“There’s no better feeling in the world” than to be hit by an avalanche probe after 10 minutes trapped beneath 5 feet of snow.
Like many Durangoans, Jeremy Bird is drawn to the pristine yet imposing backcountry white slopes of the San Juan Mountains, and that is how he ended up buried in an avalanche near Deer Creek this month.
“The whole slope just liquified,” said Bird, recounting the moment on Jan. 9 when a snowslide broke loose, pitching him over a cliff onto U.S. Highway 550 north of Durango. “I pointed my skis downhill, tried to ride it out, and the next thing you know, I’m on my face with snow piling up on top of me.”
That Monday was a snowy one, with more in the forecast and weather conditions in flux when Bird and his friend, Mark Helmich of Durango, skied the popular area just north of Coal Bank Pass.
Snow was dumping, and, unable to get back to their skin track, Bird said the two were far off course. Bird and Helmich attempted to get out of the area. They came upon a slope facing south, and reached a point where they could see the highway below them.
“We talked about our options, but didn’t consider going back up, which was the only option that would have worked,” Bird said. Instead, he started toward the road and the slope gave way and tumbled down around him.
Bird admitted to three major mistakes that day: failing to check avalanche conditions before they headed out, unfamiliarity with the area, and failure to trust his instinct when he knew he was on shaky ground.
Bird quickly bit down on his Avalung, a device that allowed him to breathe under the snow. Helmich made a rapid descent, used his beacon to locate his friend and started to dig.
“The only thing going through my head was, ‘That didn’t just happen,’” Helmich told The Durango Herald. “You just hear this low, truck-type of rumble. After the slide, I didn’t have any choice but to navigate it. I thank God I was able to find him and get to him.”
Helmich said he upgraded his beacon immediately afterward and will take a level 2 avalanche course next month.
Silverton residents Mike and Sallie Barney, who were driving home, were halted by the avalanche. Fortunately, Mike Barney is an avalanche professional and board member of the Silverton Avalanche School and had rescue equipment in his vehicle, the Silverton Standard & the Miner reported.
“The partner had been shoveling for 10 minutes when Mike jumped in to help,” Jim Donovan, San Juan County Search and Rescue team leader, told the Silverton newspaper. “Shoveling is an exhausting job, and the skier companion was physically spent.”
He estimated it took about 20 minutes for the rescuers to free Bird.
“The only time I felt fear was when I thought Mark might be caught in the slide also, that no one else would find me,” Bird said. “But I knew he was anchored pretty solidly.”
Surprisingly, Bird made it out with no injuries, all his equipment and was at work the next day.
The 52-year-old was quiet in the days after the incident, wanting loved ones to hear the story first from him. But he decided to go public so others can avoid the same near-tragedy.
Bird penned a narrative that was published last week in Backcountry Magazine, retelling the experience of the fall and rescue.
“I felt I needed to write it down, and once I wrote it, I thought I needed to share it, if I can keep just one person from making the same mistakes,” Bird said.
The incident has not deterred him from skiing, neither at resorts nor out-of-bounds, Bird said Friday in a phone interview between runs at Wolf Creek Ski Area. But the snow sport is a more sobering experience now.
“I’ll probably go out (in the backcountry) next weekend,” Bird said. “It’s a matter of being safer, not going out on a considerable or high avalanche (danger) day. It will shift some of my decision-making. I don’t ski any different, I’m just more aware of my surroundings.”
Bird’s wife, whom he admitted was angry with him, asked him why he tested his luck on terrain he knew was uncertain – a question he said he can’t quite answer, especially because he’s used better judgment in similar situations in the seven years he’s skied the region’s alluring backcountry.
“The only thing I could think was how incredibly lucky I was, and fortunate that Mark knew exactly what to do and had the right equipment and was very confident,” Bird said. “Any time in the backcountry can be a dangerous experience.”