Reaching for the light, calling on friends, finding new purpose…
by Mark Reaman
Alex Theaker believes in miracles.
“They happen every day,” he tells me more than once from across the table in Rumors Coffee and Tea House on Monday. He should know. The 28-year-old Alex quips he might not really be sitting there, since he still sometimes cannot believe he survived being completely buried last week beneath several feet of snow in a long-sleeved shirt, work pants, a hat and no gloves after he was caught in a roof slide while shoveling a vent at a home in Mt. Crested Butte.
Alex guesses he was buried for about two and a half hours on Friday, March 8. His miracle story begins when he told his wife, Tori, that he would be back in about 20 minutes after clearing some vents at a house in Mt. Crested Butte. It took longer than he expected and he realized the roof could go at any minute, given the circumstances, so he had a plan in his mind on what to do if the roof did shed.
He said he was about two minutes from being done when he heard the roof start to go.
“When it came down I threw my shovel down and ran,” he recalls. “It didn’t land on me since that would have crushed me with all the ice. But it was strong enough to push me from behind. I think I would have been fine except it pushed me right into a walkway with big snow walls. And so in avalanche terms, I got pushed right into a terrain trap. And those big snow walls filled in the pathway that I had just cleared.
“All of a sudden I found myself buried in an avalanche,” he continues. “Immediately I used my instincts and started wiggling. The snow was really heavy. If it had happened in December I might have been able to pop right out of there. But that snow was so wet and heavy, it formed like cement around me. I was kind of on my side and barely had any room to move my legs or anything. I had my phone in my pocket but couldn’t get my hand down to my phone because the snow just had me. Luckily I had both hands up by my head.”
Alex was able to move his hands and arms up by his face and his avalanche training came into play. “Once I knew I wasn’t getting out I started making my big air pocket. I made it as big as I could. I had full movement of my hands by my head so I was able to make a pretty big pocket. And I think being next to the snow wall and how much it was snowing that day, there was fresh powder on that snow wall.”
Reaching for the light
Things didn’t just go dark for Alex as he perhaps expected.
“When I was underneath the snow I saw a crack of light. So I literally reached for the light. It sounds crazy but in a literal sense, that’s what I did. I made two tunnels with my hands because I saw the light and I knew the air was up there. So I tried to make myself a straw, a life straw basically. I think I must have gotten enough air going in there. Once I started digging so much snow that it started coming down in my air pocket, that’s when I stopped digging. I knew at that point I needed to preserve all the air I had.
“I didn’t know how much snow was above me and I wasn’t going to risk pulling it all down to try to get my head out and then literally bury myself. In a backcountry avalanche in the same circumstance, I would have been under the snow and had people looking for me and I’d be waiting for the probe to come hit me, and a shovel to come knock me in the noggin and I would have been happy for that. But that wasn’t the case so I just had to lie there.”
So the young, athletic guy who grew up in Crested Butte knew he was trapped. But he stayed calm and EMTs who eventually helped rescue him said that, along with the air pocket, was key.
“I only remember about ten minutes of it and then I remember waking up in the hospital. And I’m really glad I don’t remember the rest. It’s crazy because it felt so long but it didn’t feel long at all. I was so present in that moment. All that crazy stuff you read about like how you have to ‘Be here now,’ you have to ‘Breathe,’ all that crap—well, it was very true in that moment. It was such a serious moment for me I didn’t have a choice. Once I was there, my next move was unconventional. I immediately tried to kind of channel to Tori. I couldn’t get to my phone so I was trying to communicate with her mentally or through my energy, saying ‘I need help. I need help.’ I knew the only person who could come get me out of that snow was Tori and I knew she would be the one, whether I was alive or not. She was expecting me and I didn’t come back.
“She felt it,” Alex says. “Her part in this is just as amazing. There were so many coincidences—if that’s what they were—it was just a miracle. I did everything I thought I could do to get out of the situation, then I just slowed down. I had Tupac’s Greatest Hits playing in my ear. That was my first CD from first grade. My mom had surprised me with it. It was the censored version, of course, but that was such a big part of my life, so when he was playing in my ear I was like ‘Thank God I chose to play this.’ I love a lot of other music but in certain circumstances you want to hear certain things. For me, that was the perfect thing. ”
Reaching out to friends on the other side
And then Alex called on Crested Butte friends who had left this Earth before him. “As he’s playing in my ear, the first person I thought of was my friend Brad Sethness, who was caught in an avalanche up by Irwin a few years back. He was caught in a terrain trap himself when he was pushed against a tree. He was the first person I thought of. I said ‘Brad, I really need your help right now, man. I need your help real bad.’ The second person that popped in my head was Cheyne Salley. I’ve had this connection with his mom, Monica, before all this happened, where I had been telling her that Cheyne comes to me. I never knew Cheyne on a deep personal level too much. We knew one another but he was younger than me but we had a relationship. He was the second person I called on. He’s always talked about having a ‘soul on fire’ so I reached for that light. I reached for his soul on fire. His light shines bright still. The third person was Tupac.
