Last week, there was a fatality up at Snowbird when a young woman, Heather Gross, got caught in an avalanche -- in-bounds -- while searching for a lost ski. A former PCTV videographer, Mike DeBernardo was skiing with her that day, and was witness to the whole incident. He sent this note on what happened that day, and it makes a great point as to why you should have an avalanche beacon if you like to ski steep slopes, in-bounds or in the backcountry.
Holy shit that breakfast sandwich smells amazing. People shouldn’t be allowed to bring fresh, hot food into the tram line while waiting for the first boat. Oh well, I guess it’s a small sacrifice to being fourth in line on what is shaping up to be an amazingly deep day. As luck would have it my friend Courtney is first in line and knows this mysterious, bacon smelling fellow. After a small lack of judgment Court accepts the second half of the sandwich and is kind enough to split it with Jon and me. Oh yeah, today is gonna’ be sick.
The morning brings some of the smoothest, driest snow of the year. Nothing can compare to the experience of flying through deep, untracked snow. It is the whole reason I ski. It’s why most of my friends ski. It’s unmatchable. It’s simply a way of life.
After a tram lap and a few chairs we’re feeling like winter is finally here. The temperature is making our toes cold and face masks are worn for the first time of this young season. John has to go to work around 10:30, sucker, but I have a few more hours to play. John takes off and I ride up Little Cloud to get back over to the tram.
I have a great conversation with a complete stranger while riding up L.C. Skiing has a really clever way of bringing together like-minded people. I have never seen this man in my life, maybe I never will again, but when I tell him to enjoy the snow with his response being the same, we both completely understand one another and part ways. What a nice guy.
“Wooooo! Ohhhhh! Money! Hell Yeah!” and various other cackles ring from my screaming mouth as I fly down a totally untracked Mach Schnell. Where did all this snow come from? Why aren’t there any tracks in here? This is all-time, my legs are on fire.
Making my way back into the tram line I go around the corner only to see Alex and Heather standing there. A quick duck of the rope, cutting six or seven people, I’m standing with some friends ready to ski a couple of runs. I try to make them jealous for showing up so late but they don’t seem too impressed. The line is long, we’re getting impatient. Alex is experimenting with a neck gator/helmet combo. Something he hasn’t dabbled into much previously. I tell him to buckle it on the outside of the fleece like mine. Heather has hers that way too, helmet clipped on the outside of her pink fleece neck warmer.
Tram announcements are read, no mention of Baldy. Alex thinks it’s open, walking by the sign on the tram dock confirms it. High Baldy though? Maybe it just means the lower gate is open. A slow side-slip down towards Chip’s and we see people bobbing up and down on the hike. My mind goes into warp mode; tuck it all the way to the hike. Dodge some awkward snowboarders on the rollers, quickly step out of the skis and start marching. Maybe I should wait for the other two, nah, there they are. It’s been a while since I’ve made this hike, was it in May? No, June? I feel great, Baldy is open, and Snowbird is starting to show off the goods.
After clicking in and easily navigating the traverse we’re above “Feel the Glory”. I think I’m going to hit the trees to right. Alex offers up some wisdom, people always go past the most obvious area, the main bowl is going to be great. Standing there, ready to drop in, Heather comes into sight from the upper traverse. She drops straight at us and nearly goes over the bars when she hits the lower traverse. Good save. Some laughs and hollers are shared, it’s time for pow.
I see Alex arcing a few perfect turns on his board and I can’t help but dive in. Briefly, I look to my right, see Heather standing there, and I go for it. Pure Magic. This is North Baldy at its absolute best. Minimal tracks in the deep snow leave me shouting at the top of my lungs, it’s an uncontrollable reaction that comes with skiing powder. I ski down the left flank along the trees, effortlessly linking together turns. This is what it’s all about. All the sore muscles, tired eyes, ruined relationships go flying out the window. This is the reason for existence, at this moment in time there is nothing else in the world that matters. Completely one with my body and mind I am in a meditative rhythm with the mountain.
About halfway down the main pitch Alex and I pull up alongside one another, skiers-left of the gulley. We are buzzing! Stopped, facing towards Alta, we will have to drop into the little left-to-right chute to get into some more open terrain below the Blonde Rocks. We talk about how sketchy the cliff looks from above and I remember how Alex took a high speed crash coming out of this exact spot last spring. I can see Heather up above us to the right. Visibility isn’t great and Alex can’t spot her so I point with my pole, we have a narrow window through the tops of a few pines. She looks like she may have fallen or lost a ski in the deep snow. We yell a few times to make sure she’s okay but she can’t hear us. She looks to be fine but is wading through snow; she must have kicked a ski.
