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Durango man wakes up Tuesday after surviving avalanche last weekend

Search and Rescue sent Flight for Life to rescue victim
Mint Henk suffered a broken back and compound fracture of the femur after becoming caught in an avalanche Saturday in the La Plata Mountains. (Courtesy of Katy Henk)

A Durango man was recovering Tuesday after being caught in an avalanche Saturday in the La Plata Mountains west of Durango.

Mint Henk, 37, woke up for the first time on Tuesday after the accident, said his wife, Katy Henk. In a whisper, he was able to recount the accident and ask about his family and the buddy he was skiing with, Alex Vidal, she said.

“He’s sort of able to ‘whisper talk,’ but it’s really painful for him because he’s had that (ventilator) tube in for three days,” she said.

Mint Henk suffered a compound fracture of the femur and a back injury that required surgery. His body temperature dropped to at least the low 90s, his wife said, and he lost a significant amount of blood.

“I said what about your leg wound, was that just unbearable or what?” she said. “He said, ‘It was just cold. I couldn’t even feel it.’”

Henk is a bike mechanic at 2nd Ave Sports in Durango. He has two children, Harper, 4, and Maple, 7, and his wife is a nurse at Animas Surgical Hospital. He has lived in Durango since about 2007; before that, he worked as a ski guide at Silverton Mountain.

A GoFundMe site has been set up at bit.ly/343mXgO under the title Help the Henk Family.

Looking uphill at the lower track of a skier-triggered slide on Parrott Peak. The avalanche occurred on a northeast-facing slope below treeline and traveled around 1,000 vertical feet downhill on Saturday. A skier was caught in the slide. He was rescued by helicopter and flown to Mercy Hospital before being taken to a hospital in Colorado Springs. (Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The slide occurred shortly before 12:30 p.m. Saturday in an area known as Root Creek drainage, which is off Parrott Peak and runs easterly before coming out near the Kroeger campground, said Ron Corkish, president of La Plata County Search and Rescue.

Henk and Vidal were skiing the chute and triggered the slide, Corkish said.

Henk suffered significant leg trauma and back trauma in the fall. He was taken to Mercy Hospital before being airlifted to Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs.

Vidal witnessed the avalanche and was able to ski to Henk’s side and render aid, Corkish said.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the skiers traveled up Parrott Peak. After a few descending turns, a skier triggered the avalanche from a “steep, rocky wind-drifted rollover.” The face of the crown was 2 to 3 feet deep.

The slide caught and carried the skier to the bottom of a treed chute. His partner conducted a beacon search and found the victim partially buried, with his head above the snow surface. The victim had also deployed an air bag.

Henk apparently deployed the air bag himself, his wife said.

“I asked him about it, I said, ‘Did you deploy that yourself, do you remember doing that,’ and he said, ‘Yep,’” Katy Henk said. “That bag saved his life.”

The avalanche was about 200 feet wide and ran 1,000 feet vertically, according to the CAIC.

Several steeper slopes adjacent to the main avalanche path, and a gully around 500 feet east failed sympathetically. (Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
The slide along the right flank, and downhill of the crown line. (Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Because of the extent of injuries, search and rescue launched Flight for Life, which was able to airlift Henk and Vidal from the area.

Katy Henk said Mint lost consciousness after seeing the Flight for Life helicopter approach.

Search and Rescue does not typically fly other members of a party out of the backcountry, Corkish said, but in this situation, it was necessary for Vidal’s safety.

Corkish noted the initial avalanche triggered two “sympathetic avalanches.”

“It just wasn’t a good time to be in that area,” he said.

Katy Henk said Mint is an experienced backcountry skier, has taken avalanche training courses and had the necessary avalanche gear.

Vidal reported the accident about 12:30 p.m., and Flight for Life was able to dispatch, land the helicopter and reach Henk by 1:32 p.m., Corkish said.

There are only two areas where a helicopter can land in that drainage, and the accident occurred near one of those two areas, he said.

“This guy’s meant to live and make great things yet in his lifetime,” Corkish said.

He called it a “textbook” response that saved a life.

The toe of avalanche debris from a skier-triggered slide on Parrott Peak. The avalanche occurred on a northeast-facing slope below treeline and traveled about 1,000 vertical feet downhill. (Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Corkish reminded residents to be prepared when they venture into backcountry. He noted hikers and skiers often have a low cellphone battery when they encounter trouble – as was the case in last weekend’s avalanche rescue – and encouraged people to have a fully charged phone before setting out.

The CAIC said conditions are “considerable” up and down the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Considerable is higher than “moderate” but less severe than “high” and “extreme.” Conditions were considered “high” on Thursday after more than 3 feet of snow fell in parts of the San Juan Mountains.

Ben Pritchett, an avalanche forecaster with the CAIC, said backcountry skiers should read forecasts in the days leading up to their trip and on the day of their outing to understand where the danger lies, how big avalanches might be and what slopes to avoid.

“We encourage people to carry avalanche-rescue gear and travel with trained partners every day that they go out,” Pritchett said.


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