Farmington man recalls being buried in avalanche that broke his arm, both legs
Matt Gade, Deseret News
OGDEN — Matt Morgan was able to smile as he recounted being buried in an avalanche last weekend, but the casts on his legs and arm told a different story.
"It caught me from behind," said Morgan, who was rescued by friends on their snowmobiling trip near the Utah-Idaho border. "I did not see it. I did not hear it."
Morgan, of Farmington, recalls snow surging along both sides of him as his snowmobile became unstable.
"And I very vividly remember saying to myself, 'This is going to hurt,'" he said.
After that, everything went black.
The group of four was snowmobiling near Bear Lake along a ridge in St. Charles Canyon on Saturday when they decided to drop down into the canyon. Morgan went first, triggering a slide that the Utah Avalanche Center estimated was 500 feet wide and 800 feet long.
Morgan was completely buried under 2 feet of snow "like cement" for 10 minutes while two friends used a beacon and avalanche probes to locate him and dig him out.
"The next thing I remember after I blacked out was (my friend) calling my name and cleaning snow out of my helmet," Morgan said. "I remember him brushing snow off my face."
When he came to, he told his rescuers, "I love you guys."
"(They said), 'We love you, too, and we're glad you're here,'" Morgan recalled.
Morgan was in good spirits as he addressed the media Wednesday at McKay-Dee Hospital Center, sitting in a wheelchair and joined by his wife of one year, Emilee, and one of his companions from the trip.
He has two broken femurs and his left arm is broken, but his head, neck and vital organs were miraculously spared. He is alive, he said, thanks to good preparation and quick-acting friends.
"I'm very blessed to be here," Morgan said. "We knew how to use our equipment. We had practiced with them before. (It was) a well thought out, well executed and planned rescue."
Emilee Morgan said she's used to her husband heading out to play in the snow and sometimes joins the group on their snowmobiling trips. She never thought her husband might be in danger, and when the call about the avalanche came, she trusted his companions.
"They said that he was up and he was awake and talking," Emilee Morgan said. "My next thought was all of the internal stuff that wasn't very apparent. As time went on and he stayed coherent and things stayed OK, I knew he was going to be OK."
The group has been "up, down and across" the area where they were snowmobiling many times, Matt Morgan said. They have extensive experience and went out equipped with beacons, shovels and rescue equipment.
They made one mistake, however. They didn't check the avalanche forecast, which warned the danger was high.
"I will always be paying more attention to the avalanche forecast before we go out," said Matt Morgan, who still intends to snowmobile in the Utah terrain he loves. "Had I known, I would not have taken that risk."
From now on, he said, the avalanche forecast will help him decide where to go.
Justin Hildreth was following Matt Morgan and said seeing his friend buried in the slide was nothing like the movies. While his companions searched for their friend under the snow, Hildreth ran back to the top of the ridge and desperately searched for a cellphone signal.
"I saw the avalanche break, and my initial reaction was to yell to Matt," said Hildreth, who remembers feeling helpless. "We sat there, we watched him get hit and we watched for him to come up."
Hildreth watched from the ridge and used radios to get information from his friends below while he tried to call 911. The signal dropped 21 times, he said.
"I think every time I contacted (dispatch), I think I got two words out," Hildreth said.
But he never doubted his friend would survive.
At the end of those 10 long minutes, Hildreth got confirmation Matt Morgan was "busted up" but out of the snow and breathing.
A nearby pair of Cache County search and rescue workers heard their radio calls and responded. It took about seven hours to get Matt Morgan moved up to the top of the ridge, and it was another hour before he was in an ambulance.
Meanwhile, Emilee Morgan was home anxiously awaiting updates so she would know which hospital to go to. When she arrived at almost midnight, she found him smiling and energetic, despite his injuries.
"He was joking with the nurses. He was just being his happy self that we expect from him," she said. "It was a good (reunion)."
Going forward, Matt Morgan has at least one surgery and plenty of physical therapy ahead. After that, he will be repairing his snowmobile and updating all of his emergency equipment for future trips.
"The safety gear I have now is good, but having been through it and used it, I want the absolute best," he said.
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