A Firefighter’s Account of Surviving an Avalanche the Tahoe Backcountry

Caption: BEFORE the avalanche: Video footage of snowbiking in, skiing and splitboarding into Tahoe backcountry, “our confidence was unjustified.”

We hope no one ever has to experience an avalanche burial. But this story is a tribute to how a group of prepared and educated backcountry riders equipped with backcountry radios and avalanche safety gear can affect a successful avalanche rescue. Read firefighter William Brown’s incredible account of surviving an avalanche in the Tahoe backcountry. #sendandreturn.
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By William Brown

Two friends and I were in a backcountry area just north of Truckee in the Tahoe area near Independence Lake. It had snowed a couple of feet the past 48 hours and the day’s forecast called for blue sky. We’d read the daily avalanche report and had been on that run many times before. Our confidence was unjustified.

The run is east and then south facing. It starts just below treeline at about 8,600’ and goes down to a pristine alpine lake at about 7,200’. One friend was on skis, the other rode a splitboard. The snowboarder went first to the left. After he radioed that he was in a safe spot, the next skier went about 200’ to his right and then to the same safe spot. I was the third and final skier. I skied moderately in between my friends’ tracks avoiding any drops or hard turns. I knew where my safe zones were. I had just filmed my friends with a drone and so I had a very good idea of how the slope looked below me. About 5 turns onto the face of the run, I skied light and flat over a roller.

Everything seemed normal until suddenly the whole slope fractured. Cracks shot out everywhere through the snow. The pieces of the fractured slab were huge and deep. We’d later measure the crown at about 3 feet. I tried to ski fast and out to the side, but I never had a chance. The slope didn’t just break below me, it broke far above me too. The calm and quiet surface had liquefied into a storm swollen river pouring down the mountain.

Skiing turned into sinking. I pulled the trigger on my BCA Float as everything went dark. I heard the bag inflate while I was sucked down. My poles were gone. My body folded and twisted in the current. I kicked off one ski but I couldn’t break free from the other. I could feel the weight of the attached ski dragging me down while the airbag pulled me up. My leg felt stretched to the point I thought my knee would be torn apart.

I thought of my two sons and how I had abandoned them, how I had broken a promise to my wife to always come home alive and how my friend would have to tell my family what had happened. I was consumed with guilt. Or maybe this wasn’t even real? Then my left side smacked hard against a rock. It was Life telling me to stop wasting time and start working the problem.

I learned from two seasons on ski patrol that most people caught in an avalanche die from asphyxiation, not trauma, and that an efficient beacon search would allow rescuers to find victims quickly. I’d just need to stay alive long enough to get dug out. I was wearing a helmet and an inflated airbag backpack so immediate death by trauma was unlikely. Injury, however, was probable. I remembered a Powerpoint image from an avalanche class of a person fatally caught died with his mouth packed with snow and ice. I was wearing a neck gaiter around my neck and over the mouth and I tried to keep my mouth almost closed while I was breathing to keep snow from filling my airway. Immediate choking wouldn’t kill me.

As a firefighter, I have learned to stay calm in stressful situations by breaking down chaotic emergencies into small problems I can solve. What can I affect? What is out of my control? What are the priorities? It has also taught me how to perform efficiently in extreme environments with zero visibility. Manning a hose line in a burning room or searching for victims in a smoked outbuilding translated well into working through a problem inside an avalanche. 

A friend gave me a book called “Deep Survival” about people who have survived situations that many would not. One chapter was about a wilderness survival instructor. He taught that maintaining a “positive mental attitude” was just as important as bushcraft knowledge. I had also read that term in books involving our military. Soldiers faced with impossible situations had to believe there was hope. If you stay positive, you can keep working. Negativity kills productivity. I tried to focus on being positive. I was still conscious and able to focus on the problem, I had on a helmet, my airbag deployed, I wasn’t badly injured, I was able to breath, I had checked the batteries on my beacon that morning, I had two friends with rescue gear ready to work and I had everything to live for. It is easier to work a problem optimistically than to consider your actions futile. I had to believe I had a chance.

I could see changes in the snow brightness so I thought I was being taken downhill faceup. I tried to guess how long I’d been caught under for. A lot was happening in a short period of time but I thought it was about 30 seconds. I was definitely taking the ride all the way down. Avalanche classes and training books teach to swim to the surface. I tried swimming but the ski dragged me down. I could feel the inflated airbag pulling me so I next tried swimming with it. The dark snow became lighter. I made only slow awkward progress, but together the airbag and I pulled harder than my ski anchor. The snow became brighter. I was beat up, exhausted and not getting enough air but if I learned anything from working the nightshift on an ambulance, completing fire academy and raising two boys, it was that you can always give more. I could feel the airbag lifting me.

