Amie Engerbretson experienced a backcountry skier’s worst nightmare last week when she was buried 1.5 meters in an avalanche in Utah. In her retrospective story, she admits to mistakes that led to the avalanche. We share the story with our readers with the hope that her experience will help others make good decisions in the backcountry. The video below, captured by another group using the area, shows the slide. Be safe out there. — Sean McCoy
We all know the feeling when you are cruising down the freeway, feeling good, with some great music playing. Feeling confident, you just ease on over into the next lane, and BEEEP! You jerk and swerve back into your lane, narrowly avoiding disaster. Although we have been told and trained our entire lives to check our blind spot, sometimes you just don’t.
Monday (Dec. 9th 2013) was one of those beautiful blue bird Utah days that we dream about. The sun was shinning, not a cloud in sight, and there were endless pockets of cold, light and dry Utah powder everywhere. I am a Lake Tahoe, CA, native and was out visiting Utah to ski some early season snow, host the red carpet at the Powder Video Awards, and was hoping to get some still shooting in. It was my last day in Utah and finally a great shoot day.
It was early season, but the conditions were crushing for taking classic Utah pow shots. I spent the morning hiking a little untracked shoulder in bounds at Alta Ski Area for one photographer, and as I was headed in for lunch I got the call that another photographer/friend I wanted to work with was out and wanted to meet up. Skipping lunch, I rushed over to meet up with him and another female skier. It was my first time meeting and skiing with the other athlete and it was my first time shooting with this photographer, though we had spent a great deal of shred time together over the past week.
We grabbed a couple shots in bounds, full of laughs and smiles. We all joked that it was almost like cheating because it was so beautiful, the snow was so good and the shots were so easy. It was the kind of day I had hoped for all week. My first true shoot day of the year, I was fired up to say the least. It was the kind of thing I live for. Beautiful snow, smiling and turning, getting some fun mellow work done. I think we all felt the same.
We decided with the great snow and the beautiful afternoon light to keep shooting. The other skier and photographer unanimously decided to go hit up a zone at the base of Grizzly Gulch. They talked about how it was the money spot, where multiple covers of Powder magazine had come from, and how it was a great small, safe spot to get some bangers.
After the later events of the day and talking with many local athletes and photographers, I learned that zone at the base of Grizzly Gulch is a place where many people go on dangerous days to shoot, and is often thought of as a safe zone. We all stopped at the base, me and the other athlete ran to the car to get our avy backpacks and a couple snacks then hopped on the rope tow to make our way to the other side of the resort. We laughed and joked the whole way over, sharing childhood ski stories and still enjoying a truly amazing day.
We took a cat-track, eventually traversing out of the ski area boundary, popped off our skis and started the short (less than 10 min.) boot pack up to the money spot. We talked very briefly about the snow and safety at the top. Checking the area, we didn’t see any visible signs of instability or recent activity, and it was mentioned that the slope had been skied recently. We realized that the other skier had her pack (not an airbag) but had forgotten her beacon and that the photographer didn’t have backcountry gear. Our plan was to keep it mellow, safe, get a shot or two and head back.
We decided on a plan of action for the shots, the photographer got into position, and the other skier and I hiked up further for speed. We had the shot lined up, I was to go first. I offered for the other skier to take the first shot, reasoning she had shot here a million times and knew the mark, but we decided I would go first as she had a cell phone, mine was dead, and could talk to the photographer about the next shot.
I was all set, as she yelled dropping I took slight notice of two hikers across the ravine that seemed to be watching and had the fleeting thought that should something crazy happen, at least there are eyes over there. I whizzed by two other hikers making their way up, dropped in, hit my mark with a beautiful (feeling) deep Utah slash turn.
As I was finishing my turn, everything changed. I saw cracks everywhere and felt the undeniable shift of the snow beneath me. At that moment the knowledge and training that I do have, that had been previously neglected throughout the day, kicked in. I swiftly and easily pulled my airbag trigger and felt it inflate. I saw some small trees diagonally to my right and knew that was my only chance. I did not want to go into the ditch. I managed to stay upright, swimming with all I had, and made it to the trees. I grabbed onto the trees and felt the airbag getting caught on them, possibly helping me stay there as snow rushed around me. Then something happened and the snow had new strength, ripping me from the trees. After later talking to the photographer, I learned that the entire slope above me sympathetically released and took me down.
