Collapse

Mount Blackmore, Bozeman backcountry

Collapse

Berreth, Mark
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Surviving a Blackmore slide.

I drop into a chute, hear a “whoompf”, make one more turn, and an entire slope is sliding at my feet. At first I think it's slough funneling into the chute, but then my skis slide out from under me and I'm on my back, sliding downhill headfirst. Huge blocks of snow are all around me and I try yelling at my partner but nothing comes out. I want to yell for help but all I can do is try to keep myself at the surface. Everything moves so slowly and my mind is in panic. Natural reflexes take over and I swim for the surface. My left ski has released and follows me to the burial. When I get toward the bottom I think I’ve done it… I’ve managed to not get buried. Then a bigger wave of snow hits with a force I can only describe as natural.

The weight and power of an avalanche is unreal. I had studied them and read many stories to ready myself for the unthinkable, but nothing prepared me for this. When the second wave hit, I am instantly buried three feet deep. Since my hands are behind me trying to push me to the surface, I have no time to make an air space in front of my mouth. Snow is in my mouth and there is no way to move. I can't even move my fingers. I try to stay calm but in an instant my right lung collapses and my breath goes shallow. I focus on breathing, but can only count ten shallow breaths before I pass out. In the back of my mind, I am thinking that a small mistake has cost me my life.

I fall into a dream state and I am with my skiing partner looking up into the chute and thinking how great the run was. We ski down and out our five-mile skin track and right as we get to Blackmore Lake, I hear my partner yelling my name and digging furiously as I pass in and out of consciousness. He’s trying to dig me out, and I can tell he’s tired. I tell him “take a break.” He’s only got my head out at this point, but I don’t care. I can breathe again and know I’ll make it out alive. He keeps digging and I pass out again. When he’s got me mostly dug out, he tries to remove my poles from my grip but I won’t let go. He keeps tugging but I won’t have it. I keep thinking “just grab my poles and get ‘em out of the way” but he can’t do it. I notice he can’t pull them out because I won’t let go. I hold on tight and even when I’m thinking about it I can’t get myself to loosen the grip. It’s all I have to hold on to—it’s my grip on safety.

When he has me dug out most of the way, I try to gather myself and stand up. So much emotion is running through my mind. I am ecstatic to be alive, but nearly in tears because I came much too close to death. That's when I start coughing up blood because of my collapsed lung. I have no idea what's going on as panic re-enters my mind and surviving is all I can think about. We can only find one ski and walking out in deep snow is unthinkable—especially with one lung. It's getting dark and if I don’t make it out, my hypothermic state will only be exacerbated by the frigid night air. We probe for an hour before finally finding my ski. At this point, there's nothing standing in my way. I gather myself and click back into my skis.

Ever since the accident, I’ve had insomnia. It’s been a tough recovery and something I’ll never forget—but that won't stop me from pursuing my passions. I'll continue to educate myself through avalanche safety courses, ski with partners I trust, and use my experiences to inform my decision-making. Afterall, the next collapse could be the last.

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