Skier covered by snow
(Photo: Francis Zuber)

The Tree-Well Rescue That Went Viral

Skier Francis Zuber narrates the dramatic video clip of his heroic rescue that generated thousands of views online

Skier covered by snow
Louisa Albanese

from Backpacker

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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.

Francis Zuber was enjoying the kind of powder skiing you’re lucky to get once a season. Just out of bounds at the Mt. Baker Ski Area, Zuber was enjoying deep turns when he caught sight of something weird. A snowboard, still attached to a pair of boots, stuck out of the snow next to a partially-buried tree. The skier sprung into action, and this video of his rescue quickly went viral. Listen to Zuber narrate the rescue, with commentary from snow suffocation expert Paul Baugher, in this special video episode of Out Alive.

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[00:00:00] Host: Welcome to this special episode of Out Alive, a podcast dedicated to showcasing extraordinary feats of survival and courage. Our team was recently forwarded a remarkable video. It’s the kind of thing you hear about, but rarely are these stories recorded. While you’re watching, you can’t help but feel an alignment of fate and circumstance, as if the universe conspired to bring the hero to the exact spot at the perfect moment.

During this video, you’re going to hear from two people. One voice you’ll hear is Francis Zuber, a Washington local who was skiing Mount Baker during a huge powder day. Francis was wearing his GoPro and just out of bounds when he happened to see a snowboard sticking out of the snow. It took him a few minutes to realize the snowboarder was buried alive and unable to get out of the tree well he’d fallen into. You’ll also hear from Paul Baugher, the global expert in snow immersion suffocation. Since 2001, Bauer has logged every publicized case of snow immersion suffocation or SIS in the United States. After a 30 year career on ski patrol, Paul is now the director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute.

He’s devoted the last 20 years to educating resort skiers on SIS. So, here’s Francis narrating his own video from his point of view. 

[00:01:33] Francis Zuber: It was on Friday, March 3rd, and, uh, I mean, it was an incredible day. The snow was extremely deep that day. It was probably the best week of the year, honestly. It snowed, I think, four feet throughout the week.

So the conditions were all time. I, I started going through those trees. They were a little tighter than I would’ve liked. I was going quick, so I just sort do this jump turn kind of thing and fall over on purpose, dump all my speed, 

[00:01:54] Paul Baugher: Anything where the timber is tight. And you get closer to the trees and think, okay, now all the easy snow is skied out that’s in the middle that’s easy to get to, now we’re going into steeper, narrower, closer to the trees to get that last little bit of powder. 

[00:02:12] Francis Zuber: At first glance, I didn’t realize he was buried initially, but then when I yelled up to him and he didn’t answer, I knew there was an issue in that I needed to get to him.

Sure. You know, if you’ve been in deep snow like that, it’s very hard to move uphill. Uh, so that 10 feet or so could have been a, might as well have been a mile. And it was also the scariest part of the whole thing because I didn’t know how long he’d been in there for. So I was really scared that, you know, he was gonna die in there.

As I was trying to, struggling to get to him, I step outta my skis cause I realized that sidestepping wasn’t gonna wor- work at all. And you hear me start cursing cuz I just sunk. I’m like really pissed at myself in that moment. I was like, oh my God, was that the wrong call? Like, no, I pretty much sunk chest-deep in the snow.

And then I’m trying to use like my skis as a ladder at one point, and that’s not really working too well. And I basically just had to clear the snow out in front of me until I could reach for his snowboard and use that for leverage. And then using his snowboard for leverage, get up over him and have a better angle to start, uh, digging him out, uh, with my hands.

[00:03:09] Paul Baugher: Most of these people have had partners, and the partners get below ’em. The partners never see them. They usually wait at the bottom of the lift. Sometimes they call patrol, sometimes they don’t. But 10, 15 minutes. That’s your window. And that can even, sometimes that amount of time is not enough. 

[00:03:29] Francis Zuber: If you’re like in the snow, like he was that far down, you can’t hear anything.

You can’t see anything. Your air’s running out. You’re in the pitch black. You might as well be in concrete. I have my AVI one certification, just read up and watch rescue stuff whenever I can. But yeah, that was my first, uh, doing something like that and I was hoping and. Expecting actually him to be like sitting up a little bit, almost, not like maybe a little more horizontal than he actually was, but he was pretty much inverted, just about not totally upside down, but pretty close.

So yeah, it took much longer than I expected to, to dig down to him. But that being said, I, I think I still made the right call, digging with my hands first rather than taking the shovel out, just not knowing how long he’d been there for. I needed to get to his airway first and foremost before doing anything else.

But yeah, I did not expect him to be as far down as he was. 

[00:04:16] Paul Baugher: The guy that did the rescue was just, he did everything right. And I mean, when you watch it, and I, you know, I’ve been in the rescue business for a long time, and that, you know, him huffing and puffing and cursing and using his hands instead of his shovel, he did everything right.

It was so real, you know, he nailed it So that, you know, hero status. Perfect. Good job. 

[00:04:38] Francis Zuber: Yeah. Okay. 

All right. We’re both gonna catch your breath for a sec. I’m gonna, I’ll dig you out. Okay. Thank you. There no one else showed up at any point, even after the video ends, you know when I turn the GoPro off, coming back to my senses and I, I shut it off and dig him out the rest of the way.

And then I pull him out and I give him a big hug and I said, I’m glad you’re okay. And he’s like, thank you. Thank you for stopping. You saved the life today. And so we just reconvene and debriefed for a quick second and he radioed down to his buddies and let them know that he was buried, but he’s okay now that I dug him out.

[00:05:09] Paul Baugher: It was a great lucky example if that guy didn’t come by at the time that he did, and then his partners had to go back and look for him dead for sure. No question about it. I’m just positive I can say that. 

[00:05:21] Francis Zuber: My ski partner that I was with, he could see me, you can’t see him in the video, but he’s, he’s down on the other side of, of this valley, so he could see me and he thought that I just lost the ski. 

[00:05:32] Paul Baugher: It’s very much a dark side of powder. You know, we all love powder, myself included, but you know, it has that extra risk that comes with it. It’s all about keeping a partner in sight that is close enough to be able to render assistance to you if you need it. But 10, 15 minutes, that’s your window. Do whatever you can to avoid falling forward.

Found yourself unlucky enough to be propelled forward. Heading for the tree. Spread out. Make yourself as big as you can. Do whatever you can to grab branches. Stay out of the inverted position. 

[00:06:05] Francis Zuber: It’s definitely made us, me and my ski partners reassess the way we, oh my God. We do things in the back country, in the side country, and even inbounds on through the trees and stuff like that.

A shout out to ski patrol and search and rescue crews out there that. Every day. All the time.

(All right. How you doing? You good? I’m good. Okay, good.)

But they’re out there like here in a second doing some incredible work. They just don’t have GoPros on their heads as they do it. They don’t get nearly enough recognition.

So I just want to shout them out and say that they deserve way more gratitude than they get. 

Lead Photo: Francis Zuber