Beacon saves avalanche victim at Big Cottonwood
From the Salt Lake Tribune -
Tom Diegel always turns on his avalanche beacon before leaving the house to ski.
On Friday morning, he heeded dire avalanche warnings and hiked to the gentle, tree-covered slopes on the Big Cottonwood-Millcreek ridgeline in an area known as Shangri-La.
"If I'd had any idea the slope would split, I would not have been there," Diegel, 43, said Saturday.
He met up with some acquaintances and they skied a few runs of powder in the trees. Just before 1 p.m., they started back up the slope. About halfway up, they came upon an open slope, away from the protection of the trees.
The slope was gentle, less than a 30-degree angle, and looked safe, but they decided to cross one at a time as a precaution. Diegel went first, then munched on a sandwich as the second man crossed and joined him. Then the third man, Matt Clevenger, of Salt Lake City, took a few steps out of the woods.
"That's when it cracked and broke," Diegel said. "We knew we had a big problem."
With a woomph, the slope fell and snow rushed toward Clevenger.
"He had enough time to turn around and take a few steps toward the woods," Diegel said. "He took two steps and then he disappeared."
The rushing snow caught him, dragged him about 10 feet down the slope and buried him.
A person buried in an avalanche quickly runs out of oxygen, and, if left long enough, dies of asphyxiation, said Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center.
"You usually have about 15 minutes to live under the snow," he said. Brain damage can start after four minutes. The deeper the snow, the more the lungs are compressed and the lower the chances of survival.
Clevenger later said he felt cemented in place, and a rising sense of panic, then a feeling of dreaminess, Diegel said. Clevenger told the Utah Avalanche Center he did not want to comment on the rescue.
Back on the mountain, Diegel quickly turned his avalanche beacon to receive the signals from Clevenger's beacon. The other three men did the same.
The beacon pointed toward the spot where Clevenger had stopped, pinned vertically against a tree. Diegel pulled out a thin, tent-stake-shaped avalanche probe and poked it into the snow.
About three minutes had passed when they found him, buried under 4 feet of snow. All three men unfolded avalanche shovels and started to dig. They could hear Clevenger groan as they got closer to his face -- a good sign.
Six to ten minutes after the avalanche, they uncovered his face, but he was silent and blue. Diegel cleared the snow from his mouth. It didn't help. He bent and breathed into Clevenger's mouth. After a moment, he blinked and started to breathe.
"As soon as I saw him blink, I knew it would be OK," he said.
When they pulled him out, Clevenger was shivering uncontrollably, but unhurt. Fortified by a few cups of hot tea, he thought about finishing the day of skiing. But with temperatures hovering around 10 degrees Fahrenheit, they decided to ski out.
"It was a miraculous recovery considering the depth of the burial," Tremper said. "They did everything right."