As soon as I was pulled from the trees, I knew this was a worst-case scenario. I was headed for a steep, deep terrain trap with powerful deep snow all around me. The words of my Avy 1 instructor, Lel Tone, took over my mind. I grabbed the side of my helmet, creating a protective “V” shape in front of my mouth. I was tossed and tumbled and pretty quickly came to rest and snow completely covered by face and head. Later information report on the Utah Avalanche Center website stated the width of the slide was 150 feet, the length was over 100 vertical feet, the crown was 2 feet deep and I was burred about a half meter (1.5 feet) under the snow. Without an airbag I would have likely been buried 1.5-2 meters under the snow.
For a millisecond, panic started to creep in, but Lel’s voice came back. I had an inch or so air pocket in front of my mouth. I closed my eyes, didn’t try to move, and started to breathe slowly. Within what I believe to be 20-30 seconds, I felt and heard movement on top of me. I later learned the photographer was the first to get to me, saw the tip of my pole sticking out of the snow.
He began clearing the snow as the other rescuers arrived. Shortly after I felt a probe strike my right arm. I gave a few loud yells that were unheard. I heard the digging and felt the pressure lessen. They uncovered my right hand first, grabbed and squeezed it. I squeezed back. Shortly after, snow was swept away from my face. As I took a deep breath in, I saw the relieved face of the photographer, quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen.
My rescuers included the photographer and three people I did not know. They asked if I was hurt, I said I didn’t think so but I had peed my pants; clearly I was scared. They located my limbs, one ski was still attached and they got me fully out quickly. I stood up, trembling; amazed at what happed and that I wasn’t hurt. A rush of immense gratitude took over towards these strangers who had put themselves in danger to save me. Soon after a rush of utter stupidity came over me as my eyes awoke to all the warning signs around us.
There was hang fire and lots of people above us, so we got out of the area quickly. My other ski was lost in the deep pile of snow and we didn’t want to spend time in danger to look for it. I was using a borrowed airbag pack, a different brand from my usual one, and did not know how to deflate it so I hiked up the sugary, bushy slope with both balloons still full of air.
Once out of the ditch and in safe zone, we said goodbye to my rescuers. The photographer and I Googled how to deflate the airbag and signaled to the other skier in our crew who was still across the ravine above the slide, to meet us as the bottom. I clicked into my one ski and we slowly made our way down the cat track to the road. A police officer was waiting for us at the bottom, got our information and gave us a ride back to the Alta parking lot.
The emotional aftermath of this incident was something I didn’t expect. While I was shaken, relieved and shocked, I mostly felt incredibly stupid and utterly disappointed with myself
As we were walking out of the ditch, we saw recent avalanche activity on the slope right next to where I skied, that we did not see from above. We recalled the avy report that both the photographer and I had read separately that morning, saying there was considerable danger for skier triggered avalanches on northern aspects above 8,000 feet. That was exactly where I had skied, and there was a massive terrain trap right below me. I knew that the accident report was going to be one that if I had read it about someone else I would have thought, “Wow. Those guys were idiots.”
I realized that I had just been a primary witness to the most dangerous aspect of backcountry travel—the human factor. I am relatively new to backcountry skiing, having only completed the classroom portion of my avy 1 course, yet due to my lack of experience have been an overly cautious person when it comes to snow safety. I knew the photographer was experienced in the backcountry and felt him to be cautious and trustworthy. I did not know the other skier, but knew she was familiar with the area and both my companions were very confident in the safety of the area. It was a classic example of a false sense of security on their part, and me putting too much faith in the locals to the area and not thinking to ask questions.
The lesson we are all taking from this is it can happen to any of us, even when we thought it never could. We let the utter awesomeness of the day outshine any warning signs or information that could have helped us make a better decision. We got caught up in doing what we love, forgetting how early in the season it was. And most of all, we were overconfident with a false sense of security in the terrain because of familiarity.
When it comes down to it, we didn’t check our blind spot. I have always thought I was too smart to make that mistake, but I did. At some point we all have. I am truly grateful that the situation was not worse. I am grateful that from the moment everything went wrong, everything went right. I am forever thankful to my rescuers who were smarter and more prepared than us. Most importantly, I am grateful that this can be a wake up and a lesson in humility for me, and everyone one like me, to stay smart, not forget to use our brains and to always check our blind spots.