[This story first appeared in Alpinist 66, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 66 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
The slab of snow broke with a guttural crack, freezing the three skiers in their skinning gait. As the echo hung in the air, the first skier glanced down at the snow. A fracture line cleaved the surface, lacerating the slope just above his right ski like a deep paper cut. Fuck, he thought, whipping his head around to check on his two partners.
But it was too late to react. The fissure at his feet had already transected the bowl they’d been ascending, drawing a line between what snow would slide and what would stay. All three skiers stood on the wrong side of that line.
An instant later, a foot-thick slab of snow as wide as the length of two football fields shattered and poured down the slope, accelerating to sixty-five miles per hour. The avalanche swallowed everything it touched, swelling to millions of pounds of snow, ice and rock.
Parks Canada Visitor Safety rated the April 5, 2018 avalanche at Sentinel Pass in Banff National Park a 2.5 on a five-point scale: large enough to kill a person, but not big enough to destroy a cabin. According to the Visitor Safety specialist’s report, the snow slid in a textbook fashion: a south-facing slab sitting atop a persistent weak layer that gave way after a day of strong sun and rising temperatures. The skiers triggered the avalanche in the spot every avalanche-course instructor would have expected them to–on a slope steeper than thirty-five degrees, near the top of the bowl where the terrain is convex and the snow is weakest from the wind.
The first skier, Tim Banfield, slid about 100 feet down slope before he could self-arrest. His position at the top of the fracture line protected him from the full force of the avalanche. The second skier, Maia Schumacher, not far behind Banfield on the skin track, became enveloped in the surge. She swam for 500 feet, to where the avalanche deposited her in the runout zone, buried to her thighs, dazed but unhurt.
The avalanche fully engulfed the third skier. From her lower position on the skin track, eighty feet behind her partners, the shifting snow tore Michelle Kadatz from her feet, then churned her under a massive blender of snow and ice that swirled and heaved for 650 total feet. After about twenty seconds, it ground to a halt against flat terrain, piling up on itself. Kadatz came to rest beneath the debris, thirteen feet below the surface, well beyond the reach of any avalanche probe. By conventional knowledge, no skier could survive a burial of that depth.
MICHELLE KADATZ couldn’t move, not to wiggle a finger or open an eye. This is what it feels like to become conscious while on paralytic medication, she thought. The horror-story scenario was one she’d been carefully trained, while working as a critical care nurse in Kelowna General Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, to never let happen to a patient. Kadatz knew it was futile to keep trying. She felt the gravity of her situation, heavy and impenetrable, like the tomb of snow encasing her body. Her medical background ensured she suffered no delusion about what was going to happen. She was going to run out of air, fade out of consciousness and die. How much time she had left, she couldn’t tell. Was she just re-breathing her own exhaled air or had some precious oxygen been buried with her? Kadatz tried to stay calm, to focus on conserving whatever air she did have. She worked to voluntarily slow her breathing, slow her heart rate, lower her body’s total oxygen demand. It was her only chance.
As Kadatz concentrated on taking smaller and smaller sips of air, she felt a wave of shame. She had made the final decision to ascend to Sentinel Pass. She should have known better. Kadatz remembered pausing at the base with Schumacher and Banfield. Their objective, a saddle flanked by 10,062-foot Pinnacle Mountain to the left and 11,624-foot Mt. Temple to the right, loomed over a staircase-steep slope. It had been six hours since the start of their day, and the temperature had risen by about 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun had felt so strong that Kadatz had removed her hat and gloves. Snow had stuck to her skis in thick piles, doubling their weight. Kadatz recalled how Schumacher, the least experienced ski-tourer of the three, had tilted her head back to take in the grade of their final ascent. “I’m OK with turning around,” she’d said.
They’d technically completed their mission–logging close to twelve grueling miles on skis to scout the ice climbs Kadatz hoped to attempt later in the spring. Gaining Sentinel Pass and skiing down the other side was just gravy, and a faster way back to the car. So yes, they could have aborted their plan. But the avalanche risk was low-to-moderate that day, and Kadatz hadn’t noticed any red flags, like pinwheels (sushi rolls of wet snow that shave off the top, saturated layer before coming to rest down slope) or the whoomphing sound of unstable layers collapsing. To be extra cautious, Kadatz had told Schumacher and Banfield to spread out.
