Thanks so much to Vlad for sharing his story. These stories need to be told -
As told by Vlad -
Jackie and I woke up early on Saturday, January 5th, trying to beat the Wasatch traffic rat-race on a weekend. We were both excited to go skiing. She just started a new clinical rotation, and I just moved to the Salt Lake City UDOT office for my job. We needed to go in the mountains and recharge as we often do. We walked the dog, ate some breakfast, and organized our gear for the day. Checking the avalanche forecast we saw the 2nd day in a row with green on the rose compass on all elevations -- time to check out a new spot. We left the house around 7:30 am, and headed towards Big Cottonwood Canyon with a few options to choose from. The next day, to our surprise, we learned that most of the other spots we considered going also avalanched.
We decided to check out Broads Fork, to go up towards Dromedary Peak as high up as we felt comfortable. Jackie expressed some concerns regarding the travel plan, identifying terrain traps and knowing that the area is a big rock slab in the summer. But it was the 2nd green day in a row, there weren’t any avalanches the day before, it’s probably fine.
At the trailhead we ran into one of our friends, Julia. She was skiing with David, her partner, and their friend Cal. Their plan was to checkout Bonkers and the Diving Board. We told them our plan, and we started up the trail, ahead of them. We made good time up to the flats and beaver pond area, not stopping much along the way. Here the skin track lead up to Bonkers, where tracks were still visible from the day before. We continued making our way up the drainage, breaking trail from this point on.
I was well behind Jackie, as I’m usually slower than her both on the up and the down, when she stopped at the base of a steeper slope, below a cool looking ice flow. Checking the map we recognize this as the Blue Ice ski run. I took over the lead, telling her my intended route up the slope in front of us. I wanted to go high, towards a rock band, because the slope wasn’t as steep up there. Jackie didn’t like my plan. She told me to stay farther away from the rock band. The slope did not look very steep. We estimated around 29 to 30 degrees and we verified this with the Wasatch Backcountry Skiing map which has slope angle shadings integrated in it. We did not pull out our slope meter to take an actual measurement. The slope also looked and felt wind scoured. We could see snow transport next to the cliff band. There were spin drifts coming from the top of the cliff getting deposited at the bottom, however, at that time it looked very light, and we didn’t spend any time discussing that yellow flag, the green light flashing in our minds.
I made my way up this slope, making a few kick turns along the way. The snow under my skis remained the same. It felt wind scoured, so I’m not sure when I started moving on the wind slab. I stopped briefly to catch my breath and look at the view. I was about 10 to 20 feet away from finishing the traverse, and as I took one more step the slab broke. It moved very slowly at first. So slow that I thought it would stop, unfortunately that was not the case. I started picking up speed as I went over a small rollover. A small tree went by, I tried to grab it but it was too far away. I was not in control in any way, shape, or form. I put my avalung snorkel in my mouth and it became instantly harder to breath. I was hyperventilating, on top of being out of breath after climbing the slope. I saw Jackie out the corner of my eye. She was so far away from me that I was certain she will not be caught in the slide, and I remember feeling a sense of relief, knowing that she has the gear and the knowledge to dig me out once I come to a stop.
The next few seconds zipped by just like the avalanche I just triggered. I remember hitting my knee on something hard. It hurt, and I realized that the snow was pulling me down. I started fighting, swimming, and trying to stand up on my skis. I came to a stop around 300 feet below where I just was. I was buried to my chest in what felt like concrete. I was relieved I was on top. I was facing uphill, and could see most of the slide path. I was expecting Jackie’s head to pop up above the rollover. I started yelling after her, but heard no response. My sense of relief quickly dissipated to panic -- Jackie is probably buried somewhere.
I frantically started to dig myself out, and quickly realized that I wasn’t making much progress. I took my backpack off and got my shovel out. It was much more efficient. I also managed to calm myself down, taking in the gravity of the situation. It took a good 5 minutes or so to dig myself out with the shovel. I was mostly free, except for my right leg which felt like it was frozen in place. I was able to move my knee, and my ankle, so what was going on? I realized my ski was probably still attached. Using the shovel, I started jabbing the blade towards the front of my toes, trying blindly to unlock my binding. After a half dozen hits, I was finally out.
I looked at my phone -- no reception. Turned my beacon to search -- no signal. Took a few deep breaths. Grabbed my pack, my shovel, and one ski pole and started up hill, listening to my beacon, and looking for clues About half way up the slide path I heard what I was listening for -- the first beep. My beacon finally connected to Jackie’s signal. I don’t remember the number on it, but it was high. However, the arrow still pointed up hill, and as I continued to move that way, the numbers were getting smaller. I saw her ski poking out of the snow. It was next to 2 small trees. As I got closer I also noticed a boot attached to that ski. That was the only visible part of my partner. I quickly got to where I thought her head should be and started digging. It looked like she was pinned down under a really big chunk of hard slab that did not break apart.
