In a flash, the world turned white.
Snow covered Nick Gleim’s eyes, blinding him. It filled his ears, deafening him. And it forced its way down his throat and into his lungs, choking him.
Death, he knew, was a few seconds away.
“So I prayed,” he said last week, “and I fought like hell.”
Gleim’s extraordinary struggle for survival last month seems surreal to the 24-year-old Puyallup native and Iraq war veteran.
A friend, Luke Hoffman, and Gleim were enjoying a day of backcountry skiing in Chugach State Park near Eagle River, Alaska, on March 9 when they were caught in a massive avalanche.
The avalanche didn’t give Gleim much of a chance to react. He witnessed the snow beginning to slide several feet downslope from his skis. He screamed, “Avalanche!” before it swallowed him.
The force knocked away his skis, poles and gloves. As long as the avalanche was moving, he knew he had a chance to survive.
“Once it stops,” he said, “it becomes like concrete. After 15 minutes, there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll live. After an hour, it’s a body search.”
Gleim, a staff sergeant and Arabic linguist with the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division at Fort Richardson near Anchorage, didn’t panic once he realized he was in a slide. He credits mountain-survival courses and Army training, which he said forced him to make quick decisions in shifting and dangerous scenarios.
The training also forced him to be realistic. The snow was crushing his body. It was suffocating him. He knew he was likely living his last minutes.
Gleim prayed, and he made swimming motions toward the surface.
After about 45 seconds, his head popped above the snow. The avalanche continued for about another 30 seconds. Shortly before the slide set, snow overwhelmed all but Gleim’s left arm and face.
He dug himself out and took a survey of his location. The avalanche had moved him 2,500 feet. Gleim offered a prayer of thanks and a prayer of hope that Hoffman would survive.
Both were wearing locator beacons, and Gleim switched his setting from transmit to receive. He screamed his friend’s name and searched for him. Hoffman, further up the mountain, was also searching for his friend.
The two met up a few minutes later — Hoffman had managed to escape being swallowed by the snow — and walked to the nearest house, where the couple who lived there served them hot chocolate and snacks. That night, they met friends for some well-deserved pizza and beer.
Gleim hasn’t returned to backcountry skiing, but not because of the avalanche.
“I just haven’t purchased any new gear yet,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to justify, given that my stuff is still under some snow. But I’ll be back.”