Wednesday, January 9, 2008

'I thought I was dead'

Hailey teen rescued from avalanche on Baldy

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Ski Patrol member Eric Demment was part of a ?hasty team? that responded to a report of a skier caught in an avalanche on Bald Mountain on Saturday, Jan. 5. Demment discovered 13-year-old Nicholas Weber buried beneath 3 feet of snow and was able to rescue him without any injuries. Photo by Willy Cook

When second-year Sun Valley Ski Patrol member Eric Demment arrived at the top of Bald Mountain in the early hours of Saturday, Jan. 5, he never paused to consider the fact that it was technically his day off.

However, amid the excited anticipation of his first "control morning," there's no way he could have known that before the day was over, he would shovel through 3 feet of snow to uncover a 13-year-old boy buried by an avalanche.

Hailey resident Nicholas Weber had been skiing with two friends, joining the large crowds that thronged to Baldy to enjoy the 19 inches of fresh snow deposited by Friday's storm.

The large amount of snow precipitated a "control morning," in which chairlift operators arrive at the mountain by 6 a.m. so ski patrollers can hold their morning meeting at the shack on the summit at 7 a.m., an hour earlier than usual. This additional time is used to carry out safety measures such as bombing to trigger controlled avalanches before the mountain opens for guests.

However, the intensity of the storm and resulting volume of new snow delayed the opening of the mountain by nearly an hour as the patrol continued to bomb, deploying an estimated 900 pounds of dynamite throughout the day to decrease the danger of the conditions.

For Weber, the fun turned to terror around 12:30 p.m. when he was swept downhill in a slide on a south-facing slope just below the Hershey Highway cat track, also known as Sunset Strip.

Fortunately for the young skier, the slide, and his presence within it, had been witnessed and quickly reported by a ski instructor yelling up to a patroller passing overhead on the nearby Lookout Express chairlift.

A life-saving chain of events moved quickly from there, as patrol supervisor Stu Brown called a "1033" over the radio, code for a mountain emergency, reporting the slide and likelihood that someone was trapped. Demment and veteran patroller Ron Parsons were dispatched as a "hasty team" equipped with avalanche search-and-rescue tools, including shovels, probes and flags.

"It was such a busy day, and following Ron down College was like an obstacle course," Demment said. "The whole time we were skiing I was just praying that the person buried was OK."

Standing on the cat track, Demment and Parsons faced a slide 100 feet across at the top and approximately 1 foot deep, which had traveled 75 feet down the slope.

In a second fortuitous turn for Weber, another young skier, standing on an adjacent slope, was able to point to the spot where he had last seen the victim.

"The training with both the ski patrol and Fire Department really paid off," said Demment, who is also a member of the Ketchum Fire Department. "It was a case of move quickly, but don't hurry. We had to survey the scene and look for clues, but also make sure we weren't putting anyone else in danger."

Looking in the vicinity of where the witness indicated, Demment spotted a black sliver, sticking a mere centimeter out of the snow, in the middle of the slide path.

"It was really lucky—it could have been turned-up sage or a rock. All that mattered was that it looked out of place," said Demment, who soon found himself looking at the tip of Weber's ski.

Demment said that when he called out to Parsons, the incident commander, for a shoveler, he began to hear a voice under the snow.

"The snow was so light that when I took off my skis, I sank up to my waist," Demment said, explaining that that probably allowed Weber to breathe and talk, unlike other avalanches in which the snow becomes packed like concrete.

While digging carefully, so as to make sure he didn't hit Weber with his shovel, Demment continued to speak to the skier, telling him they were getting him out and that he would be OK.

"Before I found him, I was really trying to just take a deep breath and stay calm, but when I started digging, that's when the adrenaline really kicked in," Demment said.

Clearing approximately 2 to 3 feet of snow from above Weber's head, Demment found the boy positioned on his back, head facing downhill, with his arms pinned down by his ski poles.

With help from fellow patroller Mike Witthar, the pair fully uncovered Weber, but didn't let him move before performing a head-to-toe inspection to ensure there were no injuries.

"The first thing he said to me was, 'Oh my God, I thought I was dead,'" Demment said. "To be honest, it was really emotional."

All of this action happened within the span of only 11 minutes, according to Sun Valley Ski Patrol Director Mike Lloyd, including two minutes before the slide was called in and another nine to get to the site and dig Weber out. For an avalanche rescue, that was an amazingly fortunate timeline, especially considering that the chance of survival when buried dramatically decreases after 15 minutes.

"The response went extremely well," said Demment, noting that three of the other patrollers on scene were also Ketchum firefighters, including Parsons, Witthar and Robbie Englehart, the Fire Department's assistant chief. "There was a lot of combined experience and everyone was very familiar with an incident command situation."

Also helping out with the rescue were Bob Jost, who was handling patroller Ryan Yates's trained avalanche dog, Tucker, and Tim East, who was handling his dog, Tilly.

"He didn't do anything wrong and was skiing in-bounds," Sun Valley Marketing Director Jack Sibbach said of Weber. "In fact, one thing he did that was extremely smart was skiing with friends."

The importance of Sibbach's latter statement was reiterated by Lloyd, who stressed the vitally important role the witnesses played in Weber's rescue.

"This is one of the most active avalanche cycles, valley-wide, that we've ever had. And we've been here for a long time," Lloyd said, noting that there were between 18 and 20 reported avalanches in-bounds on Baldy on Saturday, occurring either naturally or as a result of efforts by the ski patrol.

"Assistant Director Rich Bingham, who is in charge of snow safety, has done a great job of making the mountain as safe as possible," Lloyd said.

Two more slides were triggered on Sunday, including one that carried patroller Tim Cron into a stand of trees.

Lloyd said the weight of the new snow has created an unstable snowpack, especially at lower elevations, as well as in areas of low skier activity.

A high avalanche hazard also exists in backcountry areas. Lloyd said significant slides were reported along the south slopes of Board Ranch, in the Cold Springs area of Baldy, on the back side of Dollar Mountain and on the popular out-of-bounds runs Bruce's Chute and Scorpion.

While the Weber incident resulted in a happy ending for the Wood River Middle School eighth-grader, the risk remains.

"The patrol has its hands full in-bounds so it's important for skiers to obey closed-area signs," Sibbach said. "But this shows that you have to be careful in-bounds as well. We all love the snow, but we have to be safe."

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