It was hard to dig, but not in the way I was used to. I practiced a few times digging snow plow debris, and that was hard, physical labor. I wanted to go fast, but at the same time I didn’t want to cause additional injury with my shovel. I was afraid about what I was going to find under the snow. Most avalanche victims die from trauma. I was afraid her back or legs might be broken. If a person survives the trauma, their chances of being alive after being buried for 20 minutes drops by 40%. I was afraid Jackie wouldn’t be breathing. I knew I had to get to her airway as soon as possible so I just focused on fast and accurate digging. Knowing that I might have to start CPR once I get to her I was trying to mentally prepare for that. Fast and deep chest compression. Staying Alive by The Bee Gees. Pinch the nose, head tilt chin lift, rescue breathing, not too forceful.
I reached the top of her pack in a few seconds, her hood, some hair, and finally her face. Seeing Jackie breathing was such a relief that I cannot put into words. She was unconscious, but at least she was breathing. I continued to dig the rest of her out, and she came to just about as I was finishing. From the time I cleared her airway to when she opened her eyes was probably 10-15 minutes. As she came to, she started moaning, then screaming. Jackie was tracking me with her eyes, but she was noncommunicative. Her screams slowly transformed to yelling HELP.
“Jackie, I’m right here” I told her. She had a wild, fierce look in her eyes that I’ve never seen before. The look of someone fighting for their life. That look scared me. “Are you OK?” I asked. She didn’t respond so I tried again “Tell me what hurts.”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you move your feet, wiggle your toes?”
I saw that she could also mover her arm, and her upper body. She was trying to sit up, so I asked her if she wants to try and sit up. She shook her head yes. I moved behind her head and put my arms under her armpits. I tried to lift her up, but realized that her left hand was stuck in the snow, under her body. With a bit of shovel work our 2nd attempt to sit up was a success. I performed a quick assessment. Moved my hands up and down her spine, hands, and legs. Nothing seemed broken. I got my puff jacket out of my pack and helped Jackie put it on. During the quick assessment I found Jackie’s phone in her pant pocket. We have different providers, I was hoping her phone has reception.
Last season, the Search and Rescue team in Salt Lake County got a callout from this area. A hiker slipped on ice and fell about 100 feet. He was alone, not wearing a helmet. He was in and out of consciousness, but managed to find his phone, and dial 911. The helicopter picked him up in the last daylight minutes of the day. A technique that they are not allowed to do at night. He survived only because he made it to the hospital that evening. I was hoping we will be just as lucky as he was.
No reception on Jackie’s phone either so we started to self-evacuate. This is going to be hard, I thought to myself. I was trying to gather as much of our gear as I could, and at the same time trying to keep Jackie at bay. She was disoriented and hypothermic. She started walking downhill by herself, stumbling through the slide path. I chased after her and found a nook formed by some small trees and another big chunk of hard slab - a corral. It would be hard for Jackie to escape and wonder off, plus it provided some shelter from the wind. It was close to the burial location, so I could keep my eyes on her while I gathered our gear. I packed my shovel back in my backpack, went through Jackie's pack and grabbed all the layers I could find. I strapped Jackie’s skis to my pack and returned to Jackie’s corral. I left Jackie’s backpack there, her poles were broken. Between both of us we had one ski pole, and Jackie skis which were broken but we didn’t know this at that time. I told Jackie we can start hiking down now. She didn’t want to move, complaining that she was too cold. I threw another layer on her, it was hard to dress her because she was shivering violently. I put mittens on top of her light weight gloves and a hat on her head. Gave her some food and I convinced her to start moving.
I knew Julia and her partners were close, so I was hoping they will hear our cries for help. The going was hard but as we moved more Jackie became more responsive. She was still shivering uncontrollably, and keeping her focused on moving took all of my attention. She was very vehement about skiing out, but I had some reservations about that. Walking became increasingly harder once the snow got softer, so I helped her clip in and she started skiing down. To my surprise she was moving better on skis then walking so I let her ski while I postholed after her.
Not long after this our friends, who had heard that something was wrong, arrived and helped us self-rescue. Cal gave me his puff jacket since mine was on Jackie, and Julia helped Jackie into a 3rd jacket. The plan was to get Jackie to the ER asap. Julia started skiing down with her while David and Cal went back to the slide to see if they could recuperate any gear left behind. I tried to follow them back to the slide, but postholing up hill was very slow, and my knee was bleeding and starting to hurt. I decided to take a break. I sat down on my pack, I was alone with my thoughts, and for the first time since the slide I didn’t have to be strong. I started crying.