In hindsight, Kadatz may have thought some snow would slide. She just didn’t think it would slide that much. Certainly, not enough to bury someone. More like a small sluff. And hadn’t she called up to Banfield and Schumacher right before the avalanche broke, to remind them, again, to spread out? Not that it mattered now. No one would ever know what she had been thinking. They’d stand around the pub, looking at each other through hollow eyes, shaking their heads, murmuring, “What was Michelle thinking?”
What was she thinking? In the maddening silence of the hole, Kadatz reconstructed a conversation she’d had with her friend Sebastian about a year and a half earlier about death by dumb mistake. They’d been drinking beers while Kadatz complained about her latest climbing partner at Banff’s Stanley Headwall. “He just wanted to rap off these shitty anchors,” Kadatz had said. “And I’d be like, ‘Dude, we can’t rap off this.’ And then I’d follow him to another rappel, and he’d have another shitty anchor!”
The thought of Kadatz meeting her doom by intentionally rapping off old, quarter-inch bolts and rotting cord had caused Sebastian to burst out laughing. “Yeah, you’ve got to back up your anchors,” he’d said. “We’d all be really disappointed if that’s the way you died.”
Well, they were all going to be really disappointed after all. Kadatz’s death, she knew, would read like a test-case accident in an avalanche-awareness textbook: the exact wrong combination of terrain, slope angle, weather and decision-making.
In the hole, the mashed-potato snow had begun to consolidate. It pressed in on Kadatz from all sides. She puzzled over her body’s position. Was she upside down? Was all the blood in her head? She couldn’t tell. Nothing hurt, really, except for an ache in her mouth. Her teeth, already tender from wearing braces, throbbed. Kadatz sensed her facial expression was contorted and misshapen. She strained to rearrange her expression into something more peaceful for whoever found her body. But the snowpack refused to yield.
She felt frustrated, because, despite the look of horror she was certain her face betrayed, this didn’t seem like such an awful way to die. Kadatz wished she could let her parents know that she was OK, that she didn’t suffer. She recalled her conversation with her father the day before. She’d spoken to him by phone, while curled up on the couch in the townhouse in Calgary that she shared with her boyfriend, Jon Walsh. Ice climbing always made her parents nervous. But she wasn’t going climbing; she was going ski touring. “There’s not even any risk of avalanches tomorrow, Dad,” she remembered herself saying. “It’s super safe.”
You screwed up big time on that one, Kadatz thought. She felt a sudden jolt of pain, not physical, but emotional. She realized how much hurt she was about to cause her family and friends. Her death would ruin the big summer climbing trip she and her friend Gemma had planned to Baffin Island. Kadatz pictured her friend Lindsay at the climbing gym just a few days earlier, Lindsay’s shoulders sagging as she told Kadatz she’d lost a second friend in an avalanche that season. Kadatz would make it three.
“I’m so sorry, guys,” Kadatz said in her head.
UP ON THE SURFACE, about 200 feet below the crest of Sentinel Pass, Banfield worked his way down slope to Schumacher, who stood buried to her thighs in avalanche debris.
“You OK?” he asked between gulps of air.
“Yeah,” she gasped.
“Can you get yourself out?”
“OK, good,” Banfield said. “Put your beacon into receive mode. I’m going to look for Michelle.”
Schumacher’s eyes widened; she hadn’t realized Kadatz was gone.
The avalanche had come to an abrupt stop, backing up on itself where the slope angle turned nearly flat. The debris pile resembled a fifteen-foot-tall ocean wave that had swelled and frozen in place before it could crest. Banfield’s beacon quickly found Kadatz’s signal, then flashed thirty meters on the digital display. He hurried through fist-sized chunks of snow and ice to the wave’s apex and walked along its spine to the place where he thought Kadatz would have slid, based on what he’d seen of the avalanche from his upper perch. He’d whittled the distance down to twelve meters when Schumacher yelled, “I’ve got nine meters!” Banfield raced toward her, and they narrowed Kadatz’s location to within four meters. But that was as close as they could get, even when hovering the beacon right above the snow. Shit, Banfield thought, those are vertical meters. Kadatz was four meters straight down.
