Bystanders play critical role in saving avalanche victim’s life in Steamboat

Kari Dequine Harden/Steamboat Pilot & Today
People gather at the scene of an avalanche on Steamboat Resort on Sunday, where one man was rescued after being buried. The rescue was the result of a joint effort between Steamboat Ski Patrol and three bystanders.
Courtesy Photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A trio of skiers was first on the scene after an avalanche at Steamboat Resort on Sunday wiped out a slab of snow between Chute 1 and Chute 2. Three men on snowboards were trapped in the midday slide, but all survived.

The three skiers, who wish to remain anonymous, were stopped below the chutes, on the upper edge of Big Meadow, watching a group of three snowboarders and one skier traverse below the chutes, going from Chute 1 toward Chute 2.  

Suddenly there was a big boom — a pop — and the whole wall slid.

As soon as the three skiers felt confident it wasn’t heading toward them, they fixed their eyes on the three snowboarders. The skier, who was able to escape to the side toward Chute 2, screamed “avalanche.” The three snowboarders were caught, “floating” in the slide.

Then one of the snowboarders went under. And abruptly, the avalanche stopped, about 50 yards away from where the three bystanders stood.

They immediately jumped into action.

One skier was already on the phone with Steamboat Ski Patrol headquarters, which received the call for help at 12:58 p.m. The other two began to systematically probe the area in which the man was last visible.

Right away, one of the skiers happened to hit the bottom of the man’s snowboard with his pole. It was buried approximately a foot beneath the surface of the slide.

The three men immediately gathered at that location. Two began to dig — one of the skiers always skis with a shovel, avalanche beacon and a probe — while the third used the probe to better determine how the man was positioned, which appeared to be entirely upside down.

Between the three, they shared some wilderness and avalanche training as well as experience.

The other two snowboarders who had been trapped in the slide were stuck, but their chests and heads were visible, and they were communicating with the three skiers.

The men began digging as quickly as they could. They knew they were in a race against the clock, and that they needed to get to the trapped snowboarder’s airway.

If avalanche victims can be rescued within 15 minutes of getting buried, there is a high rate of survival. But after about 15 minutes, those odds drop dramatically.

They continued to dig and work to determine the location of the man’s head.

The three skiers managed to dig down to the snowboarder’s waist when the first ski patrollers arrived on the scene at 1:05 p.m..

The Ski Patrol then took over, bringing in additional tools, equipment, expertise and manpower. In less than two minutes they had successfully extracted the man. The three skiers stayed on the scene to help remove snow away from the hole as the patrollers dug.

The victim, who was conscious, breathing and answering questions, was loaded onto a sled and transported to the hospital. He has since been released.

Loryn Duke, director of communications for Steamboat Resort, called the three skiers “heroes,” and said they “absolutely helped save the person’s life.” The role they played in locating the victim was hugely significant in the Ski Patrol’s ability to quickly extricate him, she said.

The three skiers were instructed to immediately ski down and write out testimonies on what they had witnessed. They were also brought in to talk to Dave Hunter, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., and a representative of Ski Patrol.

However, when Hunter was asked by the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Sunday afternoon to describe the rescue effort for the initial story, he made no mention of the three skiers who reported the avalanche and located the victim.

On Monday, after the newspaper learned others besides Ski Patrol were involved in the rescue, the resort confirmed their roles in the rescue.

Eyewitnesses came forward only to correct the inaccuracies after the first story was published.

Asked why the initial story given to the newspaper was not a full and accurate account of what happened, Duke said there was no malicious intent in leaving the bystanders out, and there was no intent to withhold information from the public. When initially asked for a description of the rescue on Sunday, Hunter answered by giving an account of only the Ski Patrol’s response, Duke said.

“We absolutely commend them for their fast action,” Duke said, of the three skiers involved in the rescue.

She acknowledged it was a failure on the part of the resort not to tell the full story but said it was a result of being “so focused on our response and how it happened for the Ski Patrol.” 

Another point of clarification Duke addressed was whether the victim and his party were on closed terrain. They were, Duke said.

According to Duke, the slide occurred on a cliff band between Chutes 1 and 2.

“It slid to where 1 meets 2,” Duke said.

In the first story, Hunter was specific in saying the victim and his party did not cross any ropes, but questions remain about how they accessed the area. It is also not known whether they had entered closed terrain knowingly or intentionally.

In terms of how the avalanche was triggered, Hunter said it was “human triggered” and later confirmed the victim and his party triggered it from below.

On Saturday prior to the avalanche, a photograph made the rounds on social media, showing a broken slab.

Asked about that photograph, Hunter said it was related to the results of mitigation work in the same geographical area.

Asked when mitigation was planned for the area that slid on Sunday, Duke responded that the resort had already mitigated three times in the area, with the last time being Saturday. Duke said they continue to check the stability of the snow and terrain.

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