Surviving the snow

Feb 182008
Authors: Bijah Gibson

It was a pleasant morning when mountaineers Nick Stevens and his younger sister, Lygon Stevens, left their base camp at Lake Como in southern Colorado. Today, the weather was in their favor: A blue sky with a shining sun, and the wind wasn’t whipping the mountainside as it usually did.

“It was brilliant weather, and we decided to go hike,” Nick Stevens said.

Conditions had been less than ideal on the previous days, but there had been no reason to suspect imminent danger that morning. Little did they know that disaster was on the horizon.

Nick Stevens, senior economics major, and Lygon Stevens, a wheat genetics tester at the College of Soil and Crop Sciences, had been camping in the area for four days during the winter break and experienced snow, clouds and low visibility.

Having persevered through this rough patch, they were continuing on, moving toward their final destination, Little Bear Summit, a 14,037-foot peak in the Sangre de Cristo range near Alamosa.

Climbing all of Colorado’s “fourteeners” was a goal for the brother and sister, and they were about to check another peak off the list. Lygon Stevens, 20, had climbed nearly 40 fourteeners while Nick Stevens had climbed 10.

They began their ascent Jan. 10, at 5 a.m. and immediately found themselves in waist-deep snow. It was not until they reached the top of the ridge that the depth of the snow lessened. Before the two reached the summit, Nick Stevens felt the packed snow beneath his feet give way.

It was late in the morning, around 11:30 a.m., when the avalanche erupted. Nick Stevens remembers feeling the sudden slide with painful clarity.

“It was a lot of snow moving really fast,” he said.

He began tumbling down the mountainside with no sense of direction.

“There’s no up – like a big white cloud,” he said.

After falling what he estimates to be between 800 and 1,000 feet, Nick Stevens said he blacked out. The snow had carried him to the edge of a debris field. When he woke, his sister was nowhere to be found. He suffered a punctured lung, three broken ribs, a mild concussion, a gash on the head, a dislocated finger and a knee injury – but he was alive.

Survival instinct kicked in for Nick Stevens.

He began the agonizing hike back to base camp, a journey over a 1,000-foot ridge, which still appeared ripe for an avalanche with deep snow and steep incline. He spent the night in camp and packed up the next morning, leaving supplies for his sister. After two miles of hiking, he was able to use his cell phone to dial 911 and then his parents.

In all, he hiked a total of nearly 10 miles before being rescued.

As Nick Stevens, tall, athletic and with a visible scar on his forehead, recounts the details of his experience, traces of pain can be heard in his voice.

It’s been two months since he last saw his sister.

The Search

Search efforts for Lygon Stevens were led by Alamosa County Undersheriff John Bianca. The search involved the help of 30 people, helicopters, snowmobiles and four-wheelers. After two days, the search was called off.

“It was a diligent effort by our search and rescue crew, but unfortunately it was not successful,” Bianca said.

The decision to end the search was jointly made by the Sheriff’s Office and the Stevens family. The family took into consideration the extreme probability of further avalanches, while acknowledging that the chances of finding Lygon alive had long past.

“Lygon had been lost for over 48 hours,” Nick Stevens said. “It would have been foolish to risk the lives of our friends and the other rescuers who were helping us.”

A Campus of Climbers

At CSU, a large number of students pursue fourteeners and other peaks through the Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP). Rodney Ley, director of the program, said interest in outdoor activities is prevalent among the college-age demographic at CSU.

“Around 30 percent of this college campus is interested in this sort of activities, and about 10 percent actually pursue them seriously,” Ley said.

Climbing was a passion for Nick and Lygon Stevens, and both had grown into being experienced mountaineers.

The two had also heavily incorporated their beliefs into their sport.

Both were members of Climbing for Christ, a Christian ministry with chapters in mountain ranges across the country dedicated to taking people into nature to reveal God.

Nick Stevens is currently employed with Rock Solid Outdoor Ministries, a Christian leadership and wilderness adventure program based in Laramie, Wyo.

“I have been a guide in Wyoming for five summers, leading people on backpacking and climbing trips,” Stevens said.

Surviving the Snow

Earlier this month, the Outdoor Adventure Program sponsored an Avalanche Awareness Clinic at the Student Recreation Center. The clinic educated members of the CSU community about avalanche survival. Avalanches in Colorado have taken the lives of five people so far this winter, including Lygon Stevens.

Ed Crothers, an instructor with the Colorado Mountain School based in Boulder, said avoiding avalanche encounters is essential to surviving mountaineering during the winter months, as long as hikers looked to the warning signs. These signs come in the form of seven “red flags.”

“If any two or three of these are present, you shouldn’t go into avalanche terrain.” Crothers said.

Anyone who plans on heading into avalanche country should carry with him or her what is referred to as the “Holy Trinity of Gear,” Crothers said.

This includes an avalanche transceiver, also known as a beacon, a strong metal shovel, and an avalanche probe pole that is at least 240 centimeters in length.

Each of these tools is essential because if a person survives an avalanche, he or she will have a 90 percent chance of survival if dug out within the first 15 minutes. After 30 minutes, the survival rate drops to 15 percent. Taking these steps can mean the difference between life and death.

For Nick Stevens, a survivor, the avalanche that took his sister has forever changed his life. Lygon Stevens’ body has yet to be found. This year in Colorado has brought large snows and no further search efforts for the missing can be made until a thaw occurs, which, for such high terrain, may not take place for several months, according to a statement by Undersheriff Bianca.

Reflecting on his experience, Nick Stevens encourages climbers to be cautious.

“Assume that it will happen, and you’ll look at it with different eyes,” Nick Stevens said. “If we’d had beacons, I could have found her right away.”

Two memorial services were held for Lygon on Jan. 17. The first was at the family’s church in Loveland, the second at the University of Northern Colorado, which was where Lygon Stevens attended school.

A third service took place Feb. 17 at 11 a.m. at a church in the family’s hometown of Helena, Montana. Now the Stevens family waits. They wait for a thaw — both from the snow and from their grief.

Staff writer Bijah Gibson can be reached at

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