Commotion above! We hear shouting from the area around the traverse. I look up to see a cloud of white, the sound is unforgettable. Snow rushes within twenty to thirty feet in front of us at an alarming rate. Woosh. A terrifying moment goes by, I tell Alex to back up. We’re as far back as we could possibly go, I grab hold of a small tree. I can tell that this thing is big and have no idea how wide it will be. All the snow stays in front of us, funneled into the terrain feature just out of our path. I didn’t see Heather get taken out by the slide but I am 100% positive that it directly went into where she was standing.
As the snow starts to slow down we are in awe of what just happened. I immediately ask Alex if she is wearing a beacon. His reply is no and we simply start yelling her name as loud as we can. I side-slip down to the bottom of the gully below where she was standing. There was noticeably more exposed rock than had been a few moments ago before the slide. Looking up the gully it’s clear that she must be somewhere below. I slide down a little more and flip my beacon to “search” out of instinct. I know she doesn’t have one on but who knows?
After a quick visual scan of the area and a few more shouts of her name I realize how far the slide went. From my vantage point I can see the debris pile cresting the next rollover going down into the ampatheater area. Not knowing a Snowbird dispatch number I call 911. I feel like I’m trying to explain chemistry to a first grader. Giving all the names and locations I can think of to this nice person on the other end I realize how much time is passing. I ask her to get Patrol to North Baldy ASAP. All the while I am frantically probing the area with my pole; it feels like a futile attempt at best. There is a lot of snow settled in here.
I hear a few shouts from below saying they have a ski. Okay now, let’s get some more people in here and start probing. There goes the guy with the RECCO and dog. More and more red coats start to show up. I see a group of patrollers coming from the other side, no the slide was over here. I yell to them what I saw. I think it’s at least the third or fourth patroller I talk to who finally tells me to hang with one of the Snowbird patrollers.
We start a probe line below the first cliff and it is the most helpless feeling I have ever had. By now a long time has passed since the slide occurred. I’m having a hard time keeping a positive head. I go through the motions of probing with complete tunnel vision, everything is a blur. A calm anticipation is rushing through my body. I see the helicopter fly in, good they can land right there in the flats. The temps are freezing but somehow there is no feeling of being cold. We have a mission and everyone is cooperating in harmony. There is no complaining, all the people involved understand the circumstances and are working together.
Over the radio I hear what I think is someone saying they found a girl and are performing CPR. There is a brief pause from everyone on the line but no one says a word. And back to probing. My mind is wandering. After a few minutes the patroller on the left side of the line asks me once more for a description of what Heather is wearing. After I tell her with confidence that she had on a pink jacket, green pants, and a silver or white helmet I know it is Heather by the expression on the patrollers face. This is a bit of a relief but is by no means comforting knowing how much time has elapsed.
The gentleman in telemark boots to my left overheard our brief interaction. He tells me how he hit a body in a probe line twenty eight years ago. Thanks, but I don’t want to go into detail about that one sir. I try my best to keep positive thoughts in my head, it’s really hard.
We probe for a while and I keep looking up over my left shoulder to where Alex is. In his group of probers I notice that Sam is there too. This is comforting because Sam has good experience with both medical situations and Patrolling. Shortly after I see them ski down with a patroller.
When my line hits the trees and are ready to head back up and start another sweep I need to leave. I head over to inform the patroller who was my contact and tell her I need to go see what is happening with Heather. While walking up the debris to the next zone and trying to give my info to Ski Patrol I notice something green shining against the snow. That’s a ski. I hop down and dig out Heather’s second Atomic Teledaddy ski. This at least tells me that there could have very well been someone buried in this area. I am starting to really feel shaken.
Skirting the Ampatheater I notice a huge amount of people probing up through the flats. There are a ton of volunteers at this point. I hope no one else is under there. I ski down, all the while asking Heather to hang in there. Ripping off my skis and running downstairs I bump into a friend who tells me Alex and Sam went to the hospital. My roommate calls me and confirms that I’m okay; I need to get to the U.
I’ll spare the details of the hospital, but I’ll say that it was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my entire life. Thank God for friends and family and keep Heather in your thoughts and prayers.