Here’s a compelling guest blog from Nick Dillsworth, a Telluride snowboarder who was buried in a slide outside Ophir back in March. He was rescued by his brother Joe, using an avalanche beacon (Ortovox X1) and shovel. Nick was buried for over a half an hour and was able to survive for that long by breathing through his Black Diamond Avalung. He e-mailed BCA about using a Float airbag next season, as he’d prefer to stay on the surface. You’ll find his comments on equipment above the photo and his blow-by-blow description of the incident below:
I know that the most important thing you can do is have the knowledge to avoid these kinds of situations, but avalanches can happen to even the most experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders. When they do, it’s important to have the best gear you can have to help you survive.
I think that airbags are one of the most important tools you can carry with you in the backcountry, especially for snowboarders. A non-realeasable snowboard acts like an anchor in a slide and just wants to suck you straight to an icy grave at the bottom of the debris pile. Having an airbag can help counter the downward force a snowboard will have on your body in an avalanche. I want to be using airbags next season because I want to stay on top if anything like this ever happens again. Sure, the Avalung works great and it kept me alive while I was buried, but it would be nice to avoid the whole burial situation all together.
This photo from the Colorado Avalanche Info Center shows the crown in Waterfall Canyon, where Nick and Joe were involved in their avalanche. The full incident report can be found on the CAIC website.
It was the second day of a two-day storm cycle. My brother and I had skied several runs the first day of the cycle, including the Banker Trees. The second day of the cycle, we headed out of our house early and headed up the Nirvana side of Waterfall Canyon. Our plan was to start with the Banker Trees, then catch the bench near the bottom and get back on the skin track to go ski Nirvana or possibly the Frenchman. When we got to the top of the Banker Trees, we did a beacon check, then Joe dropped first.
Joe skied the Banker Trees all the way down to the bench, then safetied out on the high left side before calling for me to come down. Joe skied in the same tree alley that we had skied the day before. I dropped in with my Avalung in my mouth and cut over to the next tree alley to the skiers left of where my brother had skied. After ski cutting the top of the alleyway, I dropped in. I made about two turns before I realized I had set off a significant surface sluff. I tried to out run the sluff by straightlining the run.. Before I knew it, the whole slope had broken into chunks and was sliding all around me.
At this point my brother heard me yell and realized what was going on. He attempted to climb higher up the bank, but all the snow from the left side of the gully wall broke loose and brought him down into the slide. Meanwhile I was getting strained through a spruce glade by the avalanche and thanking God for my body armor. Finally the slide started to slow down and I came up to the surface. Then the slide rolled over an embankment and started again. This time I could feel myself getting pushed down deep. My snowboard acted like an anchor and Icould feel it just sucking me down. It was at this point when I was really cursing myself for cheaping out by not getting a quick release system for my snowboard or an airbag pack.
When everything settled, I was compacted very tightly in the fetal position with my head stuck between my legs and my left arm jammed under my knee. Everything was dark, quiet and cold. Through the whole process I had managed to keep my Avalung in my mouth and was breathing through it. My gloves were still wet from the day before and my hands immediately started to get cold. I tried to wiggle my fingers to warm them up, but couldn’t move them more than a quarter inch in either direction. It was hard to take a deep breath because of all the pressure on my chest.
I was breathing in short wispy breaths for a while then the snow around my chest started to loosen up a little and I was able to get in bigger and bigger breaths. At first the breathing was very difficult because trying to fight the avalanche had winded me. Then as I regained my breath I started to calm down a lot. I realized that I had the easy job: all I had to do was sit around while my brother had to dig a very deep hole. After a while I started to worry that my beacon may have gotten broken in one of the impacts I had had with a spruce tree on the way down. I kept myself calm by just telling myself that I was being stupid and it had probably only been a few minutes and that it just seemed longer because I didn’t have anything to do and was cold.
Meanwhile, on the surface Joe, had managed only to end up just below the surface of the slide and was able to wiggle his way out of the snow. He called my name a few times, then started a beacon search. He picked up on my signal right away and began a search. After hiking back up to where the signal was strongest, his beacon started to malfunction. It was jumping from 6 meters then back up to 40 meters and back to 6. Joe saw some skiers across the valley and called for help but they were too far away to hear. Then he continued his beacon search and was able to get the beacon down to a reasonable distance and began to probe for me. He hit me on the second probe and began to dig. I felt his probe hit me in the knee and I had never been happier. I felt a slight pressure on the inside of my left knee, then it backed off and gave a couple short pushes.
A few minutes after I felt the probe, I began to think that I was imagining things, seeing as I didn’t hear anyone digging and didn’t realize how deep I was. Several minutes later I heard shoveling and began to yell. Joe still couldn’t hear me but then I felt the shovel hit me in the knee. I wiggled my knee to let Joe know that I was still alive and conscious. At this point, we could hear each other talk if we yelled. Joe yelled down to me, “Where is your head?” I yelled back to him, “Want me to point to it?” Joe was so happy. He knew that if I was feeling good enough to be a smartass, than I probably wasn’t hurt.
Over the next twenty minutes or so Joe cleared my airway of snow so I could breathe without the Avalung–and began to free my limbs one at a time. Once he had me out of my snowboard and pack, I was able to climb out of the hole. Joe laid down exhausted and gave me the shovel and told me to get my snowboard out. After I got my snowboard out I asked Joe where his skis were. He shrugged, saying that he had lost them in the slide.
We called our boss and told him that I was going to be late for work and started the long posthole home, seeing as Joe had no skis. After we got home, we made a “cheers” to life and I left to go to work. After I got done with work at midnight I was delighted to find that my boss had left a 30-pack in my car (I love that man).