'Always wear a beacon,' says Utah man who assisted in avalanche rescue

Published: Sunday, Feb. 3 2013 7:27 p.m. MST

The use of avalanche beacons and rigorous rescue training resulted in the swift rescue of a snowmobiler buried in an avalanche in the Monte Cristo area Friday morning.

Weber County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue

SALT LAKE CITY — The use of avalanche beacons and rigorous rescue training resulted in the swift rescue of a snowmobiler buried in an avalanche in the Monte Cristo area Friday morning.

The snowmobiler was recovered in just four to five minutes after being buried by a 350-foot wide avalanche in an area south of Whiskey Creek, said Sgt. Brandon Toll of the Weber County Sheriff's Office on Sunday. The slide apparently started when the man cut a path into an area locals call the "bobsled run."

"The guys were prepared, trained and when this occurred, immediately their training kicked in and we were able to have a successful outcome," he said.

Toll said the happy ending was also due to powdery snow conditions that gave the man a little breathing room while he was buried under 4 feet of snow. Toll would not release the name of the man, who had been identified in press reports as a 59-year-old Weber County volunteer search and rescue team member. 

Toll said one of the snowmobile's skis struck a tree branch, catapulting the rider off the sled. "We believe when the avalanche came through, it kind of just went around his helmet and funneled around it so it gave him a little more of an air pocket there," Toll said. The snowmobile was recovered under 10 feet of snow.

The rescuers, most of them Weber County deputies and volunteer search and rescue volunteers on a routine Friday snowmobile patrol, as well as a private party that had joined them because its members were not familiar with the area, worked together to locate the man.

"It was surreal. The adrenaline kicks in and you start searching," said Mike Hirst, who was in the snowmobiling group that was tagging along with the search and rescue team when the avalanche occurred about 10:30 a.m. Friday.

Hirst said his party was behind the search and rescue riders. Hirst witnessed the slide, which he believes also knocked two other riders off their snowmobiles.

He remembers hearing a woman scream, the sound of his own avalanche beacon switching to search mode and then silence. 

"It's just dead quiet. Maybe it's because you're blocking everything out," he said in an interview Sunday.

Hirst wrote in an email to friends and family that it "seemed like forever" between the time the buried man's beacon sounded and rescuers were able to pull him from the snow.

Toll said the man's beacon told the men his general location and then searchers used 8-foot probes to dig into the slide area. One hit paydirt.

"That probe just happened to pass right through his hand and he grabbed hold of it and kind of shook it and let him know he was there," Toll said of the rescuer that located the man.

Then the rescuers furiously dug with shovels and gloved hands, Hirst said.

"When I finally struck his helmet with my shovel, I then used my hands to uncover his goggles where I could see one eye wide open with a look of distress. I pulled the snow back to clear the passage way under his face mask so he could breath," Hirst wrote in an email to friends and family.

Hirst said the when the trapped man asked if he were OK, "He have us a thumbs up and I said, 'Hallelujah.'"

The man's face was starting to discolor from a lack of oxygen, Hirst wrote. "All he said was 'I knew you would find me and I'm glad to be on top of the snow again.' "

Toll said the man was evaluated at the scene and did not require further treatment.

The incident illustrates the importance of carrying the proper equipment and back country recreationalists undergoing avalanche safety training, he said.

"When you're out in the back country, you're the search and rescue team. By the time we get the call, it's usually too late," Toll said.

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