ERICA WILSON NEVER SHOULD HAVE MADE IT HOME.

On April 10, 2013, Erica and two friends, Cody and Adam, ventured out on a skiing, climbing and exploration trip through a remote mountain area 100 miles northeast of Vancouver. Daytime temperatures hovered near zero.“We were supposed to be out three nights,” Erica recalled. “On the beginning of the second day I thought the slope looked dangerous. I told Cody and Adam that ‘Maybe we should go a different way.’“Adam thought the conditions seemed OK. He decided to ski out ahead. Unfortunately, he triggered an avalanche.”

The rushing snow vaulted Adam into a tree and snapped a bone in his leg before burying him beneath four feet of snow.

To rescue Adam meant both locating and uncovering him in a mass of white.

Skiers and climbers – especially those who venture into remote or dangerous areas – are encouraged to wear avalanche transceivers. These devices can be set to either send out a location signal or track a signal of an avalanche victim from 150 feet away.

“When beginning a search you look for visual clues on the surface of the snow as well as terrain traps such as trees or sheltered areas behind cliffs where the person may be buried,” Erica said. “Generally the victim will be buried at what we call the ‘runout zone,’ where the slope flattens and the traveling snow has accumulated.”

In most rescue scenarios, avalanche victims will be carried down the mountain beyond the range of the transceiver. Rescuers must work their way down the hill in a zigzag pattern, searching for a signal.

Once a transceiver picks up a signal, rescuers can follow arrows and audio cues on the transceiver to help locate the buried victim. When the victim is located, the rescuer inserts a probe into the snow in a circular pattern until striking the victim. Then the digging begins.

Fortunately, Adam was wearing his transceiver.Avalanche

With practical and classroom instructions still fresh in their minds, Erica and Cody’s rescue instincts quickly took over.

“I made the decision to go out and rescue Adam, while Cody stayed back,” Erica said. Rescue protocol requires that one person stay out of danger in case a second avalanche is triggered.

Erica began her search for Adam. She worked methodically down the slope. “Initially, you just have to hope you are searching in the right direction,” Erica said. “It is very important to search slowly because if you ski past the victim it takes a lot of time and energy to walk back uphill.” She was able to find Adam’s signal approximately 100 yards out and 200 yards down slope from her original position.

“Typically, the digging process takes up the majority of the time in a rescue, and can be very tiring, depending on the depth of the burial,” Erica said. “The wet snow is like concrete. It’s hard to dig, and can take a long time.”

It was only after Erica had located Adam that she remembered her transceiver needed to be changed. With a flip of a switch, her device would now transmit her own location instead of tracking an outside signal. It was one of many decisions that would save her life.

After removing more than four feet of snow, Erica was able to provide Adam with enough open space around his head to take in a few deep breaths. She would still need to carefully remove the snow from around his body while protecting his fractured leg.

Suddenly, the mountain collapsed in front of her.

“I heard Cody yell,” Erica said, “and a wall of snow hit me at 60 miles an hour. I saw it coming, but there was nothing I could do. The second avalanche was about 100 to 150 yards wide.”

The force propelled her far down the slope. Despite being buried in five feet of snow – with her head positioned below her feet – she stayed calm and maneuvered the best she could to find an air pocket. She knew that Cody would find her transceiver signal, but he now had two rescues to execute.

Exploring at an early age

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Erica was never destined for an office cubicle. Instead of a corporate job, her Myers-Briggs personality profile screams exploration. Betsy and Tim Wilson of Rochester discovered their daughter’s predilection for adventure as early as her preschool years.

“When Erica was a baby, in the crawling stage, I set up a stepladder in the hallway of our home to change a smoke detector battery,” Betsy recalled. “I briefly walked into the next room and unwrapped the new battery. When I turned back, there was Erica at the top of the stepladder.”

A few years later, Erica was at it again. “We have a three-story barn,” Betsy said. “Sitting atop the barn are two wooden cupolas with windows that open on all four sides.” Betsy was outside working when something caught her eye on top of the barn.

“Erica was crawling out of one cupola and working her way across the severely slanted roof with one foot on each side of the peak,” Besty said. “The distance between the cupolas was likely 20 to 30 feet.”

Betsy remained quiet, not wanting to startle her daughter. “I held my breath until she reached safety before I yelled at her to never to do that again.”