“I called for help a couple times just in the case the neighbor came out. It was snowing at that point as hard as it did all winter. I could have at that point gone into panic but I didn’t. The angels I called upon laid my head down. And that’s where I just faded out. The rest was bigger than me from there. I passed out in a conventional sense. But I think I was up there dancing with them all at a party. In reality I was under the snow starting to shiver. My core body temp was 86 degrees when they found me. I was pretty cold and shaking but I think I was dancing. I couldn’t get too emotional in the snow because if I did, the worst thought I had under there was Tori and my parents having to find me dead. I know this is a way more traumatic experience for them than it is for me in that sense. My dad was the one who struck my boot with a shovel. I think I owe him a beer.”
But before that moment, Alex wasn’t sure he would make it out of the snow alive. “Sometimes you just have to breathe or just lay it down. It was in that moment that I had made peace with my death. It was really wild because it was a way more peaceful experience than I could ever imagine. I’ve heard stories of ancient warriors who use techniques before going into battle to see how beautiful death really is so they wouldn’t be afraid to die. I feel I experienced that in a sense. I wasn’t ready to go, obviously, otherwise I could have easily gone at any point. If there wasn’t something bigger keeping me here I would have become an angel. I experienced it in the ultimate way. It’s like the biggest trip I’ve ever been on. It was diving into Wonderland. I had Crazy Kenny’s necklace on. His message has always made sense to me. There are so many equations in this to me. When I came to in the hospital, I knew exactly where I was and thought, they got me out of there somehow. Wow. How did they do that?“
Alex referenced various artists throughout his story, such as Tupac and Lily Fangz. “I’ve wanted to do music since I was in first grade and this is one of the messages from this: It’s time to get moving on that. I think the Universe uses music to speak to people or through people. Since this has happened, the Universe has been talking to me through music. Every song I hear has direct correlation to me. It’s the divine. Maybe that’s one reason I need to get my ass moving and make some music. I love that my wife and I started a maintenance company here five years ago and I love how hard we work and where we’ve gotten to. I also think both of us are meant to do more than shovel snow for people our whole lives. For a lot of people that’s a great existence, especially if you want to live the ski bum life. This town needs a lot of shovelers. But I think I’m meant to do more and this was my time. The music was starting to flow before this but now….”
Alex says the Earth and we humans could use some help—some miracles. And a place like Crested Butte, which is different from most places, is a good place where those things can begin. “We need a lot of miracles. I think we can do way better than what we’re doing. A place like Crested Butte creates people like us. It’s like family around here.
“I’m not the biggest fan of hospitals but I think they are necessary and a great thing and the local hospital did an amazing job taking care of me. I’m not always the biggest fan of police either, but they can be your best friend and they can save your life and I feel we have amazing police around here. We have amazing paramedics and firemen and people who really care and do their job above and beyond. A lot of people around here are bigger than the system that tries to contain them. The mountain officer came to my hospital room that night at about 1 a.m. just to check on me. That meant so much to me, especially coming from the police. In the political climate we live in, they always want you to pick a side and you either have to hate the police or love the police. I don’t believe in picking sides. I think we all need to come together as a whole.
Even with all the changes, “we’re still Crested Butte. The roots are still here. The community as a whole has been instrumental in all of this. I’m more thankful than anything for this happening and how it has brought everybody together. We take care of ourselves here. Crested Butte can blaze the trail.”
Back in the saddle
Alex took more than a week off from work. But the snow was piling up and his friends in the business needed his help on Monday. “I got back in the saddle today and was shoveling a roof. I’m not a quitter,” he laughs. “But I brought my beacon and probe to the job today. We had a whole team. That last storm stretched us all thin. It was just a freak accident. Life is fragile. You can always be as safe as you can but there is always a chance for something to happen. That’s the way it is around here.”
The enormity of the incident is not lost on Alex. “It’s way bigger than me. I realize I have to play my part. We need miracles down here on Earth and I experienced one. Luckily I got to dance at the party and now I’m ready to get to making music and throw a celebration of life on Brad’s birthday this year. I want to throw that party to say thanks to the community and as a celebration of life. This town knows how to party, that’s for sure. For a lot of people, it’s harder to get together now than it was back in the day, but that’s just life. This happening to me showed me more than anything I still have faith in this place. Crested Butte is a powerful place. Miracles happen every day.
“Maybe I did die for a couple hours because I was on my way to another land,” he concludes. “But they were telling me ‘Nope, you’re not ready. You forgot the ticket for the party so you gotta go back and remember the ticket next time, you idiot. You can see what it’s all about but you can’t get in. You have to dance from the outside.’ So next time I’ll be sure I have my ticket, but I think that will be a long time. A long time… I’m obviously not meant to go anywhere that easy. I have music to make. I have a message to spread. My message is Love. Tori has always been about love. She’s taught me how to love. Real love is all-encompassing. That’s the message.”
Alex finished his story and we walked out into the Elk Avenue sunshine. He hopped in his truck that had a shovel in the back and went back to the job—or headed off somewhere else to make some music.