Statistics about survival rates and burial depths from the avalanche training he’d received a few years earlier flew through his head. Banfield knew that beyond two meters, victims rarely survived, not necessarily due to bodily injury, but because their rescuers were unable to reach them before they suffocated.
Schumacher must have reached the same conclusion, because she cried out and her eyes filled with tears. Banfield racked his brain for any kind of hope. “I saw a video last week online!” he blurted out. “The guy was under for eleven minutes, and his friends dug him out and he survived.” It had only been about five minutes since the avalanche. They still had a chance.
KADATZ WOULD HAVE COLLAPSED into tears had she not been mummified. Sadness overwhelmed her, consumed her in a deep, heavy darkness she could neither fight nor escape. She knew what it felt like to lose someone to the mountains–the grief, the bewilderment, the betrayal–and she knew she’d soon inflict that arsenal of misery onto her friends. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, she whispered over and over in her mind.
Then something shifted that pulled Kadatz out of her head. The snow hadn’t moved; that would have been impossible. Kadatz tuned in and listened to the stillness, sensing a presence, like someone else was there. The same way she knew her boyfriend had walked into the kitchen when she had her back to the door, Kadatz knew she wasn’t alone.
Suddenly, she saw Anna. Her dear friend and climbing partner, Anna Smith, with her perpetually messy blond hair and sunburned nose, was there. Smith stood maybe ten feet away. She didn’t speak, but if she had, Kadatz knew the first thing out of her mouth would be laughter. Smith’s laugh–too loud, too long, too shrill and yet too funny to not laugh along with–spared no situation, not even one as grim as Kadatz’s death.
But Smith wasn’t laughing. Nor was she alone.
Kadatz noticed another figure. Chris Willie, one of Kadatz’s first climbing friends, stood beside Smith. Willie and Kadatz had been climbing together for nearly a decade, and every time she ran into him in the mountains, he’d crack a sunny smile and quip, “What are you doing here?” Not this time; Willie wasn’t smiling at all.
Then another climber stepped out from behind Smith and Willie: Marc-Andre Leclerc, his brown curls peeking out from beneath a black-hooded sweatshirt. He walked over to Kadatz. “Hey, Michelle,” he said, as casually as if they were meeting at the pub. “How’s it going?”
Kadatz didn’t answer. She’d suddenly remembered: Leclerc had gone missing in Alaska weeks ago. And Smith and Willie were both dead.
Kadatz felt confused. What was happening? Her brain struggled to make sense of the situation.
BANFIELD THOUGHT FAST. His ultralight probe measured 230 centimeters in length. Schumacher had a 240-centimeter probe. Both were too short.
“We’re going to need to dig down before we can probe,” Banfield said. Schumacher had pulled herself together, and they excavated a few loads of snow. Banfield hovered his beacon over the new low point and got a closer reading: 3.8 meters. They dug out a few more shovelfuls of snow and, this time, the beacon read 3.6. They were in roughly the right spot and headed in the right direction.
They cleared out a rectangular shape, about six feet long by three feet wide, removing the snow to a depth of about three feet. Banfield grabbed Schumacher’s probe, recalling his avalanche instructor saying, “You’ll know when you’ve hit someone because it will feel mushy.” Banfield made about a half-dozen strikes before he hit something. It wasn’t mushy. What if it was a rock, not a body? Banfield and Schumacher agreed, for the sake of time, that they needed to resume digging. “We know she’s under there,” Banfield reasoned. They left the probe in place as a guide and began shoveling again.
