A backcountry skier who’s a textbook example of preparedness tapped most of his expensive tools and training to survive an avalanche in January near Lookout Pass.
Yet the ordeal came down to a free helicopter rescue service and a gutsy pilot — after dark with just minutes to spare in a blinding snowstorm — to make the ultimate difference between life and death.
“No skiing is worth this type of injury,” said avalanche survivor Mike Brede at his Spokane, Washington, home last week after surgery, 10 days of hospitalization and nearly a week of treatment. Complete recovery is a challenging year away, he said.
Brede, 31, and Brandon Byquist, 35, were on backcountry skis on Jan. 13 and Jason Hershey, 41, was on a splitboard when they left the boundaries of Lookout Pass Ski Area and headed south along the Montana-Idaho border.
That was the plan: Make a few runs in the ski area and leave around 10 a.m. if conditions were favorable.
He’d left a map with a planned route on his computer screen at home for his wife to view if needed.
Conditions seemed good as they attached skins on their skis to climb and trek for more than two hours. All three men have years of backcountry experience. Brede learned to ski at age 3. They’ve all had avalanche awareness and Wilderness First Responder or advanced medical training.
They were carrying iPhones, avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels plus extra food, water and clothing.
Brede also had a GPS device and an ACR personal satellite emergency locator.
“We did a few shovel tests along the way and the snow seemed fine,” he said, noting that after more than two hours of traveling, they began angling for downhill lines.
“We were coming to a decision point,” Brede said, noting they had talked about the slope as being questionable. “When we broke out of the trees, there was some wind, but not a lot. I was leading at that point and I went for it.”
Brede had skied the area several times previously.
“The slope angle was steepening in the open area,” Hershey said. “Brandon and I were still in the trees and just getting to the point of stopping and raising the question of whether we should continue or skin up and head back to safer terrain.
“Mike was farther ahead of us and we heard a boom in the bowl and felt shock waves under the whole snowpack.”
“I made a couple of turns and fractured a wind slab about 6 inches deep,” Brede said. “I thought I could traverse out of trouble and get to a safe zone, but then a deeper layer cut loose and took me down.”
“Brandon was yelling ‘Pull your air bag! Pull your air bag!’ Brede said. “So much was going on, it’s hard to say what got me to pull the cord.”
Brede was wearing a helmet and a pack equipped with a $1,000 ABS Vario Air Bag.
Everyone involved in the incident, from the skiers to avalanche investigators, believe the airbag kept Brede from being buried.
Swept off his skis with the airbag deployed, the rampaging snow dragged Brede off a ridge and into an open bowl studded with rock outcroppings.
“I felt a free fall and then immense pain in my leg,” he said.
“When I came to rest, I was buried up to my bellybutton and then snow kept coming and filled in up to my chest.
“I held one arm up in the air; that’s what you do. Luckily, my air bag kept me above the surface almost the entire time. I came to rest sitting, facing uphill.”
Hershey and Byquist responded by yelling and descending. “We had to ski down into a place we didn’t want to go into, but we had a friend who needed help,” Hershey said.
“We were triggering little slabs. We saw Mike’s arm waving. It was a relief to know we wouldn’t be doing a beacon search.”
Brede’s lower leg injury was immediately obvious with the bleeding muscle filleted back to expose his tibia and fibula.
“We had complete first-aid kits and they applied QuikClot to stop the bleeding, and braced it with ski poles and straps,” Brede said.
From bad to worse
But they didn’t know about the broken pelvis, and Hershey was digging snow away from Brede’s torso when he discovered the worst of the situation.
“Blood was pooling under his butt,” Hershey said. “That’s when we saw he had bone exposed: compound fracture of the femur. We could not move him to a safer place.”
Suddenly their hopes were slipping from stabilization and self reliance to the urgent need for assistance.
“In the beginning, we were calling family members and 911 and trying to get a coordinated effort going,” Brede said.