Needless to say, Erica’s love of climbing is innate. “She is fearless in many aspects of her life,” Betsy said. “As her mother, I just trust that she performs her adventurous activities as safely as possible. Erica is extremely independent and very driven, almost too much so. But she has a good understanding of her limits and is very level-headed.”

It’s not surprising then that Erica likes skiing. Tim put his daughter on skis when she was just three. “She progressed quickly and began taking trips to the western mountains of the United States and Canada multiple times a year,” Betsy said. “Erica even tried ski racing in high school but was quickly bored with the flat and icy Midwest slopes.”

As a high-school graduation present she asked her father to take her helicopter skiing in British Columbia, something Tim had been doing since before Erica was born.

“It was life-changing for her,” Betsy said. “The more helicopter ski trips she took, the clearer it became that Erica was born to live her life in the mountains.”

‘So what? … Next pitch’

Softball vs Gustavus

Erica came to St. Thomas in 2006 and graduated with honors in 2011. Along the way she was immersed in English and environmental studies, but she also thrived playing softball for Coach John Tschida.

Tschida is the only softball coach at any level to win NCAA championships at two different schools (St. Mary’s and St. Thomas). He’s known for his 734 coaching victories and almost as many motivational slogans. One of his favorites is “So what? … Next pitch,” a reminder to focus on the next challenge instead of setbacks.

Erica often took that advice to the diamond. At 5 feet 5 inches, 125 pounds, she was as tenacious as anyone who has donned a Tommie uniform. She played an integral role on multiple MIAC championship squads, and her Tommie teams experienced remarkable success. In 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 (Erica sat out in 2009) the softball team had a combined 166-23 win-loss record that included a 99-1 mark against MIAC opponents. As a junior and senior she batted .420 with 121 hits, 86 runs and 53 steals.

“Erica was relentless in her pursuit of athletic excellence,” Tschida said. “From sprinting through every drill to nearly sprinting back to the front of the line to do it again. Erica was soft-spoken but led very loudly with her actions.”

After graduation, Erica traveled and pursued outdoor adventures. She returned to campus as a volunteer assistant softball coach in 2012, bonding with old and new team members.

In September 2012, she moved to Kamloops, British Columbia, for school, work and adventure. She enrolled in a two-year program to gain certification in rescue response, with an emphasis on developing technical and instructional guiding skills.

“Her love of being in the outdoors and nature, combined with her physical and mental toughness, made her a natural for positions such as a mountaineer or for someone working in the outdoors,” Tschida said.

His advice of “So what? … Next pitch” proved essential for Erica’s survival in the wild.

Into the danger zone

“I was buried for 22 minutes,” Erica said. “After 15 minutes buried under an avalanche, your chances of staying alive drop to about 15 percent.”

She knew that Adam needed to be rescued first – he had a compound fracture, and would be unable to walk.

“I tried to stay calm and control my breathing. It was dark, and I couldn’t move. I began to remember family and friends, and I just had this helpless feeling,” Erica recalled. “But you only have a limited supply of oxygen, and if you panic you make it worse.

“Realistically, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get out in time. Cody did a really great job to save me.”

Sore and dazed after being dug out by Cody, Erica immediately understood the urgency of the situation. Temperatures had plummeted throughout the day. With Adam’s compound fracture and the brutal weather conditions, time and their remote location would work against them.

A long, cold walk to safety

Surviving an avalanche – in any conditions – is harrowing. How could Erica know the biggest challenge was yet to come?

“We were in this remote location and couldn’t reach help,” she said. “We brought a satellite phone with us but it was buried when Adam’s backpack was ripped away, so we lost our method of calling. By this time it was snowing hard, with unfavorable winds. It seemed like a helicopter rescue might be our only option to get Adam to safety.”

Erica – who was described as “relentless,” “a bulldog” and “a fierce competitor” by her softball teammates – volunteered to make the long trek to the nearest road and seek help. “I was still a little dizzy and disoriented from having so little oxygen,” Erica said. “But for the most part, I was lucky.”

Before she left, Erica removed her heavy outer shell – the layer that most protects from the cold and snow – and wrapped it around Adam as he was close to going into shock. Cody would stay back to help care for their friend, but with sleeping bags and supplies buried somewhere on the mountain, there was very little comfort to offer.

