

Elliott set to work making Ruddy comfortable, covering him with jackets to keep him warm and setting up a camp stove. Then he began an hour-long descent down the mountain until he could get cellphone service and call in rescuers.

Ruddy was airlifted from the mountain by helicopter, and dropped briefly at the Jasper warden's station before being taken to hospital. Elliott saw him there, delighted his friend had survived.

"I really didn't know what the outcome would be and I was kind of expecting the worst." 

A new sense of caution

Ruddy has spent the past two weeks in hospital in Edmonton, trying to make sense out of what happened. He and Elliott were both born in Jasper and have lived there all their lives. He has hiked, skied and climbed in the same area dozens of times. He blames complacency.

"Probably just because I've grown up in the mountains and spent so much time in the mountains, especially that part of the world is very familiar to me. I think it was easy to almost feel like you're right at home. I think I'll be a little more respectful of the dangers in the mountains."

Both men intend to stay active in the mountains, but in the future will be far more cautious - aware that bad things can happen to the most experienced of mountaineers.