Avalanche survivor: 'It feels like you're in a washing machine'



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Posted on February 20, 2012 at 8:19 AM

Updated Monday, Feb 20 at 4:36 PM

SEATTLE -- Elyse Saugstad says she is “still in shock" after three of her friends died in an avalanche Sunday on Stevens Pass.

Saugstad is a professional skier originally from Alaska. She was among 13 other skiers in an out of bounds area called Seventh Heaven near Stevens Pass when an avalanche swept four of the skiers 1,500 feet down a mountain. 

Chris Rudolph, marketing director for the Stevens Pass ski area, professional freestyle skiing judge Jim Jack and John Brenan were killed. All of three skiers killed were experienced, well-equipped and well-known in the ski community.  All three were believed to be in their 30s or 40s.

"We didn't anticipate it, but when we saw it happening, we knew exactly what was happening," Saugstad told the TODAY show. "It's amazing how quickly an avalanche happens and it progresses."

Saugstad said she immediately pulled the lever on her ABS Avalanche Airbag System backpack, which she says is commonly used in Europe. The backpack inflates an airbag around your upper body and lifts you above the avalanche, so you stay on top of the snow.

Saugstad was not seriously hurt in the avalanche. She credits the avalanche safety backpack for saving her life.

"Don't get me wrong. It's not like you're taking an inner tube ride down some snow fill. You're definitely in the avalanche and it feels like you're in a washing machine and being flipped and tumbled," said Saugstad. "It's white the entire way - it's very scary."

Saugstad told TODAY the avalanche danger wasn't high when the group went out Sunday. She said they were all "experienced back-country skiers."

"I’m just still in shock," she said. "I’m absolutely devastated at the loss of our friends. My heart goes out to the family and the skiing community."

When asked if she would ever ski again, Saugstad said yes.

In a separate incident Sunday in the Cascades, a snowboarder was killed in an avalanche at the Alpental ski area at Snoqualmie Pass. The avalanche swept the snowboarder off a cliff, where he fell 500 feet.

Watch TODAY's full interview with Elyse Saugstad below.

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