Erica faced a long, lonely trip in now sub-zero temperatures, swirling winds and darkness gradually setting in.

“We were 14 miles from my car,” Erica said. “We were at 9,000 feet altitude, so cardio-wise it was plenty challenging. I just started walking.”

 

With a map and compass in hand, Erica had a general idea of where the road was located, but visibility was so limited that she was unable to locate the physical landmarks (peaks, valleys, gullies) she would typically use for navigation. “I put a lot of trust in that compass,” Erica said, “but the compass doesn’t know how to select the easiest route.”

Initially, the terrain was quite open and steep. “I crossed through valleys that were heavily forested, and I followed a frozen creek for a while,” Erica said. “I walked up mountains and down mountains. I searched for ski tracks – any sign that there were humans around.”

During the long, arduous trek – one that would challenge the most fit under ideal circumstances – Erica grappled with immense physical pain and the psychological weight of not only her own survival but also the well-being of her friends.

“I struggled physically, and it was difficult to determine the origin of that pain,” she said. My first injury occurred when I was being avalanched down the mountain. I hit what I think was a rock – I couldn’t see anything, but that’s what it felt like – and heard a couple of ribs crack. It hurt to breathe.

“While I was buried, I had very limited oxygen, and so my body – particularly my brain – wasn’t functioning as it should. Combined with the effects of altitude, overexertion and dehydration, I adopted the mantra ‘mind over matter’ to compensate for my physical setbacks.”

She also was short on food and water. “I had a water bottle in my backpack that I kept thinking about,” Erica said. “We had melted snow in the morning and filled our bottles with hot water, but because of the low temperatures the water froze. I thought about placing the water bottle in my jacket to melt it, but that would lower my core body temperature. So I had a choice: deal with the dehydration or make myself colder. I chose option A.”


View Erica’s Odyssey in a larger map

There was little else but survival to occupy her mind. “My thoughts were focused on trusting in my training – including physical fitness and mental toughness. I saw the situation as an opportunity to conquer a seemingly impossible challenge,” Erica said. “But to say I maintained optimism throughout the entire journey would be untrue.”

Erica needed to find the road and get help before complete darkness set in. “We were very fortunate that the incident happened in April when the daylight hours are significantly longer than December or January,” Erica said.

Even with longer days setting in, the temperature was unrelenting. “I thought a lot about the cold. I’ve always enjoyed physical challenges. I try to notice my body’s reaction to strenuous situations and test my limits to understand them better. It was interesting to monitor my body’s reaction to its steady decrease in temperature.”

Erica’s body temperature dipped to dangerous levels (below 90 degrees, doctors later told her), and falling unconscious was a real possibility. “I recall a fleeting thought: ‘What is it going to feel like to freeze to death?’

“I remember thinking that I love the mountains, and if I die in the mountains, that’s fine because I’m doing something I’m passionate about,” Erica said. “But the lives of two other people were on my shoulders. I was not going to stop walking.”

Physically and emotionally spent, reality began to give way. “I remember feeling really warm and having the urge to take off my hat and jacket, leaving me with just one layer on my upper body,” Erica said. “Of course, I was far from warm. That’s when I knew I was running out of time.”

News reaches home

While Erica was working her way to safety, her parents, brother and a few close friends learned she was missing. Erica, Cody and Adam were late to meet up with another group.

“When Erica and her friends didn’t show up that afternoon, the other party contacted a friend of Erica’s in Kamloops, just to make sure their plans had not changed,” Tim Wilson, a Mayo Clinic physician, recalled. When the school learned that Erica and her friends were still on the mountain, they immediately tried to get ahold of them.

Erica’s friend lived in the same apartment building, and with the help of the landlord they were able to get into Erica’s apartment and find contact information for her brother, Andrew.

“At about 4 p.m. Minnesota time, I finished surgery and got the message to call my son,” Tim said. “He told me that Erica and the others were missing. Not much for me to do, but I went home and told my wife – she would not do well learning that information over the phone.”

“When Tim arrived home,” Betsy recalled, “he instructed me to ‘sit down.’ I knew that whatever news he was about to deliver concerned Erica. He said, ‘Erica is missing.’ My first thought was: Bear attack or avalanche?