Banfield and Schumacher were not concerned with the size or shape of the hole they were digging. They were racing against the clock. Their singular focus was to open a passage to let fresh air into Kadatz’s lungs after what had now been about eight minutes of confinement. At first, they dug side by side. As the tunnel grew deeper they shifted. Banfield moved steadily toward Kadatz in the depths, and Schumacher stayed behind, shoveling out the snow Banfield displaced, assembly-line style. Banfield called out to Kadatz several times, just in case she could hear him: “I’m coming, Michelle. Hold on!”
After about twenty minutes of chopping through increasingly hardening snow, Banfield carved out a block that revealed a flash of orange material: Kadatz’s backpack. It’s her, he thought. Holy fuck. It’s her!
He dropped his shovel and began swiping the last couple inches of snow away with his hands. He felt the buckle of her pack lid, which meant Kadatz’s head was close. Banfield worked his fingers into the snow just beside the lid and grasped a clump of hair. He brushed away the snow and realized Kadatz was face down; the skin of her scalp glowed blue like a fresh bruise. To Schumacher, peering in from above, the sudden appearance of hair in the snow looked like something from a scene in a zombie movie. She feared they’d taken too long.
MICHELLE KADATZ grew up in the Okanagan Valley, the fertile fruit- and wine-producing region of interior British Columbia. Her father, in addition to running the family farm with her mother, was a pastor. For Kadatz and her younger brother, that meant attending services multiple times a week, participating in the church youth group, memorizing Bible verses and watching their food become cold while Dad turned his dinner blessing into a sermon. The beliefs of the Pentecostal Church, particularly about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, never resonated with Kadatz. But another one of her parents’ values did: their reverence for the mountains.
Kadatz’s mother grew up in Valemount, a 1,000-person village in the shadow of Mt. Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. The peak held special significance for the family, and Kadatz’s parents spoke of it often. They marveled that it was so big it made its own weather system. They took Kadatz and her younger brother on road trips and campouts to Mt. Robson and all over the mountains of western Canada. Kadatz was raised to believe these were places of great power.
As soon as she was old enough to drive, Kadatz would jump in the car with her brother and travel six hours to Mt. Robson, even if they only had one night to camp before returning home the next day. Kadatz felt most comfortable in the mountains. She’d watch the sun rise and set. She learned to recognize weather patterns by observing shifts in the clouds. Unlike religion, the rules of nature made sense to her.
Kadatz tried climbing for the first time at age twenty, shortly after she graduated nursing school in 2007. She’d landed a job working at a hospital in Penticton, a town in the Okanagan Valley only about fifteen minutes from Skaha Bluffs, a series of cliffs beside Skaha Lake that encompass hundreds of sport-climbing routes. The activity was a natural fit for Kadatz, for the time it enabled her to spend outside, for its athleticism and for its precision.
She lost her first friend to the mountains after nine years of climbing. On September 30, 2016, Anna Smith died on a climbing expedition in the Indian Himalaya. Smith was thirty-one years old. The last thing Kadatz had texted Smith was, “Don’t do anything sketchy up there.” Of all Kadatz’s friends and climbing partners, Smith was the one Kadatz feared for the most. She remembered the time Smith led Yosemite’s By Hook or By Crook, a three-pitch route on Harlequin Dome with the crux located dangerously high above minimal protection. As Smith said in a short video, “Why Climb” by Accidental Productions, she was drawn to climbing because it provided access to “the high and the wild places,” where decisions mean life or death.
In 2015 Kadatz and Smith had traveled to Baffin Island together on a grant from the Alpine Club of Canada. There they became the first all-female team to free climb the South Buttress of Mt. Loki, which they ascended in just over twenty-four hours. The climb is remote and difficult to access, surrounded by a moat of crevasses and sagging snow bridges. Only the second team ever to free the route, the women climbed for hours until they saw signs–fixed gear, a piton–that other climbers had been there before. The soundtrack to their Baffin Island trip had been Smith’s high-pitched, howling laughter. One night, while trekking up the glacier leading to Mt. Sheehan to get a head start on the next day, Kadatz had needed a break from the piercing sound. “Anna, can you please try not to laugh so loudly?” she’d pled.
Back home in the Bow Valley, Kadatz often fretted over Smith. “Don’t forget the #4, and don’t forget to place it,” Kadatz would text Smith before Smith went climbing. She’d also send reminders to Smith’s climbing partners: “Hey, make sure Anna eats when you’re climbing with her.”
