Jason Parker was snowboarding at Palisades Tahoe on Wednesday when an avalanche erupted on the mountain, burying him underneath feet of snow and killing one man.
It was the first day the KT-22 chairlift was open at the ski resort in Olympic Valley, California, and Parker and his fiancée both had a day off, so, despite the low visibility and strong winds, they decided to hit the slopes.
"It was open, and we took advantage of it," Parker, who lives just outside downtown Reno, told NBC News.
When they reached the peak of KT-22, Parker and his partner turned right and had a successful trip down the mountain. They then went back up to do it again, but this time, around 9:25 a.m. local time, they went to the left.
Parker, 52, an experienced skier and snowboarder with 35 years under his belt, headed down the mountain first with his partner trailing. Eventually, he said, he felt some "slough come by me," which was "nothing to worry about."
"Five seconds later, that's when the avalanche hit me," Parker said. "It swept me off my feet, threw me onto my back."
At first it was slow, he said, describing being in a river while the water is "pulling you down." He tried to stay above the avalanche, something he had learned from training, he said, until he approached a gulley he had intended to traverse.
"That’s when it accelerated," he said, recalling how the snow and debris rushed down the steep part of the gulley. He yelled for skiers nearby to "watch me" so they could hopefully find him wherever he ended up.
He was flipped onto his stomach and was heading headfirst down the mountain when, he said, the snowslide started to slow.
"That’s when it just covered me up and there was nothing I could do. It was just, like, entombed me," he said.
Waiting to be found and accepting his fate
Parker made a "split-second decision" to punch a 6-inch air hole in front of his face so he could breathe and yell for help, but he couldn't move his body and couldn't hear anybody around him outside of the snow. While his adrenaline was pumping, Parker said, he told himself to calm down and slow his breathing, because he knew he was losing oxygen trapped beneath the snow.
"You're helpless," he said. "Your only hope is for somebody to find you."
Parker described feeling like he was stuck in a "tub of concrete" under about 4 feet of snow, unable to move or get himself out in any way. He said he felt lucky to be lying flat.
Parker said he started to feel sleepy and "black out" a bit, and he began to believe "this is the way I'm going to go."
He knew he had only "so much time" — 15 minutes — before it was too late. At that point, Parker estimated, he had already been under the snow for seven to nine minutes.
He said he was "in and out" when a probe hit his back and he heard someone say, "Hey, we've got him."
Rescuers dug Parker's head out of the snow, and he was able to breathe well again. When he was finally freed, he hugged one of the rescuers.
Ski patrol, along with more than 100 Palisades Tahoe personnel and members of the public, helped search for people possibly buried in the snow, the resort said.
Aside from Parker, officials said, two others were caught in the snowslide.
Parker came out of the incident with only a slightly injured knee and elected to snowboard down himself to base camp.
He said that while he was trapped, he felt a “calmness” rush over him, “but once that probe hit me, I knew I was going to be OK. And that was, that was incredible. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.”
Lucky to be alive
It wasn't until later, when he got home, that Parker heard somebody had died in the avalanche.
The man was identified as Kenneth Kidd, 66, a resident of Point Reyes and the Truckee-Tahoe area, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said.
Parker said his heart breaks for the man who died and for the larger ski community in the area.
"It weighed on me all last night. I barely got any sleep. ... Going back and forth about how lucky I was and how he wasn’t," Parker said. "It's basically just a miracle ... to not hit anything on the way down in ... an area that has trees, cliffs, not hurt myself too bad and then get buried."
Ski patrol 'did their due diligence'
Parker placed no blame on the Palisades Tahoe ski patrol, who he said "did their due diligence" before opening KT-22 in the weather conditions.
"Everything seemed good" before the avalanche buried him, Parker said.
“It was, it was shocking that this all happened so quickly,” he said. “I’ve been skiing for over 35 years, and I’ve never been close to something like this, and you always kind of think ‘it can’t happen to me,’ and then look, you know, look what happened yesterday.”
Parker credited classes he took that equipped him with basics, and he also thanked the people involved in his rescue.
"I just, I dodged so many bullets, and I got so lucky," he said.
He plans to try KT-22 again once his knee heals. Parker said wants to go back down the trail on a clear day so he can see exactly what happened to him and where he was washed down the mountain.
“I just want to kind of put that puzzle together ... and move on,” he said. “It’ll always be in the back of my head that this happened, but I’m not going to let it deter me from getting back out there in something I love to do.”