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Avalanche survivor credits airbag with saving his life

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23 2012 11:44 p.m. MST

Rhees Neibaur is photographed with his avalanche vest, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, after surviving an avalanche while snowmobiling in Tony Grove Wednesday.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY It was a river of snow. “Heavy” and “scary,” a snowmobiler said, recalling his brush with a potentially deadly avalanche Wednesday at Tony Grove in Logan Canyon.

Rhees Neibaur, 27, was buried alive on his side beneath the avalanche that rained down from a bowl-shaped hill.

“It felt like I got hit by a truck from behind,” Neibaur said. “I automatically couldn’t move any of my limbs and it pushed the snow right up into my helmet and covered my mouth.”

Under the snow, the passing seconds were agonizing.

“I mean, I’m a real calm rider – that’s how you get out of a lot of sticky situations,” Neibaur said. “In this case, I was screaming like a little girl and I never felt so helpless. Ever.”

Fortunately for Neibaur, a friend watched him go under the snow and then spotted the top third of his avalanche air bag vest — which is designed to "float" the person wearing it toward the top of the avalanche debris. Neibaur had pulled the rip cord as he went under the snow.

“Dug around my head and started tugging on my helmet and I told him I was all right —just get me out of there,” Neibaur said. “I was shaking pretty good but it was calming to know somebody was there already.”

Neibaur said his sled was completely buried 50 yards down the hill.

“Just digging the sled out kind of let me know,” Neibaur said. “It was just like concrete.”

Neibaur said he believed the air bag — something he’d gone without most of his life — in fact saved his life. Somewhat cost prohibitive at $600 to $1,000 a pack, Neibaur bought the pack two years ago.

Neibaur said his friends had already bought some, as the vests started gaining popularity in the United States.

“The kid that watched me go under and then found me with the piece of the bag that was at the top — he kept saying over and over, that bag just totally saved your life, and I believe it did.”

Utah Avalanche Center director Bruce Tremper said the air bag vests — which have been used in Europe the past 15 years — were responsible for saving other recent avalanche victims in Washington and Colorado. He warned, though, the devices are no guarantee of surviving an avalanche.

“There was another one in Colorado recently where somebody was in this very dangerous terrain — a lot of trees and rocks to hit on the way down — and of course it didn’t make any difference because the air bag was completely shredded with holes in it and he was buried, I think, three or four feet deep,” Tremper said. “He was in zero-tolerance-for-error kind of terrain where any kind of avalanche would have killed you regardless of what kind of equipment you had.”

Tremper said there have been about 340 cases since the air bag vests’ inception where people have been buried under avalanches with them. Tremper said 10 percent of people caught in avalanches die, compared to about 3 percent of people wearing the airbags.  He said of those who have died in avalanches, it’s believed the air bag vests would have saved 20 percent to 50 percent of them.

“It does help quite a bit,” Tremper said.

A forecaster from the Utah Avalanche Center was investigating Thursday the site of the avalanche. Tremper said the slide “took out the entire bowl.”

E-mail: aadams@ksl.com

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