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Air bag saves Aspen snowboarder during massive avalanche
ASPEN — Onna Konicek's instincts warned her not to drop into the couloir in the rugged Alaskan mountains near Thompson Pass on Easter Sunday. The big-mountain freerider went anyway — and nearly paid with her life.
Konicek, a founder of the Aspen-based Orange Extreme snowboarding team, had planned to spend the day checking out the course for the following day's King of the Hill freeride championship in Valdez and preparing for the competition. But when she was invited to take a heli-tour with a startup guide service that shepherds snowboarders into the backcountry, it was an invitation she couldn't refuse.
“It was the first bluebird day after about four days of gray weather,” Konicek said. “In Alaska, when it's blue, you fly. I ended up saying, ‘Yeah, I'll go. Absolutely.'”
Their bird took off from Thompson Pass, northeast of Valdez, and whisked four riders plus their guide to a nearby glacier. Konicek, a veteran big-mountain rider, said she heard throughout the morning that snow conditions were questionable. The Thompson Pass area is regarded as the snowiest area in Alaska, with an average of 551 inches per winter. That means there are a lot of avalanches.
“My radar was up. I had some concerns,” Konicek said. The concerns were elevated when the guide targeted a couloir and directed the helicopter down. Before shoving off first, Konicek said the guide warned, “It could pop on any of us.”
Konicek said she's done more than 60 backcountry runs and never heard anything like that. The blunt assessment by the guide unsettled her entire group. No one was eager to go first even though it is usually an honor and privilege to follow the guide, she said.
Konicek eventually volunteered to go next. She made two turns when the entire left half of the glacier became “a moving sea of cobblestones,” she said.
“My first thought was, ‘I have to get out,'” Konicek said. In the seconds she spent looking for a way out, she was caught from behind by snow and debris.
“I was blasted off my feet by all the snow barreling down on me,” she said. She was thrown on her back with such force that she dislocated her left shoulder. As a medical doctor, she realized she suffered the injury upon impact. Meanwhile, she was hurtling down the mountain on her back, head first. She started suffocating on snow.
She pulled the rip cord of her avalanche air bag and detected “the best sound I've ever heard” when the pressurized air canister released.
Learn how Konicek survived and what it felt like as she nearly was overcome by the slide.