The avalanche slowed. I remembered a paragraph from “The Avalanche Handbook” that said when the snow begins to settle, create an air pocket with one hand and reach for the surface with the other so your rescuers have a better chance of finding you. Spearfishing had taught me to control my breathing, how to take very deep breaths and how you can do a lot more with one full breath of air than most people know. I took the deepest breath I could, fighting back the urge to cough from inhaling bit of snow and ice. And as suddenly as it all began, I was locked in concrete. The rumbling snow gave way to absolute silence. 

Status check. I slowly exhaled. Because the deep breath had afforded me extra space and I had made a small air pocket in front of my face with my left hand, I was able to take shallow breaths. My left leg felt like it was being pulled apart. My hip hurt but I didn’t think it was broken. I couldn’t move any part of my body. The snow was darker above me than I would have preferred, but it wasn’t totally black. I heard nothing on my radio. I wasn’t dead, but I could feel fear closing in.

Stay positive.

Then I realized I could move my fingertips on my right hand, the one I had tried to reach to the surface. I wiggled my fingertips back and forth and flicked the snow upward. I was happy to have a task that might improve my situation. Staying busy helped keep the fear out. After 5 minutes I could move my whole hand. I began to think of Dory from “Finding Nemo.” It’s a Disney movie that anyone with kids knows far too well. Dory is a forgetful fish that would say “just keep swimming” over and over when she became lost. I began to hear “just keep digging,” but in Dory’s (Ellen Degeneres’s) voice. It helped me stay calm and focus on the frustratingly slow task of digging myself out. After another five minutes of Dory motivating me onward, I could wiggle my whole hand. Then part of my arm. Then bend my elbow. “Just keep digging.” I kept trying to move my arm from side to side. Eventually, just above my fingers, I could see light. I took a fresh breath of hope.

I kept digging one small handful after another. I ate the snow that fell onto my face and focused on controlling my breathing. As the airbag slowly leaked out, I was given more space. My body was no longer pressed up against the solidified avalanche debris. My breathing improved and digging became easier. 

I heard my buddy on the radio. He asked if I could hear him but I couldn’t reach my radio to respond. I knew their initial beacon search was unsuccessful because too much time had gone by. I needed to get to my radio to tell them where I thought I was. I thought I was near the bottom since my ride in the avalanche was so long. They must have gone uphill. I knew their emotions would be running high so I desperately wanted to tell them I was okay. That is a long time to think your friend is dead. I tried to keep from getting excited. I needed to keep calm. I barely had room to breathe. There was still so much that could go wrong. A secondary slide would bury the fragile snorkel I’d dug to the surface.

“Just keep digging”. My fingers and hand ached. I imagined it must have looked like a gopher kicking up snow out of his borough. I could start to bend my arm at the elbow. “Just keep digging.” I started digging towards my radio in my left pocket. I knew I was close, but my head was still locked in snow so I couldn’t look down to see where to move my hand. I couldn’t feel my fingers. The digging and the cold had dulled them completely. Finding my radio button through my jacket with numb fingers in a wet frozen glove would only be successful with luck and time. It was like the claw game at the pizza parlor my son was forever hopeful we’d win. “You just have to keep trying Dad!”, my son Henry would say. Once at Chuck E Cheese during a birthday party, the games were all unlocked and we had unlimited tries. After about 20 minutes, the claw dropped down like it had one hundred times before, but this time, it came up with a small blue rubber ball. With enough time, you could win the claw game. It was great advice from a 5-year-old. And eventually, I heard the radio queue up. It was ridiculous given the situation, but 15 years in EMS forces you to think before you transmit and to sound calm on the radio. I remember thinking, “don’t sound panicked, just let them know you’re okay. If you sound calm, they’ll stay calm. The situation isn’t too bad.” I told my friends that I was alive, I had an airway and I thought I was at the bottom of the slope. And to please come dig me out.

Caption: AFTER the avalanche: Video footage of the slide path and debris field in Tahoe backcountry where Will Brown was found buried.

They had performed too quick a search of the bottom debris field and had their mindset on finding me uphill unconscious in a tree well or near the upper cliffs. They had boot packed at sprinting pace about 800 vertical feet uphill when I had reached them by radio. I was at the bottom. We’d later estimate that I had gone downslope about 1,000 vertical feet. Eventually, they found me back at the bottom and finished digging me out. I had some scrapes and was sore from head to toe, but was I basically uninjured. Hugs all around. I was shivering as much from the cold as emotion. My buddies helped me take off my wet cold clothes and swapped them for their very sweaty, but less wet, warm clothes. I’d have plenty of time to warm up and dry off on the hike out.

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BCA thanks Will for sharing this incredible account of surviving an avalanche in the Tahoe backcountry, and his advice to stay positive, think of your avalanche training and just keep digging. Read the full Sierra Avalanche Center report of the avalanche incident here. #sendandreturn.