By Henry Hall EBS Contributor
For me, powder days always meant fewer consequences. These are the days when I get to meet up with friends, ski good snow and hit jumps and cliffs with typically safer and softer landings.
The storm that hit Big Sky the first weekend of February was unlike any one I had ever seen. I had to work on Friday and Saturday, so I was prepared to have myself a day on Sunday. I was lucky enough to be skiing Yellowstone Club that day, and the first three runs of the day were some of the deepest turns I’ve ever made in my life. I was hitting some large features that morning with my good friend, Matt LaCasse.
On the next lift ride, I told Matt I was ready to hit the “big one.” Kelly Attenborough and I had hit the 40-foot cliff a couple years before and had both failed to stick the landing. On that Sunday, however, conditions were almost too perfect not to hit it.
It’s not the biggest cliff I’ve ever jumped off, but it’s definitely the most intimidating. It sits right in the middle of the ridgeline and can be seen from most parts of the mountain. It isn’t marked by any ropes but three signs on the ridge warn “CLIFF” about 100 yards above the drop. The fact that patrollers keep it open is awesome.
As I approached the drop, I had surprisingly less nerves than I did when I hit it the first time. I had been scoping the spot all year, had talked with patrol about it, and knew where there would be enough snow to land. I heard Matt yell to me that he was ready to film, and I dropped.
I felt good in the air and started to fall toward the backseat slightly so I could use my body to make the landing less impactful
When I landed, I plunged about four feet below the surface of the snow, and all of my momentum forward had stopped. As if it were a motor function, I put my elbow in front of my mouth, and the other arm straight up before the snow settled. My face and mouth were covered in snow, but I could move both of my arms from the elbow down.
After about a minute and a half of not being able to breathe, I finally was able to clear an airway to my mouth. If that hadn’t happened, I would have died.
When I finally stopped panicking, I noticed something warm and wet start to creep up my body. I had heard myths that people who get buried pee themselves, but I had no idea it would happen that easily, and that fast!
At that point, Matt tried to ski toward me but he wasn’t sure exactly where I was. He ended up spotting the tip of my ski which hadn’t released from my feet and called patrol immediately. Stepper Hall, Chase Ryan and Sarah Bell had all been skiing down the chute next to the cliff, and Matt yelled to them to stay as high possible, to traverse over and get me.
Unfortunately, from their vantage point it wasn’t possible to traverse to my landing zone. They ended up about 20 yards below me and attempted to hike up. The snow was so deep that even with hard efforts they could barely move.
While I was in the snow, my confidence in being saved was declining. In my head, I thought Matt must have thought I skied away, and that he hadn’t noticed I was buried. Every time I tried to free any other part of my body, snow would fall into my airway and I wouldn’t be able to breathe for another 20 seconds. I also thought, “My parents are going to be so mad if I die from doing something stupid like this.”
After about 10 minutes, I began entering a really dark place. I thought a lot about death, about my family and about my friends, and I started to feel selfish for going out like that.
After another 5-10 minutes of falling in and out of consciousness, I finally heard a voice from outside of the snow. I screamed back and Matt Bruns was able to extract me from the snow in about a minute.
I was so happy to be out, but looking at the faces of Stepper, Sarah, Chase and Matt made me feel horrible. Something about putting other people through an ordeal like this made me feel worse than even being buried. I ended up being totally uninjured. Nothing was wrong with me, however I’ve lost a lot of confidence in my skiing and I’m trying to feel comfortable on skis again.
What went wrong was that the slope that I landed on was significantly wind loaded, and none of the snow had actually settled. I’ve never really heard of any accidents similar to the one that I had in inbounds terrain.
After talking to a lot of people these past few weeks, I don’t feel incredibly stupid for what happened that day, and I don’t blame anyone but myself for what happened. Everyone did everything they could to get me out of the snow, and the circumstances were bizarre. But I do want to tell the story as a cautionary tale and urge people to really think through things hard when skiing big terrain and in deep snow.
I learned three things from that day:
- Big snow means big consequence, even inbounds. Wear a beacon, shovel and probe when skiing deep snow, no matter what. It could save lives, including yours.
- Friends on a powder day are important. If Matt wasn’t there, I would definitely be dead. If we had more people there, and someone to spot the landing, things would have been a lot less drastic.
- You can never be that dialed with a cliff that big. While I had probed the landing a couple days before and had been looking at it all year, I should have checked that day to see what the snow was like. If I had done this, I might’ve known that it was in fact, too deep. And I wouldn’t have been buried.
Henry Hall is an aspiring writer and a ski coach at Big Sky Ski Education Foundation this winter and is counting to work on his passion for freeride skiing and outdoor journalism.