Back in 1955, Evert Stenmark was out hunting alone for ptarmigan when he became buried by an avalanche. Day after day he remained trapped under the snow. Learn how he survived and the one thing that he had in his wallet that probably saved his life.
Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: May 9, 2015
On Friday January 21, 1955, twenty-two year old Evert Stenmark left his small farm near Tarnaby, Sweden for a planned two-week hunting trip. He made the twenty mile (32 km) trip on skies and took shelter in a somewhat primitive hut that was built from wood and grass.
Evert was on the hunt for ptarmigan, a medium-sized snow-white game bird that is known as the snow chicken in the United States. He would typically catch 300 to 400 birds each winter to supplement his income. He was able to sell the birds for about 60-cents each, which would be a little over $5.00 a piece today.
The next morning, Evert awoke to a beautiful day. The sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was a sultry 18° Fahrenheit (-8° C). After a hearty breakfast, he set out to collect the birds that he had caught in the snares that he had set out a week prior.
Just as he was placing the fourth bird into his rucksack, he noticed that the snow was quickly piling up on around his legs and that he was gently being slid down the hill. He knew instantly what this meant: Avalanche!
Next thing he knew, he was buried in the snow. He was lying face down with his right ski twisted up under his left leg. The majority of body was pinned tight by the packed snow. Using his chin, he was able to dig away at the snow just enough so that he could turn his head a little bit. But it was no use. He was finding it harder and harder to breath and soon passed out.
Amazingly, he awoke in what he estimated to be six or seven hours later to find that his warm breath had melted an open cavity in the area around his mouth. Luckily, he was warmly dressed for the extreme Arctic cold and knew that he wouldn’t freeze to death, at least not right away.
Evert assessed the situation and used his left hand, which was not pinned in place, to dig toward his right arm, which he was able to free up. This allowed him to dig under stomach and pull out the knife that he had clipped on to his belt. It may not have been the perfect tool, but he was now able to scrape away the snow above his head. To his delight, he saw the dim blue glow of the sky above him, which confirmed that the surface couldn’t be too far away.
Night settled in and Evert fell asleep. He awoke the next morning to find that the heat of his body had melted a small cave that was about 4’ long x 2-1/2’ wide (1.2 x ¾ meter). This presented him with a new problem: the chest of his body was now sopping wet and his teeth were chattering from the cold.
His rucksack was lodged in the roof of packed snow above him, but he was able to slowly chip away at the frozen substrate until it was loose. Evert placed his head and shoulders into the rucksack and soon stopped shivering.
But there was still one big problem: his legs were still immobile. He had insulated his feet so well that his body heat couldn’t escape to melt the snow around them. He worked for hours to try to free them, but it was of absolutely no use. In the contorted position that his legs were in, he was unable to reach his feet to detach the skis.
On his second day beneath the snow, hunger started to set in. He reached for the only food source that he had. Evert had no choice but to eat raw one of the four birds that he had caught.
By the third day, the cave around him had grown larger and the floor of moss and twigs beneath him started to reveal itself. Breakfast consisted of another raw bird, but now with an additional delicacy – leaves.
Once again, he went to work trying to free his legs, but it was clear that it was no use. But he did notice something else. It was the tip of a birch branch. He pulled on it and it turned out to be the top of a tree that had been caught up in the avalanche. He carved it into a stick about two feet (2/3 meter) long. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be much of a find, but when one is buried just a few feet from the surface, it becomes a possible means of reaching out to the world above.
And that’s exactly what he did. With the stick Evert was able to poke a hole through to the surface. A sense of joy and hope suddenly filled his mind. That’s because Evert had previously arranged to meet two of his trapper friends on Sunday at a log cabin about twelve miles (nearly 20 km) away. He knew that if he didn’t show up, they would realize something was wrong and they would come looking for him.
Of course there was one big problem with this plan. He was buried under the snow. Just because he was able to get his stick through to the surface, what would be the chance of anyone seeing it? All they would see was a thin stick pointing upward, which happens all of the time.
Evert needed a way to get his stick to be seen. He needed something colorful. Something bright. Something that would stand out against the stark white background of the snow. He had only one thing that would do the job. In his wallet he had bright red ticket stubs from the Black Cat movie theater in Stockholm. Using one of his wire snares, he tied the stubs to his stick and pushed it up through to the surface.
His thoughts of being saved by his friends seemed to dim quickly. No one found him on Monday. Or Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Well, you got the idea.
It was on the following Friday, six days after the avalanche buried him, that his friends finally skied up to his hut. There they found his gun, ax, and sled, but no Evert anywhere. They yelled for him several times, but there was absolutely no reply. Snowfall wiped out any ski tracks that Evert may have left behind. They did see signs of a small avalanche, but concluded that it wasn’t massive enough to bury a man.
The two men raced back to civilization to get help. Search teams, with the help of a helicopter, spent all day Saturday looking for Evert, but to no avail.
On Sunday, his brother Kjell led a small team to continue the search. He followed Evert’s line of snares, many of which had snow covered ptarmigan in them, but there was still no sign of him.
Frustrated, Kjell decided to sit down beside one of his brother’s snares and have a quick smoke while he awaited word from the others in his search party. That’s when he noticed something bright sticking up from the snow.
At first he thought that it was the remains of a withered plant, but a gut feeling inside told him to go over and check it out. And you already know exactly what he found. Ticket stubs from the Black Cat movie house.
No time was wasted in digging him out. They took Evert back to the hut and warmed him up, but his frozen feet were in severely bad shape.
Eight days buried under the snow led to months in the hospital recovering. Sadly, doctors had to amputate all of the toes on one foot and everything up to the heel on the other. With the use of prosthetics and specially designed shoes, Evert was able to walk again, but hunting for ptarmigan was out of the question.
A book of his experiences, written in Swedish, was published a short time later and sold well. This brought him a moderate amount of fame and many marriage proposals. Evert eventually moved to Stockholm, married, and had three children. But after a few years he grew frustrated of city life and moved back to the country.
Life there wouldn’t prove much better. In 1975 at the age of 43, Evert Stenmark ended his life by setting off a charge of dynamite on his family farm.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.