(This video shows avalanche control work in the Ophir valley.)
Nick Dillsworth was a half hour late for his shift driving the bus, but his boss wasn’t upset. In fact, he was glad Nick showed up at all—hours earlier the bus driver had been buried more than six feet deep in an avalanche in Ophir’s Waterfall Canyon.
Nick was extraordinarily lucky to survive. He had to breathe through his avalung for about 35 minutes before his brother, who had also been buried, was able to locate him and dig him out. (An avalung is an avalanche safety device that pulls oxygen from the snow and diverts carbon dioxide away from the face of an individual who is buried.) Nick was also wearing body armor, which he said helped protect his body as he careened about 1,000 feet down the slope amid a pile of cement-like snow and debris. He was deposited in the fetal position in a coffin of snow, unable to see, with freezing snow packed inside his goggles, jacket and helmet. Even with the avalung, he could barely breathe, after the exertion of trying to stay afloat in the torrent of snow and then the pressure of being buried so deeply. “At first I was having trouble keeping up with my breath,” says Dillsworth. “I was in a pretty tight crouch and I couldn’t move my fingers or anything. I was getting a little worried at one point. I was starting to think maybe my beacon got broken. When I felt the snow probe hit my knee, I was pretty stoked.”
It’s hard to imagine being buried alive for 35 minutes. You can hear more about Nick’s story and about other near-misses in avalanche country at tonight’s forum, “Close Calls.” This is the last in a series of avalanche safety forums put on jointly by the San Juan Field School and Telluride Ski Patrol, and it will be held at 7 p.m. at Rebekah Hall, 113 W. Columbia Avenue. The event is free.
As far as the avalung is concerned, says Nick, “I’m a really big fan of it right now. It definitely saved my life…but you can’t rely on it.” He says he has heard stories of people who have been unable to get the mouthpiece in or who have had the backpack ripped off entirely in the force of an avalanche. “When it comes down to it, you can’t rely on just your gear. We could have made better choices that day. The most important thing you can have is knowledge and good decision-making.”