#sendandreturn: Avalanche Airbag Saves Snowbiker from Life-Threatening Ordeal

Avalanche airbag saves snowbiker Marty Mann from life-threatening ordeal. Marty says this photo was taken after he had been partially unburied.

Marty Mann and his snowbike companions headed into the backcountry ready for a great day, well-equipped with all the essential backcountry safety gear. When the avalanche hit, his Float 22 avalanche airbag deployed and helped him survive a life-threatening ordeal.  #sendandreturn.

Marty Mann reported into Backcountry Access via Facebook Messenger, “I fell off of a tall cliff (400ish feet tall). As I fell off I assumed the first impact would kill me and when it didn’t I figured if I could deploy the air bag it may help me survive some impacts around my upper body. I remember reaching for the ripcord handle but felt I didn’t ever reach it due to the bouncing off of the rocks on the way down. The air bag did deploy, either I did reach it or it hit on a rock and deployed. Either way I feel the air bag deploying and having a pack on covering my back really helped keep me stay alive. Also I feel the airbag did help me stay up close to the surface of the snow when being buried in the avalanche.”

Reporter Duncan Adams of the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake also interviewed Marty Mann after his accident – read an excerpt of his story below.


Marty Mann’s friends expected to find his broken, lifeless body hundreds of feet below the snowbike avalanche at the summit of Spring Slide Mountain. On January 5, 2019, Mann, age 44, and three friends met up around 8:30 a.m. at Woody’s Country Store east of Kalispell, Montana to buy supplies for a day of motorized snow-biking in the Swan Range.

Around 10 a.m., at a spot just past Swan Lake, the men climbed on their snow bikes and headed into the backcountry. Mann, who has a long history of skilled participation in motor sports, revved up his snow-adapted KTM 450 XC-F bike. Roughly 3 hours and 45 minutes later, Mann and one of his friends stopped near the summit of Spring Slide Mountain. Mann, sweating from effort expended during the ride, stepped away from his bike to consult his cellphone and maps to try to pinpoint the group’s location. He kept his helmet on. He said he did not stray far from the bike.

A snowbike belonging to Marty Mann sits near the approximate location of a cornice fall where the avalanche occured near the summit of Spring Slide Mountain in the Swan Range in Montana.  Photo: Flathead Avalanche Center.

“As the other two snowbikers are coming up the hill, the vibrations and the sound caused the cornice to break off,” Mann said.

He said he thinks the force of the collapsing cornice pulled him off his feet. He said he does not believe he was standing directly atop the cornice when it broke.

“It just threw me off the hill backwards. All of a sudden, I was plummeting. Your mind works really fast. As it threw me off there, I thought, ‘I just died.’”

Later, the Flathead Avalanche Center, which said it is best to give cornices a wide berth because they can break off far from a suspected edge, estimated Mann fell about 200 feet in steep and rocky terrain after the avalanche.

“I felt like I was just getting tossed in a dryer,” he said. “I hit the ground and I thought, ‘I’m still alive.’” But the life-threatening ordeal continued.

“I get to the bottom and then I get swept down in an avalanche. I’m just swimming, swimming, swimming, trying to get to the top.”

When the cornice broke, it triggered several thick slab avalanches, the Flathead Avalanche Center reported.  Mann was carried another 100 feet down the slope and buried, the center said.  When the mass of snow stopped moving, Mann discovered he was essentially buried standing up, with roughly two feet of loosely packed snow above him. Miraculously, he had an air pocket around his face and was able to breathe. His right arm was pinned by the snow but he could move his right hand. More importantly, he realized he could move his left arm. He started digging at the snow around him and tried but failed to reach the Spot satellite tracker in a front pocket.

“I wondered whether everybody else had been swept down the slope,” Mann said. But then he heard the sound of snowbikes.

“I was able to raise my arm up and they could see where I was,” he said. Mann’s companions left one man near the summit to try to connect with cell service to summon help. The other two raced down the mountainside to initiate a search.

“They dug me out until they could reach my Spot to send an SOS,” Mann said. And then they continued digging. When their work uncovered Mann’s legs, he realized his right leg was unnaturally bent toward the left. And the pain began to surface, too.

“By then, I was shivering and going into shock,” he said. Mann’s companions built a large fire and employed emergency space blankets to try to warm him, but the shivering continued. They also continued efforts to summon help, not knowing whether the SOS message had been received. It had. Eventually, Two Bear Air reached the scene.

“At that point, I thought, ‘I might survive this,’” Mann said.

The rescue crew lowered a basket and winched Mann up and inside the helicopter. The aircraft flew to Swan Lake and rendezvoused with an ambulance, which transported Mann to Kalispell Regional Medical Center. 

Mann’s right leg had a broken femur, the body’s longest and strongest bone and one that can be difficult to fracture. His right heel was crushed. He had suffered a compound dislocation of his right ankle.  Aside from a compressed vertebrae in his lower back, he had not been injured above the waist. Mann said he has apparently suffered nerve damage in his lower right leg. He said he cannot yet tighten the calf muscle in that leg or move his toes, limitations that could challenge walking, even after healing of his femur and the damage to his left ankle. Mann knows the outcome could have been much worse.

“I survived something I shouldn’t have,” he said.

He credits his level-headed snowbiking companions and rescue team with keeping him alive after the fall and avalanche.

“The people I was with are the people you want to have with you in a situation like that,” Mann said. “Those guys were truly amazing.”

Read the original story by Duncan Adams, published February 02, 2019 in the DAILY INTER LAKE.