I postholed my way towards the beaver pond. I knew after that the trail was hard packed from all the hikers coming up on the summer trail. I met up with David and Cal and 2 hikers. They managed to get Jackie pack, and her helmet, which was crushed. I grabbed some water from her pack and the small first aid kit and finally managed to stop the bleeding from my knee. They started skiing down after Jackie and Julia just in case they needed help, while I walked down with the two hikers. They talked to me while we walked, and I briefly descried the accident to them. About half way down we discovered that both of them knew my friend Kelly, and one of my former co-workers. Small Lake City, as we call it.
It was hard being away from Jackie. I had no updates on her condition and I was worried about her. During my hike down, I asked everyone I encountered if they saw 2 girls skiing down.
Jackie and Julia ended up walking when the trail got too steep and tight to ski. Jackie could tell something was wrong with her skis. I was only about 2 minutes behind them as I reached the car. Julia gave me the update: Jackie was throwing up. We estimated the slide happened around 10 am, and we got back to the trail head at the S-Curves at 4 pm. I embraced Jackie and both of us started crying in unison. We were finally off the mountain and together again.
We drove to Intermountain Health Care -- the Death Star. We walked to the check in desk while the receptions was typing away feverishly at her keyboard. A few moments went by and she finally looked up and asked how she can help us. Unsure of what exactly I needed to say, Jackie started talking first. “I have a headache, I’m cold, and I don’t feel very well”. The receptions looked very confused. Clearly those symptoms didn’t merit a trip to the ER. I chimed in, trying to explain our situation. “She was buried in an avalanche, she was unconscious for 30 minutes!” The receptionists jaw almost hit her keyboard. She was speechless and took a few moments to compose herself. Her coworkers jumped in and proposed that Jackie be admitted right away.
The trauma bay was filled with people frantically moving in disorganized coordination. I waited outside and briefly talked to a social worker. Some doctors came out to ask me details about the accident, some just wanted to pat my shoulder and tell me I did a good job. At that time I didn’t think that was the case. I triggered a massive slide that buried both of us, the opposite of a good job. Jackie got rolled to the CT scan machine, so I was left alone in the trauma bay. With nothing left to do, I decided to submit an avalanche report on the UAC mobile app, hoping that someone might read it and could help them prevent the same mistakes we made that day. I called her parents and had a short conversation with them. Told them we are ok, and gave them a brief recap of our accident. They asked us to check in once we got some rest.
When all the tests were cleared Jackie got moved upstairs. She had a bruised chest wall, a bruised eye, and a mild brain injury from lack of oxygen. Her childhood best friend and her husband happen to live in Salt Lake City, so they came to the hospital with chocolates and Vietnamese sandwiches. Since breakfast I only ate half of a chicken and pesto sandwich. Jackie even less than me. After warming up, and eating a bunch of food, she was feeling much better, and was scheming ways of getting home that night. She convinced the doctor assigned to her case that sleeping at home will be better for her brain injury. He explained the risks, and told me to wake her up at least once and make sure the symptoms don’t get worse. We got home around 11 pm that evening.
I waited for our roommate to get home, while Jackie fell asleep snuggling with our dog, Cole. I didn’t want to leave Jackie alone, but I needed to go to the U of U hospital to get my knee checked out. My insurance doesn’t cover Intermountain, so I didn’t want to be seen by a doctor there. After 2 X-rays they told me nothing is broken so they sent me home.
The support we received that day, and the next few weeks was incredible. We are really lucky to have such wonderful friends, and we even made new ones. Some of them visited us the next day after our accident. They brought us pizza and beer, gave us hugs, and told us to reach out if we need anything. Drew Hardesty asked if we would be willing to meet with him. We agreed, of course. He would help us make sense of what happened, and how to proceed. He told us he blew the forecast, we told him we blew our route selection and decision making.
The days following our incident were a roller-coaster of emotions. We were so grateful to walk away from such a serious avalanche. It feels like a miracle both of us are alive. We also felt ashamed of our poor decision making, and started wondering if skiing is worth losing your life over -- of course it's not. Being outside in new, wild places, and exploring mountains in the winter is a large part of our lives. It motivates and defines our choices. Like Drew said: 'If we hang up our skies and take up the couch we're already dead'. Things will certainly be different from now on. We'll need to make more intentional decisions, look for clues to turn around or change plans instead of clues that support our current trajectory. Stop and discuss yellow flags more thoroughly, and not rush through decisions. Our brains work best when our heart rates are low, bellies full, and our bodies warm. The crux will be remembering all this in 5, 10, 20 years from now. We want to retire and still be able to go touring.