On December 21, 2017, about a year after Smith’s death, another good friend of Kadatz’s, Chris Willie, died of a fentanyl overdose. Thirty-two years old, he had just recently returned from a climbing expedition in South America. Willie also worked in the medical field as a researcher; he and Kadatz had met nearly a decade prior. They were frequent carpool buddies to Skaha Bluffs, where Willie would tease Kadatz for being “just a sport climber,” and she’d mock him for wasting his time with something “as ridiculous as ice climbing.”
Later, when Kadatz got into alpinism and ice climbing herself, she’d often run into Willie in places like the Bugaboos and the Canadian Rockies, where he’d always greet her with his megawatt smile. Willie became one of Kadatz’s biggest supporters and inspirers, emailing her tick lists of “must climbs” and encouraging her to keep trying new things in the alpine. In November 2017, a month before Willie died, Kadatz sent him an email to check in on how he was feeling, sensing that something wasn’t right. She wrote that she loved him, something she’d never said to a guy friend before. It was the last exchange they ever had.
Less than three months after Willie’s death, in early March 2018, Marc-Andre Leclerc along with climbing partner Ryan Johnson went missing while descending from the summit of the Main Tower in the Mendenhall Towers, Alaska. After six days of searching, a search and rescue crew spotted their gear above and inside a crevasse; they were presumed dead. Leclerc, another of Kadatz’s longtime friends, had been gym climbing since he was ten years old and began visiting Skaha Bluffs as a teenager. Like those of Kadatz, Leclerc’s interests would expand far beyond sport climbing into bigger, wilder mountains in places like Patagonia and Canada’s Valley of the Ten Peaks.
In January 2016, Kadatz and Leclerc were part of a small team of climbers that traveled together in the Scottish Highlands, a region of notorious mixed-climbing routes encompassing hundreds of vertical feet of rock, ice and frozen turf, made even more challenging by winter’s blustery weather. During the twelve-day trip, Kadatz admired how Leclerc seemed at home in even the most adverse conditions. Relentless wind, freezing rain and slab avalanches didn’t deter him. On days when it snowed, he climbed wearing goggles. “Winter climbing, on an honest wintery day,” Leclerc spoke happily into a camera during one whiteout after having soloed five routes in a row.
Back in the Canadian Rockies, in April 2016, Leclerc, along with climbing partner Luka Lindic, made headlines by completing the first ascent of the 3,600-foot tall northeast face of Mt. Tuzo. Their route roughly bisected the massive pyramid-shaped wall, following a fine line through snow-covered couloirs, chossy chimneys, overhanging ice features and a steep rock headwall. Kadatz had the insider knowledge that Leclerc and Lindic were out in the wilderness for several nights to complete their project, and, after a fox stole their cache, had rationed their food down to a few energy bars. But she was even more impressed later that month, when Leclerc headed to Mt. Robson–the venerated peak of her childhood–and made the first solo ascent of the Emperor Face, an 8,200-foot wall of banded snow, rock and ice that only a handful of teams have successfully climbed. In a pub in Canmore afterward, he encouraged Kadatz: “You know, you don’t have to be the strongest person out there, Michelle. You just have to be really psyched, and it’s going to take you a lot of places.”
When Leclerc went missing in Alaska, Kadatz was shocked. Of her climbing friends, he was the one she worried about the least. He was such a capable alpinist, and maintained such an even disposition while climbing in the most heinous conditions, that he’d seemed invincible.
ON APRIL 5, 2018, the day Kadatz was buried in the Sentinel Pass avalanche, she had lost three good friends within the span of eighteen months. The air felt cold that morning, the type of early-morning chill that should have abated by April. Kadatz, Banfield and Schumacher shivered as they clicked into their skis. About an hour and a half into their tour, Mt. Quadra showed its craggy, quartzite face. Kadatz paused to get a good look at Gimme Shelter, the 1,000-foot ice-climbing route spilling straight through Mt. Quadra’s sheer center, like a drip of candle wax down a fireplace mantle.
