Survivor story: James Orlet |

Survivor story: James Orlet

Ryan Slabuagh

Both times James Orlet was caught in avalanches, he knew something was wrong long before the mountain came tumbling down. The first time, he started the day by digging a snow pit on Bear Mountain, near Montezuma in Summit County, and saw the instability. Still, he tried it and triggered a slide on his first turn. Luckily, he ended up riding his snowboard safely across the slide path.

On hiking back to the top, his friend said: “I could have lived my whole life without seeing that.”

The second time, he and a friend had paused to eat sandwiches on a ledge in the Tenmile Range while ice climbing. It was to be their last actions before cutting the trip short. The wind had picked up and they realized they were sitting in an area prone for slides. Then, the wall of snow hit him, pushed him down three ledges, wrapped him 90 degrees around a corner and broke his ankle.

“I never saw it,” he said. “My friend had yelled right before it hit me from behind. The first thing that came to my mind, funny enough, was, ‘Oh, my sandwich.'”

He had taken his backpack and tools off before eating the sandwich, something he will never do again. Wounded and without his first aid kit, he had no choice but to limp down the cliff face, across a large field and down to a road.

“It bent my crampon so much, I couldn’t bend it back with a sledgehammer,” Orlet said. “I’ve never been a tenth that tired before by the time I got down.”

While he waited on top of the slide, he watched another slide just miss him. His friend climbed down and helped him reach safety.

Last Christmas, his wife gave him a Black Diamond AvaLung, a piece of equipment designed to help people breathe while buried.

Orlet, a Class 3 certified avalanche specialist, has read the names of avalanche classmates in the obituaries after being caught in a slide. As a 29-year-old expert skier and ice climber, he fits into the prototype of those most involved with avalanches. Like “One A Day” Ray, a legendary backcountry skier in Jackson, Wyo., he understands the dangers. Ray, though, died earlier this winter in an avalanche.

Orlet carries an inclinometer, a beacon, a shovel, a cornice rope and a pack with medical supplies. He digs pits several times a year. He’s walked away from planned ski routes several times. He keeps a journal of every ascent or descent, including snow conditions, wind levels and temperatures. He has a scrapbook full of avalanche education material.

But he says that the two avalanches that caught him were the most educational experiences he’s had, something safety experts would frown upon. He learned that swimming out a slide does work and that having an escape route planned saved his life.

“(After being caught in the first avalanche), I went back to ski on Vail Pass and it was on a part I’d never seen slide,” he said. “I kept asking my friend to talk me through it. To keep giving me one reason why it isn’t going to slide.”

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