Even as a professional powder junkie I am usually a little rusty getting out of the gates. I am fortunate in the fact that I get to ski in the backcountry more than most people every year, but before things get started I like to sit down and organize my thoughts and gear for the upcoming season. The following is a brief avalanche safety refresher to help keep you and your crew safe in the backcountry.
GO THROUGH YOUR AVALANCHE EQUIPMENT STRAIGHT AWAY.• New batteries for your Avalanche Beacon are a must.
Check online to see if your manufacturer has any recalls or updates for your beacon.
• Inspect your avalanche probe and shovel.
Look for frayed cables in between sections of the probe. Make sure the locking mechanism works easily and does not have unusual wear or corrosion. Give your probe a few practice deployments. It should lock together easily without fussing and should feel sturdy once assembled. Old and poorly built probes should be tossed in the garbage. Make sure you shovel assembles easily and look for stressed metal in the handle and blade. Cracking of the paint or unusual flexing means you need to replace the shovel.
• If you use an airbag backpack, do a practice deployment before starting the season.
I have seen many people carry airbag packs around that would not deploy if needed. Look for unusual wearing of cables and hoses and check manufacturer specifications for tolerances and advice on keeping your airbag pack up to snuff.
PRACTICE AVALANCHE SAFETY COMPANION RESCUE!• Be the person amongst your peers that initiates a practice session for companion rescue.
Once the skiing and riding gets good, it is hard to get your buds to stop and practice their companion rescue skills, so do it early and often preseason.
• Make sure your partners and loved ones have modern three-antenna beacons.
Beacons all put out similar signals, but modern technology in beacons allows for simpler, faster and more accurate searching. A good beacon and operator that has practiced will make a big difference in an emergency situation. Don’t use outdated analog or two antenna beacons for your friends that visit or a buddy starting to learn. Old beacons should be used for burying and practicing to find and that is it! At the end of the day, the fancy beacon we carry around is actually to be a better partner, aiding you to find your partners quicker. If your partners do not have modern beacons and know how to use them, you best speak up or choose different partners.
KNOW THE SNOW.• Check your local avalanche forecast on a regular basis.
Your local forecasters will outline the specific problems that are seeing in the region. They are collecting data from multiple sources to compile life-saving information. Heed their warning and make the avalanche forecast part of your group’s avalanche safety discussion before ever leaving the trailhead.
• Follow your local snowpack from the first time it snows.
A notebook can be a great way to track the season’s snowpack. Often times people may live in an area without an Avalanche Center and Forecasters. The only way to know what is going on in those regions is to document what you are seeing and share that info amongst your peer group in the region.
• Track persistent weak layers and how they are trending throughout the season.
• Always follow recent snowfall, wind and temperature trends.
This will allow you to simplify some of your decisions in the backcountry. Lots of new snow and wind equals dangerous backcountry travel, it is just that simple.
• Simplify the decision making process.
If you head out for the day and the avalanche safety forecast is considerable or higher, you need to stay out of avalanche terrain. People thread the needle all the time and get away with it, but if you want to come home every day and feel good about your decision making, keep your slope angles under 30 degrees on considerable and higher avalanche hazard days. Know what is above you, if the low angle slope you are on is attached to steeper terrain above, you ARE in avalanche terrain.
• Don’t be too proud or insecure to speak up.
Everyone’s concerns and thoughts in a group should be considered equal and taken to heart. Even as a guide, I tell my clients that if they are concerned about safety, they should feel comfortable asking me why what we are doing is safe. If I cannot give them a clear and concise answer as to why it is safe to be doing what we are doing immediately, there is a problem. Ask the pertinent questions and make decision making a group process.
• DO NOT IGNORE RED FLAGS
Red flags are simple clues that are usually in your face and obvious. Ignoring these signs almost always leads to trouble.
Talk about the avalanche and weather conditions and plan your day accordingly. Do yourself a favor and discuss and decide on what objectives are suitable for today’s weather and avalanche safety forecast and do not deviate. You should always feel comfortable abandoning your objective for the day because conditions are not as you had hoped, but NEVER talk yourself into skiing/riding in terrain that you had deemed unacceptable at the beginning of the day.
• Have a contingency plan if something goes wrong that day.
Let people know where you are going and what time they should expect to hear from you. Someone in the group should be carrying a first aid kit, shelter/tarp, repair kit, and an emergency communication device. Work together and split the gear up to lessen everybody’s load for the day.
