Rescue on Mount Baker

Snowmobiles, courage, skill, determination and a life-or-death struggle
Stephanie Santeford mountain snowmobiler Mount Baker rescue
In a matter of seconds, snowmobiler Stephanie Santeford went from riding beautiful Mt. Baker in the sun to being trapped at the bottom of a cliff and waterfall. Battered, she knew her life was in the balance.
Delia Cummings photo
The date was June 11, 2011, and it was her first return to Mt. Baker in over a decade.

Stephanie Santeford had been riding snowmobiles since she was 12, and doing boondocking and off-trail riding in the big mountains of the northwest since her early 20s.

However, like many of us who grew up snowmobiling in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, she did not have any true avalanche training. Now we know better, and Stephanie is lucky enough to call avalanche expert Mike Duffy one of her close friends. But up until that June day, safety on the hill was not front and center in her mind. Stephanie had no real training on how to “read” a hill, slope, and the possible dangers that lurk over every drift. That can be a recipe for disaster.

Descent into hell

While coming over a rise, Stephanie’s riding partner, Dave Mills, went over the shoulder of what looked like a snow mound and disappeared over its side. No big deal; we have all seen a rolling hill like this before. Stephanie saw tracks going left and right, but nothing in middle. As she slowly crept the sled up to the top of the hill, she could see Dave off his sled at the bottom telling her to STOP, but it was too late. The little bit of forward momentum she had sent her sled over. Stephanie tried in desperation to jump off the sled backwards, and with literally everything in her she clung to the cornice edge. There was at least a 20-25-foot gap opening just on the other side of the hill that she crested, with a huge black hole crevasse in between.   

“This is it, I’m dead,” she thought. Unfortunately, Stephanie had unknowingly slipped off and into a half-frozen 65-foot-high waterfall! Basically, this was a waterfall cliff into a hellish riverbed that was impossible to see. After a few short seconds of slipping and clawing, Stephanie fell, and her hip clipped the backside of the cliff as she dropped. She was knocked out, and she fell the rest of the way unconscious.
Stephanie Santeford mountain snowmobiler Mount Baker rescue waterfall
Rich Baalman photo
Her free fall ended at the inner belly of this hellhole. Once she finally came to, it was almost pitch black. She was in the crevasse/cavern and started coming to when she felt something that had hit the left side of her body. Immediately scared and holding her breath in anticipation, she thought it was the huge lip of snow above breaking loose and was going to bury her. It wasn’t. Instead, a massive amount of glacier water from the waterfall was slamming her constantly and almost drowning her as she turned her helmet to look up. To make matters worse, the way Stephanie landed suspended her in the fetal position between two massive boulders. She started to panic. Thousands and thousands of gallons of water were hitting her relentlessly, and a shoulder injury prevented her from being able to move enough to escape the deluge. (She would find out later that a dislocated shoulder and hip were among her many injuries.) Stephanie worried, “Am I going to get sucked into the river flowing out if I make the wrong move?” As her heart raced in horror, she said to herself, “I don’t have much time, I am going to freeze to death.”

Stephanie made attempts to move her body and climb out from between the boulders, but the major jolts of pain in her shoulder and back made it impossible. She would learn her injuries included a broken L1 tranverse, rib and multiple massive deep tissue hematomas to go with the dislocated joints. Stephanie’s riding partner, Dave, was still up top, but because they were riding in the warm month of June, nobody had much gear.  

At this point in our interview, Stephanie told me she had pretty much accepted her demise. Then she thought of Aron Ralston, the man who cut off his own arm to get out of a canyon (as portrayed in the movie “127 Hours”), and she knew she had to fight for her life!
Stephanie Santeford mountain snowmobiler Mount Baker rescue helicopter
Rich Baalman photo
Out of the darkness
With sheer will, Stephanie pulled herself out of the boulders and hobbled to where she could see up from the base of the cliff. It was a hopeless sight with no way out. She was soaked and shaking from the freezing glacial water. Dave was digging an access chute to try to get to her, and finally she saw him at the top of the cliff. The waterfall echoed like a jet engine, making it hard to communicate. Dave yelled to Stephanie that she had to climb. That was not easy in her condition, but she climbed up 8-9 feet. A second rescuer, Toby Tortorelli, was now there to help pull her up. Thankfully, several more people were alerted to the situation on the mountain. On snowmobiles, skis and snowshoes, they came and started trying to help.

Luckily, there were skiers and a group of climbers among her rescuers. It was at this point that Steph told me, “Then some guy just belays down to the river floor and back up to me, and I thought, I am saved!”

Three different times Steph says she thought she was dead. But thanks to Leif Whittaker and Brandon Helmstater, skiers from the U.S. Forest Service who worked together to reach her by belaying down, Stephanie began to think there was hope! Both Stephanie and Dave had actually crossed paths with these two guys on the mountain earlier in the day, and now these mountain enthusiasts were risking thousands of pounds of rock face, snow and ice coming loose, and their own lives, to help save her.

Stephanie was not out of the woods yet. She was hypothermic, and still in the crevasse with no proper harness. Several times, the rescuers and Stephanie tried to get to the top, but she would get hung up on the lip of the cliff. Eventually, they lowered her back down and reset their makeshift rope harness. The next attempt was finally a successful one!
Stephanie Santeford mountain snowmobiler Mount Baker rescue
Rich Baalman photo
When Stephanie got to the top, she was blue and cold to the touch. Rescuers laid their bodies on hers to get her warm. Brandy Floyd (now a sponsored rider for FXR Racing) was at the scene and the only face Steph recognized. Brandy instructed people to take seats off of snowmobiles so Stephanie wasn’t lying directly on the snow. Others boiled bottles of water to lay next to her to help her warm up. Once Stephanie finally started warming up, she began dry heaving from the excruciating pain she felt as numbness around her injuries finally wore off. She remembers people screaming in her face while there on the snow to help keep her conscious.

Ufortunately, the USCG helicopter sent to evac Stephanie couldn’t land due to heavy downdrafts, so they hauled her up in a swimmer basket, which bounced around for 150+ feet on its way up.

Stephanie was taken to Bellingham hospital in Washington. In the frantic emergency room, as her clothes were being cut off and she was still suffering from hypothermia, she was happy to have chosen to fight for life. Her injuries and recovery lasted for many months.

Looking forward, not back

Stephanie now says she is not just a better rider, but smarter too. She has conquered her fears of getting back on the snow and rides regularly again. She has also learned much more about safety, survival and avalanche skills. She equates a lot of her success to a strong subconscious and a will to “get back on the horse.”

“Everyone needs to get away from the traffic and noise and overstimulation of the city and life. Being one with nature, that is what is important to me,” said Stephanie.

Getting back to riding was tough, but Stephanie had some good riders and friends who helped her acquire more knowledge, skills, techniques and awareness. She is proud to say that she can load up her sled and head out to the mountains all by herself now, and she’s doing some snowmobile teaching of her own as well.

“It’s the best feeling to be able to pay it forward and help others learn,” said Stephanie. “I am incredibly grateful and thankful.”

Stephanie is also grateful that everyone came together on the hill that day to save her life. Snowmobilers, skiers, EMTs, forest rangers, hikers and many others made a life-changing difference.
Cote Wilder photo
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