‘Nightmare came to be’ | AspenTimes.com

‘Nightmare came to be’

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A man with strong ties to Aspen is being hailed for his heroic efforts to dig out victims of a deadly avalanche near Revelstoke, Canada.

Charles Bieler, 27, worked as a field staffer for the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association in Aspen from 1998 to 2001 and now lives in New York. He was on a backcountry ski trip with Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME) when tragedy stuck on Monday morning.

A group of 21 skiers were climbing a hill when an avalanche broke loose and killed seven people in the party, including Craig Kelly, a professional snowboarder, industry icon and mentor to Aspen Olympian Chris Klug (see related story).

Bieler was not injured in the slide and rushed to help find the victims who were buried under tons of snow, including a guide who was barely alive after being buried for at least 30 minutes in the debris field.

“He seems to have been very instrumental in the digging out of people,” said Syd Blackwell, who runs the Wintergreen Inn in Revelstoke, where skiing parties begin and end their trips with SME. “There are some wonderful stories of Charles being really heroic. People are saying that he and a Dutch kid were amazing in digging people out.”

Bieler is a graduate of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale and as a senior at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was captain of an NCAA champion nordic ski team. He has also won several nordic races in Aspen in the last several years and is currently the director of sales for the Chateau Routas winery in France, which is owned by his father.

Bieler was on the SME trip with another Aspen-area man, Dan DiMaria, who works for the Snowmass Lodging Co. and is a top local bicycle racer.

DiMaria wasn’t feeling well on Monday and stayed behind in the Durrand Glacier Chalet, which clients initially reach by helicopter and then use as base camp for daylong ski treks in the dramatic Selkirk Mountains in eastern British Columbia.

“He had been on antibiotics,” Bieler said on Wednesday afternoon from an airport in New York. “He was feeling slow. It was a snowy day. And we were going to be skiing some trees. He decided to take that day off.”

But Bieler went out with SME lead guide Ruedi Beglinger, who typically divides a chalet of clients into a fast group and a faster group, as the trip is known for its intense pace and grueling daily treks to reach pristine ski slopes.

“There were 21 of us,” said Bieler. “I was number eight in the train. We were going up a big gully, climbing a hill. I was 10 meters from the crown, and it was the 13 people behind me that took the ride.”

Most press accounts of the incident, including those from The Associated Press, have reported that there were 10 skiers in the upper group and 11 in the lower group, and that eight skiers were buried and seven were killed.

The Americans killed were Kelly, 36, who lived in Nelson, British Columbia; Vernon Lunsford, 49, of Littleton, Colo.; Dennis Yates, 50, of Los Angeles; and Kathleen Kessler, 39, of Truckee, Calif.

The three others killed were from Canada: Naomi Heffler, 25, of Calgary; Dave Finnery, 30, of New Westminster, British Columbia; and Jean Luc Schwendener of Canmore, Alberta. A coroner in British Columbia said the cause of death for each was asphyxiation.

Bieler said the two groups had taken a break at the bottom of a hill. As they began to zigzag up the hill, the upper group spread out and was above the lower group, but they were all within a 15-minute climb of each other. Bieler said he thought the gradient of the hill was about 35 degrees.

He said he was certain it was the weight of the first group of skiers that set off the slide.”It had to have been,” he said, although he added, “It is hard to piece it all together.”

The police said Wednesday they found no evidence that skiers triggered the avalanche.

??There?s nothing for us to believe that it?s anything other than just an accident,?? said Sgt. Randy Brown of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Mountain guides have been hired to investigate the avalanche.

Bieler had little trouble vividly describing the tragedy.

“We had just crested over the top of the hill,” he said. “We heard a huge ‘whoompf,’ followed by a thunderlike crack, some screams and then silence.

“For a second, we didn’t want to believe what just happened. It is the backcountry nightmare. The nightmare came to be. And we were just the lucky ones.”

Bieler said as they were zigzagging up the slope, the man behind him, Jean Luc Schwendener, had been a “kick-turn-and-a-half behind me. He was fairly close to fracture line.” He did not survive.

But one man who did, John Siebert of Wasilla, Alaska, described the incident in similar terms to Bieler’s.

“I felt the snow settle and heard a loud crack,” he said. “A few seconds later, the moving snow swept me off my skis and I started down the slope. I came to rest with my head and left hand exposed. The remainder of my body was locked in concrete-hard snow.”

The slab avalanche was said to be about 100 feet across and 300 feet long and buried some people up to 15 feet deep.

Beglinger, the lead guide, was the first to reach the area, about the size of a football field. He began using his avalanche beacon to try to pick up the signal of those buried underneath the snow. The entire party was equipped with beacons and shovels, and most had avalanche probes.

Bieler slid down to Siebert and freed his arms so he could dig himself out. Then he “decided that I need to try and go save people who weren’t above ground. We were all doing the best we could under horrible circumstances.”

Along with Siebert and others, Bieler found and dug out two victims who were dead when brought to the surface. Then Bieler and others started digging where they had located another avalanche beacon signal.

About 30 minutes after the slide happened, they found assistant SME guide Ken Wylie buried deep under the snow, his face pressed against his hands. “He was unconscious and barely breathing,” Bieler said. “It was unbelievable.”

Wylie regained consciousness and was eventually taken to a hospital, where he was treated and released.

As Wylie was being dug out, DiMaria joined the rescue effort. He had been picked up at the chalet by a helicopter and brought to the avalanche site. DiMaria then rode out on a helicopter with Wylie and was taken back to the chalet after inclement weather set in, preventing him from returning to the avalanche site.

Two hours after the avalanche, rescue workers made it to the scene. Some survivors were still milling about, shocked by the incident.

“It was pretty emotional for them, let’s face it,” Ian Strathearn, a Canadian paramedic who was at the scene, told the Vancouver Sun newspaper.

On Tuesday, DiMaria opted to stay in the backcountry, along with Beglinger and several other members of the group, and continue the weeklong trip.

But Bieler came out of the backcountry on Tuesday afternoon.

“Charles came down and went through the briefing and left,” said Blackwell of the Wintergreen Inn. “He was in pretty bad shape. He was really shaky when he came through.”

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]

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