Kadatz had always thought the climb too dangerous, although Willie had encouraged her to go for it for years. Recently, she’d heard that the snowcap on the top had receded, reducing the risk of overhead hazard from ice and serac releases. Maybe it was time to stop wondering what if and attempt to add it to her tick list.
A half hour later, Kadatz, Banfield and Schumacher left behind the mostly flat terrain along a snow-packed Moraine Lake Road and began ascending through the larch forest that stands sentry over frozen Moraine Lake. As the slope angle increased, so did their body temperature. Kadatz wore just her base layer on top. They were almost at tree line when she stuck her poles into the snow and called for a snack break.
As Kadatz unwrapped an energy bar, a whiskey jack swooped down and landed on the handle of one of her ski poles. Kadatz watched the bird fan its slate-grey tail and fluff its wings in a sunlit, full body shimmer. She knew this species of bird well. Whiskey jacks don’t migrate south in the winter and are comically bold when scavenging for food. It was undoubtedly planning to dive-bomb her snack. The bird jumped to the ground and hopped into the center of their group. “It’s Anna!” Kadatz said. Everyone laughed.
Once they were in the alpine, the terrain began to flatten. Kadatz stopped to take in the full span of the Valley of the Ten Peaks–ten striated masses of sedimentary rock each taller than 10,000 feet, rising out of the Wenkchemna Glacier like giant tombstones. This was Leclerc’s domain. He’d been here, following their same path almost exactly two years prior. Kadatz picked out Mt. Tuzo from the lineup, not too hard to identify thanks to its more rounded edges that contrasted against those of Deltaform Mountain, its pointy next-door neighbor.
“That was one of Marc-Andre’s big projects,” Kadatz told Banfield and Schumacher, “the first ascent of the northeast face.” The three stood in silence for a moment. The climb was too far beyond her ability level, but Leclerc had set an easier route on Mt. Tuzo that he’d told her he thought she’d really enjoy. Kadatz strained her eyes to see the epoxy blue of climbable ice, but saw only frozen snow clinging to rock.
By the time Kadatz, Banfield and Schumacher reached the base of the final ascent leading up to Sentinel Pass, she was ready to ski. One more hour of intense effort, and then they’d descend beneath Mt. Temple and perhaps enjoy a beer back at the car.
But they never made it. The avalanche swept them away just as they were about to crest the pass.
WHACK! KADATZ WOKE to an avalanche rescue shovel, or perhaps it was a probe, clipping the back of her skull. She let forth a muffled whimper that rose through the snow, followed by a longer, more sustained moan.
Banfield worked quickly and carefully, using his fingers to dig out the snow around Kadatz’s face and from under her mouth and nose. Still face down, Kadatz gasped and wheezed. A few minutes later, she spoke her first intelligible sentence: “Get me the fuck out of here!”
It took Banfield and Schumacher another two hours to fully unbury Kadatz, digging all the way down to her ski boots. She emerged cold and coughing, her chest sore and her breathing shallow, but otherwise unharmed. She walked to the rescue helicopter herself–or tried to. Schumacher intercepted and helped steady her gait.
An ambulance met them at the Lake Louise helipad, where an EMT helped Kadatz onto a stretcher and administered oxygen and warm saline fluid. Kadatz felt like she couldn’t take in enough oxygen through her nose, so she asked for a facemask instead of a nasal cannula. After about ten minutes, her pulse, temperature and breathing rate returned to normal. She said she felt much better. She didn’t mention that she’d seen dead people. She declined a trip to the hospital.
Kadatz’s rescue made mainstream news in western Canada. Banfield, a professional photographer who took photos of the avalanche and burial site, has since given a handful of presentations about the accident to full houses in the Bow Valley. Backcountry safety professionals, including the president of Avalanche Japan, have contacted him to learn more about the extraction. Avalanche experts, like Jordy Shepherd, a mountain guide who has served as Rockies Director on the board of directors for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides since 2012, have used Banfield’s photos as an example, proving that it’s possible to locate–and rescue–a victim buried deeper than the length of a probe.
