By Katie Klingsporn
When the world finally stopped lurching, Nick Dillsworth’s body was folded in half, his head between his knees and one arm twisted under his leg. Everything was black, and he couldn’t tell which way was up.
He was cemented into place by snow that had settled like concrete. The pressure was unbelievable—so intense that it was hard to inhale. He managed abbreviated breaths into his AvaLung and started to think.
He had set off small avalanches before, so he wasn’t too worried. Actually, considering the dire circumstances, he was relatively calm. His brother, Joe, was out there somewhere, no doubt with a shovel and beacon, working on freeing him.
What Nick didn’t know, what he couldn’t know, was that the avalanche he set off—the one that just finished taking him on a 500-foot ride down the mountain, knocking him against trees and burying him under more than six feet of snow—had triggered a secondary slide that swept up his brother, stripping him of his skis and carrying him below the bench he was standing on when Nick last saw him. Nick’s lone chance of rescue was partially buried himself.
Squeezed in his black box, however, Nick wasn’t pondering that possibility.
Instead, he started to wait.
This is a story about luck.
It’s about the kind of bad, terrible, near-fatal luck that can befall someone with a single backcountry turn, a slash of board in snow that triggers something massive and powerful, something loud and angry and destructive.
But it’s also a story about a rare and odds-beating kind of very good luck.
Nick awoke on the morning of March 8, 2011, to discover that a foot of snow had fallen overnight in Ophir, leaving the tiny town muffled under a blanket of white.
It was the second day of a late-winter storm, and judging by the turns he and his brother made the day before, it was going to be fantastic out there. Nick strapped on his avalanche beacon and pulled on gloves still wet from yesterday’s tour. He and Joe—his skiing partner since forever—left the house between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., skinning out the door and up into the massive, silent mountains above.
It was snowing out. They headed up the east side of Waterfall Canyon, following a fresh skin track. By the time they got to the top of what locals call the “Banker Trees,” it had stopped snowing. They checked their beacons, then Joe dropped in. Nick watched him ski through the trees, carving through deep powder in the glade. He saw Joe ski to the high, left-side bench, a safe spot. Joe turned and hollered at Nick to follow.
Nick inserted his AvaLung into his mouth—a backcountry habit of his—and dropped in on his splitboard. Instead of snowboarding through the trees he had hit the day before, however, he decided to cut farther left to another tree alley. He gave it a stomp, and nothing moved. He started snowboarding, and made three or four turns before noticing that the snow was moving with him unnaturally. “I thought I had set off a surface slough,” he said. But soon, said Nick, “Everything broke into squares; it just kind of spiderwebbed, like when you throw a rock at a window. Everything was moving.”
Nick tried to stay on top of the slide, tried to slow down by digging his edge in, but got sucked into the avalanche instead. Soon he was moving inside a great, dark torrent of snow, smashing through the trees. He was able to stick his board in front of him as a kind of shield and swears that the body armor he was wearing saved him from breaking bones. He had a faint sense of direction, but it was impossible to see because his goggles were packed with snow.
Soon, the river of snow slowed down and he felt wind on his face. But he thinks that’s when a secondary slide was triggered, because everything started moving again, pulling him down another steep embankment and another ledge into more snow. “And then everything stopped. It was completely black and I couldn’t move at all,” he recalled.
Miraculously, the AvaLung was still in his mouth—he would later find deep bite marks in the mouthpiece. He was able to puff a few ragged breaths into it. He wanted desperately to straighten from his bent position, but was beyond stuck. He somehow managed to stay calm. “I just have to wait a minute,” he thought. “My brother is going to dig me out.”
Joe was perched on a bench when the avalanche ripped, setting off two secondary slides—one of which headed straight toward him. He clambered as high as he could on the slope, but he couldn’t get out of its way and was pulled into it. The snow ripped away his skis and poles as he was swept down the mountain and partially buried. When he had finished digging himself out, Joe had no idea where Nick was, but he immediately turned his beacon to “search” and started hiking. The beeps led him slowly uphill.
The minutes ticked by for Nick. He couldn’t stop thinking about his hands. They were freezing, painful, packed in snow.
And he couldn’t help but wonder where Joe was. It was hard to tell how long he’d been down there, hard to grasp the difference between seconds and hours. He wondered if his beacon had been broken when he hit a tree but smothered that worry, telling himself that it just seemed like a long time because he was cold.
He waited. Inhaled slow breaths. Waited more.
Then he felt something hit his right knee.
More than six feet above him, Joe had plunged his probe into the avalanche debris, pushing almost the entire length in the snow until it hit his brother’s body. Joy erupted in Nick. Joe began to dig frantically, using his shovel to carve out a wide circle of snow around Nick so that it wouldn’t collapse into him.
Meanwhile, Nick waited. The minutes passed. He wondered, was that a dream? Another eternity passed. At last the shovel hit him on the knee. He wiggled it so Joe would know he was still alive.
Soon, Nick could talk to his brother, letting him know that he was OK. Over the next 20 minutes or so, his head and torso were freed, allowing him to stretch out.
Then Joe lay down, utterly drained, as Nick chiseled his feet and board out of the hard-packed snow. “That’s when I looked up and thought, ‘Holy shit,’” Nick said. “The hole was six and a half feet deep.” The entire gully had ripped. He had survived a massive slide.
Josh Butson, who teaches avalanche and backcountry courses through San Juan Outdoor School, said that with avalanche rescues, you typically want to unbury someone in seven minutes or less. After 15 minutes, statistics of survival start to plummet. Nick was buried for something like 45 minutes. Butson has never heard of anyone being buried that deep and for that long and surviving.
Butson said Nick’s tools probably saved his life. The AvaLung allowed him a lifeline, and the armor and snowboard protected him from contusive impacts. And Joe, who was able to keep himself collected until he found Nick, was a key element in his brother’s survival. All the practice they had done on their nearly daily backcountry outings paid off.
And there was that luck.
“They were just beyond lucky,” Butson said. “Luck was on their side.”
Getting home took forever, post-holing back to the skin track and over the mountain, Nick carrying his splitboard and Joe trudging.
Nick went to work that night, arriving late for his shift driving the bus. It didn’t seem real yet. He even went skiing two days later. It took some time before the magnitude of it all hit him.
“It would have been fine if I hadn’t cut over to the tree alley,” he said. “That was my biggest mistake. I got greedy. I pushed the boundary a little too far.
“You go out every day and you just get over-relaxed about it,” he said. “You have to be careful. You can die out there. I’m definitely going to be a lot more careful.”
But he’s not going to stop. “It’s what I love to do. It’s the whole reason that I live here.”