• Know the terrain you are traveling through.
Study a map and/or a guide book before heading out. Avalanches can be triggered remotely from below. It is important to be aware of the terrain you are traveling under, especially in low visibility conditions when you are traveling in areas you are unfamiliar with.
• Set meeting points along the route
These are points along your route where everybody in the group needs to stop, talk and regroup. There are always different fitness levels within a group and some days people might not feel 100%. There is always that one agro friend who has to work some stuff out sprinting out ahead of the group. If you set meeting points, it will allow you to discuss how people are feeling, if they have witnessed any instabilities in the snowpack or if someone is having a gear malfunction. A great way to establish these meeting points is to say that you are going to dig a snow pit at them and perform stability tests. This forces the group to have a discussion and gives the person ahead of the group something to do while they are waiting for their crew.
• Travel one at a time when crossing avalanche terrain.
Make sure to always keep an eye on the last person in the group as they cross avalanche terrain, as they often get forgotten!
• Practice safe downhill riding protocol.
Establish safe stopping points along the descent where you and your partners can see each other and stay in verbal communication during the descent. Ski one at a time and always keep eyes on your partners.
WHEN IT’S GOOD IT’S GOOD!On the days when it is good and safe in the mountains, you go in with a solid game plan. You feel good about everything you see. There are no red flags. You are not questioning nuances of the snowpack over and over. You stick with your avalanche safety plan and it is a glorious day. The days when you are questioning the snow, the weather, your route choices and trying to convince yourself it is safe, are the days when accidents happen. Stick with your plan and make conservative decisions. Once you start trying to convince yourself or your partners that it is okay, your day is headed in the wrong direction. When it’s good, it’s good and when you look back on those days, it brings a big smile to your face.
When you head into the backcountry, sidecountry, or even into the high-gnar zones at some resorts, an avalanche beacon is mandatory equipment. Practice using it and get good. Make sure your friends are proficient too. They’re the ones that are going to save your butt when you get buried. Turn it on at the car, and off at the bar.
The two most popular places that people carry beacons are in the manufacturer supplied chest harness and in the pants pocket. Is one better than the other? More importantly, is one safer than the other? Does it really matter bro? Let’s have a look.
Wearing the beacon in the chest harness is the preferred location for most people that I see. It’s secure, warm, protected, and in a place that doesn’t have a lot else going on. It’s how I carry my beacon, but it has its problems.
The beacon harness can make layering a pain. Ideally, your beacon is always under one of your outer most layers so you don’t have to dig for it in an emergency. Of course, who doesn’t add or remove layers on a long day in the mountains? At some point your beacon is going to get buried by clothing, exposed, or constantly being taken on and off, none of which are ideal. The harness shoulder strap also chafes my neck and my backpack straps resting on top of the harness are a source of discomfort.
A big problem I have is not putting my beacon back into the harness after I’ve completed my search. When every second counts, it’s too easy just to drop the beacon and get out the probe/shovel. Now it’s dangling out the bottom of my coat, in the snow, and in the way. I’ve temporarily stashed it in my pants pocket quite a few times while practicing.
That’s the huge plus for carrying your beacon in your pants – it’s always right there, one zipper away, easy in, easy out. There’s no harness to mess with, no worrying about layering, and in the case of a real-life rescue, it’s the fastest location to access when the time is critical. The pants pocket also might keep your beacon further away from other electronics, like your phone or radio, depending on how you carry those. Just make sure to properly secure your beacon to your pants with cord or lanyard.
The downsides? Arguably your beacon is now in a more exposed location to get damaged, wet, or potentially torn off your body (sewn-on pockets getting torn off actually does happen). Make sure your pocket is internal, not sewn or welded to the outside. Some have also noted that when your beacon permanently lives in your pants, it can be too easy to not to turn it on and off, or even forget it at home. That’s not good. For me, I just don’t like the extra weight bouncing around on my leg.
The best argument I’ve heard for harness over pants is that the harness keeps the beacon closer to your airway. An IFMGA guide once asked me, “Do you want someone digging for your thigh or for your chest?” It would depend highly on burial position, but could be a big deal for a tall guy like myself. I don’t know if there’s any hard science to back that up, but it at least makes some practical sense.
In the end, the beacon is a tool and you need to be comfortable using it. Both locations have their issues and advantages, pick one you like and go with it. I’ve met plenty of ski guides who will argue for either side. Backpacks have been known to come off in avalanches, sometimes taking jackets with them, so neither one of those is a recommended location for your beacon.
With the northern hemisphere winter right around the corner, now is a good time to get out all your backcountry equipment, change batteries and make sure everything is in working order.