Kadatz hasn’t spoken publicly about the avalanche, although she frequently gives presentations about her climbing expeditions. She doesn’t think she has anything to add to what’s already been covered by Banfield. She was, after all, the one buried, not the one performing the rescue. As for seeing Smith, Willie and Leclerc while she was buried, Kadatz described her experience to Walsh over the dinner table and to her close friend Lindsay over the phone. And at Leclerc’s memorial service to the longtime girlfriend who he’d left behind. As for speaking of it in a larger forum, “I’m not that touchy feely,” Kadatz says.
But she still thinks about it sometimes. She wonders where you draw the line between life and death. What if she had answered Leclerc’s question–what if she had told him how she was doing, and they had held an actual conversation?
The medical term for what Kadatz experienced while buried is hypoxia-induced hallucination. In medicine, it’s well documented that hypoxia, a general term for any decrease in available oxygen, triggers hallucinations. Simon Parsons, a friend of Kadatz’s who works as the director of the Intensive Care Unit at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, and who has been climbing for more than four decades, hypothesizes that after the avalanche, Kadatz’s nasal passageway must have remained open, not clogged with snow. And she must have been buried with a small pocket of air to survive underground for as long as she did, nearly twenty-five minutes, according to the data on Banfield’s sport watch. “Without any oxygen, she would have suffered irreversible brain injury within five minutes,” Parsons says.
But her oxygen was limited; buried as deep as she was, even a minuscule air passage to the top would have been unlikely. Every time she took a breath, Kadatz lowered the oxygen content of her air pocket. At some point, she began to hallucinate. “Whatever memories she has of her time under there would have been her brain functioning under lower and lower and lower levels of oxygen,” Parsons says.
In her book, Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes–And What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond, Maria Coffey reported an experience that is strikingly similar to Kadatz’s thirteen-foot-deep reunion with Leclerc. Alpinist Margo Talbot, Coffey explained, had a friend go missing while out on a climb in Alaska. The friend was eventually presumed dead. Shortly afterward, the friend appeared to Talbot while she was deep in meditation. In the apparition, Talbot “saw” her friend seeking shelter in an ice cave and eventually running out of food and fuel. Talbot, who says she’s always been extremely sensitive to energy, had never experienced direct communication with someone who had passed until this point and believes she was overtaken by such energy while in a quieted state. “It could be that deceased people try to communicate with the living all the time,” she said, “but ordinarily, we don’t live on the vibrational level where we can perceive it…. Michelle may have been in a hypoxic state when she had her visions, but it is also entirely possible that she accessed this other vibrational level in her ‘heightened’ state of believing she was about to die.”
Hallucinations in the mountains, mostly due to the oxygen-deprivation of high altitude, are common enough that researchers have been cataloging climbers’ experiences and studying them for decades.
The seminal study on the topic, published in Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology in 1999 by Peter Brugger, compiled anecdotal evidence from eight professional alpinists and determined that hallucinations can occur independent from altitude sickness. It also concluded that acute stress (i.e. being buried in an avalanche) and social deprivation (i.e. being separated from one’s team) add to the effect. The work led other researchers in the field to hypothesize that such hallucinations are electrophysiological in origin–similar to migraines–stemming from the electrical and chemical signals through which neurons in the brain communicate. Later research, published in 2004 in High Altitude Medicine & Biology, by Paul G. Firth and Hayrunnisa Bolay, identified the place in the brain most affected as the temporoparietal cortex, where the temporal and parietal lobes meet, an area responsible for the “sense of self.” In 2009 in The Lancet Neurology researchers determined that thirty-two percent of climbers have hallucinations above 7500 meters. At that altitude, effective oxygen in the air is about eight percent, compared to twenty-one percent at sea level.
