Thursday, January 24, 2019

To Hell in a Hearbeat revisted

In the fall I was made aware of a contest that the Spark snowboard company was sponsoring that involved submitting an essay about how a local avalanche center helped the backcountry rider community.  The prize was a pair of Spark bindings that I actually didn't want or need (since I have the remarkably simple Voile Mtn Plates that work perfectly with AT ski boots and are way better than snowboard boots for challenging skinning, and Voile actually makes a comparably-great regular snowboard binding as well) but more importantly Spark was willing to throw down $1000 to the winner's local avy center.  Especially given the uncertainty surrounding this ridiculous government shutdown (not that I had a sense last fall that our "leaders" could be so stupid as to do that sort of thing!) the $k would have been helpful to the Utah Avalanche Center, which had been bold and innovative enough to produce the film that re-enacted the avalanche I was involved in a decade ago with Matt Clevenger, "To Hell In A Heartbeat." Given that I was pretty confident of the win, but alas, I did not win one for the UAC. 

But given that we are in the heart of the season and I took the time to write it, I thought I'd include it here in the blawg, so it's pasted in below, and at the bottom is the link to the winning essay.  Note that Spark did actually feel compelled to throw a token amount at all of the avy centers that were represented by the writers....

Our dreams of a white Wasatch Christmas in 2008 were answered by a 2-3 foot storm, and with associated 30-40mph winds the Utah Avalanche Center had issued an avalanche warning due to the new load sitting on top of buried facets.  But there were safe zones to ski, and after our typical early-season lean snowfall we were keen for some powder skiing.  However, as always happens in avalanche accidents the line between safe and unsafe was an easy one to cross. 

After skiing a thickly-treed line off of the flank of Little Water Peak between Big Cottonwood and Mill Creek canyons Paul, Matt, Dan, and I headed for the aptly-named Shangri-La line; a fairly low angle ridge speckled with nicely-spaced aspens that’s a natural go-to on high danger days.  I was breaking trail and was trying a low, flat traverse but let myself get forced uphill by a fence of trees.  I arrived at the edge of an opening to cross that was steeper than we wanted but was still less than 30 degrees, so I asked my partners to wait while I sniveled across as quickly as I could.  At the edge I stopped to watch Paul follow.   He carried on into the lower-angle trees as I watched for Matt to cross, and it only took Matt two steps onto the slope when it shattered and started to run.  We all screamed, Matt did a quick kick turn to get back into the woods, but it was too late; the snow from the steeper slopes above came streaming through the trees, the snow slid to a stop, and Matt was gone. We screamed his name, but got only eerie silence in reply. 

After reading many comprehensive reports of avalanche accidents over the years my partners and I had taken it upon ourselves a few seasons prior to take the Utah Avalanche Center’s advice to not just do “beacon drills” but do simulated rescues, where we buried a pack as deep as we could and created as much “debris” as possible to force the “rescuer” to hone in on the beacon, deploy and use our probes, and actually dig for the “victim”.  This practice snapped to the fore when we realized that Matt was buried, and I quickly organized a rescue effort, with the confidence that we could execute.  Our closest beacon reading was 2 meters, so we knew he was deep, and though the snow was soft because it hadn’t moved far/fast enough to set up we were hampered in our digging efforts by the branches of the tree that he was pinned against.  When we did reach his head he was blue and unresponsive, but after a couple of quick rescue breaths his eyelids fluttered and we nearly burst with the realization that Matt was going to live. 

The Utah Avalanche Center has long been a leader in promoting avalanche safety and was among the first to adopt social media short videos to teach avalanche awareness and skills. Two years ago, they came to Matt and me to ask if we’d be interested in the painful process of re-creating our fateful day as the baseline for a longer, more provocative video, and we were quite keen.  Ultimately the UAC produced a video that conveyed not only the frenzied panic associated with a burial and rescue, but to also show the claustrophobic, stark reality that Matt faced six feet down.    After many painstaking hours of filming and editing, “To Hell In A Heartbeat” debuted in fall of 2017.  

The Utah Avalanche Center is rightly proud of its stature in the avalanche world, and with tens of thousands of followers it would have been easy for them to assume that their reach would be sufficient.  But the UAC reached out to celebrity snowboarder Travis Rice, who enthusiastically agreed – in a win/win – to host the video via his social media.  As a result of this alliance, the video has received over 2.8 million views worldwide. 

The unprecedented ability for a local avalanche center to produce a top quality video with a distribution strategy that both covered and – more importantly - transcended the avalanche community is extraordinary.  Although I would not wish my experience on anyone, I am proud to be part of the legacy that the Utah Avalanche Center has created, and more importantly, I’m convinced that the skills I learned from the Utah Avalanche Center made it possible for my group to save my friend’s life that day.

Here is the link to the winning essay (and the runner up!):

1 comment:

  1. Of note that the course material for the Gallatin National Forest Avy Center in Bozeman includes a run through of the Hell in a Heartbeat vid. It is well put done. Thanks. My son and I took the GNFAC Intro course recently and saw some familiar faces the big screen. BTW the GNFAC course is a great value in education at $30 for 3hrs class and a full field day.