“Being on the Idaho-Montana border, there were so many agencies involved. It seemed to be a logistical nightmare for everybody.”
They assessed their options. Ground crews likely couldn’t get to the accident site safely. A helicopter couldn’t land on the steep slope. Weather was deteriorating. Darkness was fast approaching.
Said Byquist, “Mike is so knowledgeable. He knew the only formally equipped rescue helicopter that might be available to us in that situation was Two Bear Air. I’d never heard of them.”
They tried to relay the Two Bear information but got no assurance from Shoshone County dispatchers handling the 911 calls in Wallace, Idaho.
Activation of the emergency satellite locator mayday signal was the key that launched the helicopter service, said Deputy A.J. Allard, Search and Rescue liaison for the Mineral County Sheriff in Superior, Montana.
“That signal is for an urgent situation and we react accordingly,” he said. “We notified Two Bear Air.”
Based in Whitefish, Montana, Two Bear Air is financed by philanthropist Mike Goguen, who put up $10 million for two rescue helicopters and funds the training, maintenance and operation costs for search and rescue missions.
“I’m on call 24/7,” pilot Jim Bob Pierce said last week. “We’re not an air ambulance, but our crew can assemble and launch in about 40 minutes.”
“After the accident, the weather deteriorated like crazy,” Byquist said. “We estimated the snowfall rate was 2 inches per hour.”
Meanwhile, the Two Bear pilot, joined by a paramedic, was drawing from 4,800 hours of flight time and more than 2,000 hoist missions just to reach the area.
The three-hour wait was emotionally agonizing, Hershey said.
“There was a period when we had to remain positive even though we were doubting whether a helicopter was coming,” he said. “We might be sitting there all night in a live avalanche zone watching our friend die.”
“We got to the victim right at dark, flying under night vision,” Pierce said. “It was snowing really hard.”
As the chopper hovered and fanned the new snow into a blizzard, the paramedic descended on the cable.
“We had to take him out in what we call the Screamer Suit,” Pierce said. “It’s a coat with a strap that comes between his legs and works like a little hammock. He and the rescue specialist came up together.”
“They brought me up into the helicopter and I flopped on the floor,” Brede said. “Minutes later they were loading me into an ambulance at Lookout Pass.”
Far from over
But the ordeal wasn’t over.
Two Bear quickly flew back to pluck another skier from danger.
Equipped to take only one additional person at a time, the heli-crew hoisted Hershey aboard and flew him back to Lookout Pass.
“The chopper was stirring up so much snow, I had to hunker down in a little ball,” Byquist said. “The rescuer looked at me with a stone face and said, ‘We’ll come back for you if we can.’
“That’s when it struck me that I’d been left in a snowstorm wearing only a polypropylene base layer and a shell jacket. Everything else was wrapped around Mike.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Omygosh, this isn’t happening.’” Indeed, the chopper had to turn back.
“My only choice was to get down into the St. Regis Basin and ski out,” he said, noting that he was still in midslope.
“I was treading very lightly; made a couple hundred vertical feet of descent to a couple of small trees. I grabbed one tree and gingerly stepped down from it when the entire slope below me broke loose and avalanched.
“If I’d have taken one more step without a hold on that tree, I would have gone down for the ride.” Alone.
Pausing to calm down and collect himself, he realized the avalanche was his ticket.
“That slide cleared the slope. I got on my back and glissaded down near the bottom.”
After a mile of breaking trail, he saw a search and rescue team’s headlamps. “They said they had been shooting guns and making noise with chainsaws to help me know they were in the area,” Byquist said, “but I hadn’t heard a thing.”
“Hindsight is always closer to 20/20,” he said. “Going into the accident was a very fluid moment. There weren’t many red flags.”
He said he’s survived with an elevated sense of the inherent risk and need to be aware of surroundings as he skis.
“Groups should stop occasionally so everyone gets input on route decisions. If there’s any doubt, ski out another line or go back.”