Among the most common hallucinations, according to Brugger’s study and in those that followed, is the presence of an imaginary person, an unseen stranger seemingly guiding the climber, a phenomenon dubbed “third-man syndrome.” Sometimes this person is also seen as a ghost-like figure in the distance, but the figure is most often unknown. A second common hallucination experienced by alpinists: a somesthetic illusion, also known as Alice in Wonderland syndrome, a self-perceived distortion of an individual’s size, shape or mass or of their position in space. Another hallucination frequent during high-altitude and during near-death experiences is what Brugger’s study subjects called “out-of- body experiences,” in which the subject feels to be floating or flying over the landscape.
While Kadatz’s mental experience markedly differs from the hallucinations commonly reported by alpinists, her physical experience aligns with the research. At Sentinel Pass, at about 8,500 feet of elevation, her effective oxygen was already down to fourteen percent. Once she became buried, it plummeted toward zero as she slowly suffocated. What Kadatz experienced could simply have been the ordinary workings of a dying brain. According to British psychologist Susan Blackmore, the author of Dying to Live, as the senses start to fail, the brain struggles to construct a model of reality and begins to draw on the inner data of memory and imagination. When Kadatz “saw” and “heard” her dead friends in the hole, it could have been her brain perceiving its inner workings as outer events.
Kadatz accepts the explanation that, while she was buried, her brain was operating differently due to a decrease in available oxygen. And she understands she was on the verge of death, and that what she saw and heard while entombed in the snow was perhaps all in her head. But not what she felt.
“I didn’t feel alone,” Kadatz says. “And I don’t know if my [dead] friends were there with me but that’s what it felt like. Whether that be the spirit of the mountain or–I have no idea– but it definitely felt like there was someone or something.”
ON MAY 24, 2018, shortly after Moraine Lake Road reopened to car traffic following its winter closure, Kadatz and Banfield returned to the site of the avalanche to retrieve Kadatz’s skis. Kadatz wasn’t looking forward to climbing back into the hole where she’d nearly died, but if she waited for the snow to melt and expose the skis, she might never see them again. At least the approach would be easier than the last time she was here, as they could drive the seven and a half miles of Moraine Lake Road instead of skiing it.
When Kadatz pulled into the parking lot, she sensed the deep freeze of winter finally lifting off Moraine Lake. The lake’s winter lid of ice and snow had broken apart, revealing swaths of clear, aquamarine water. The sky echoed the effect, with thick, white clouds cracked by the turquoise behind them. All around the lake, much of the snow remained, reduced to an anemic layer punctured by rocks. Yet Kadatz knew that what the snow had lost in volume, it had gained in tensile strength. What remained was the strongest, most stubborn snowpack.
She had anticipated the challenge of recovering her skis and had brought a full-sized garden shovel along with her avalanche rescue shovel for the task. When she and Banfield reached the hole, it was well into the process of collapsing in on itself. Kadatz began scraping out the snow-ice that was clogging the opening, while Banfield wandered uphill to search for Schumacher’s skis, which had disengaged during the slide and disappeared. Left alone with her task, Kadatz chiseled out the opening to lower herself back in.
The passage glowed translucent through the sun-rotted ice. Kadatz noticed that only the immediate entry followed a downward trajectory; the tunnel’s main cavity angled horizontally, deeper into the mountainside, and was roughly the length and width of a casket. Despite the warmth of the sun, Kadatz shivered.
As she prepared herself to descend, Kadatz surveyed the surrounding landscape. I know this place, she reminded herself. She’d hiked here in the summer, switchbacking up through the trees with her brother. And she’d parked in the lot multiple times to go climbing with friends. Kadatz glanced up at the mountain pass to the approximate spot where she’d been swept away. The sun had already erased the snow from the upper section of the bowl, exposing the velvet-brown hue of rock. Her eyes scanned the slope and she understood why the avalanche had deposited her where it did. Her burial site was a slight dip in the moraine–an obvious low point.
She realized she’d been in the same spot once before the burial. One summer day, she and a girlfriend had sat here to enjoy a beer after a successful climbing session, completing two back-to-back routes on the Grand Sentinel spire. The memory steadied her. And reminded her: the last time she was here, as bad as it had been, she hadn’t been alone.
Kadatz took a deep breath and dropped into the hole.
[This story first appeared in Alpinist 66, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 66 for all the goodness!–Ed.]