“Words cannot express how horrible and helpless that news makes a mother feel. It was especially hard to think that my daughter may have died on April 11, her brother’s birthday.

“Tim and I decided to stay home and wait for more information. If we didn’t hear anything after the midnight hours, we planned to leave Rochester and drive to the Minneapolis airport and take the 5:30 a.m. flight to Vancouver.”

Tschida’s Way

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While trudging through snowdrifts, Erica said she thought about lessons she learned while playing for Tschida. “I credit him for my survival,” she said. “Not only for the physical demands he put us through, but the mental toughness that he preached and that I was able to put into practice during my college career.”

“So what? … Next pitch,” Tschida said while later analyzing Erica’s predicament. “Erica had some horrible things happen, but focusing on these would only distract her from what was important, and that was to preserve energy and create momentum in a positive way to accomplish her goal.

“Athletics is an avenue to connect mind, body and spirit. Our goal is for our student-athletes to master their minds so they may master their bodies. We teach sports psychology, but in reality it’s more life psychology.

“Our sport is explosive with built-in failures that require high levels of focus with intermittent breaks, making it easy to lose proper focus. This requires mental discipline and concentration, and a constant use of self-talk. We need our minds to be an asset instead of a weakness.”

In the final hour of Erica’s search for safety, twilight loomed.

After nine hours of walking, often through three- and four-foot snowdrifts in whiteout conditions, Erica finally reached the road she had been searching for. “I remember being pretty shocked when I first saw the road,” she said. “I was convinced that my mind was just playing tricks on me.”

A car stopped to help. Noticing that Erica was in great distress, the driver was ready to rush her to the nearest hospital, but Erica insisted that a rescue team be called for Adam and Cody.

The authorities debated whether it was safe to send a helicopter into the remote mountain area under such difficult conditions, but Erica was adamant. Without their help, her friends would die. Eventually, they agreed to the aerial rescue.

‘I’m okay’

At 9:15 p.m. Pacific time (11:15 p.m. Central), there was a call to Tim’s cell phone from his daughter. He quickly switched to speakerphone and heard her say, “I’m okay.”

“Her voice was very weak, but recognizable,” Betsy recalled. “She was alive. I didn’t hear another word of the conversation because I was sobbing uncontrollably.”

“Those were the worst seven hours of my life,” Tim added.

“That night, when my cell phone rang and in the display box was the name ‘Erica,’ terror went through my mind. Is it really Erica?” he wondered, “or did they find her phone and someone just hit “Dad” in the address book?”

Unsurvivable

It was sobering for the Wilsons to learn the details of the official scene investigation. The investigative team flew a helicopter into the site and studied the conditions. The final report called the situation “unsurvivable.”

It’s no wonder that the days and weeks that followed the mountain ordeal were difficult for Erica and her parents. She admits she has experienced some survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress.

“I don’t think I understood the magnitude of the situation at the time,” Erica said. “I slowly started to process things when I was taken to the hospital, and later when I saw family and close friends.

“When Adam got to the hospital, his leg was infected and they had to amputate. He won’t ever ski or walk the same again. That’s been pretty traumatic for all of us. There is still a part of me that can’t fully comprehend what happened and probably never will.”

Her rescue instructors told her to take some time off and recover. “At first I didn’t want to see a mountain again,” she said. “After that, I tried to look at it as a learning experience. I knew there was a risk. It’s kind of what you sign up for. You have to take risks if you are passionate about something.”

Her father flew out for a week visit and took her skiing, and Erica returned to Minnesota to be with more family and friends. She even spent a couple of weeks helping Tschida coach the 2013 team and called it “a good distraction; softball has always provided a huge support system.”

Erica returned to British Columbia in September for her final year of school. The Wilsons understand that the outdoors have a magnetic pull on their only daughter.

“I know that pursuing a career as a mountain guide will often put Erica in danger,” Betsy said. “However, this is her passion. My husband and I could not be more proud of her for following her dreams. Although I’ll always worry, I know that she is happiest skiing and climbing her beloved mountains.”

“Skiing and the mountains have meant so much to me,” Erica said. “When I went out skiing again a few days later it was terrifying. But it was the best thing for me. If you fall off your bike, you get back on it.”

As Tschida says: “So what? … Next pitch.”