Three years ago today, Mike Brede was bleeding profusely, chilled to the bone and nearly dead.
The experienced backcountry skier was skiing south of Lookout Pass above the St. Regis Basin with two friends when he triggered a wind slab that stepped down to a layer 30 inches deep and 300-500 feet wide. He was swept up in an avalanche, despite being a well-trained, well-prepared winter backcountry adventurer.
The force of cascading snow broke his pelvis and shredded his lower leg. Brede barely survived the ordeal with a combination of skill, bravery and good luck perfectly aligning.
He was rescued, as darkness fell and a storm blew in, by the helicopter rescue company Two Bear Air.
“I was only 2 miles from I-90, but Two Bear was the only option,” Brede said. “No one else could get to us, even though we were 2 miles from a four-lane highway. I think we could hear traffic. We could hear the trucks coming over I-90.”
Brede survived, and about a year after the accident — and intense physical therapy — he cautiously returned to the backcountry.
“I was super nervous. My wife was pretty uncomfortable. We talked and we were willing to try it. There was no reason not to try,” he said of that first day back out. “We had our tour plan for the day. Just stick to the trees, just meadow skipping. Everyone was comfortable about turning around if anyone felt they weren’t emotionally ready for it.”
As the day went on, he started to find the joy in skiing again.
“You start to appreciate the things you used to love about being outdoors,” he said. “The light fluffy snow, the beautiful views, the wind on your face.”
Since then, he said he’s found new ways to enjoy skiing. The beauty of the natural world, especially in winter, was a big driver for his return.
“There are just all sorts of crazy things that you see being outdoors, and I wasn’t ready to limit my time outdoors to the summertime,” he said.
The accident still changed him. He’s more cautious about where he goes. He finds himself contentedly exploring places where there is no avalanche danger.
Although reliving the day he nearly died is painful, Brede said some of the lessons he learned are worth imparting on other backcountry travelers.
It’s imperative people have skills, training and tools. On the day of his accident, Brede had a beacon, shovel, probe and an ABS Vario Airbag. He credits the airbag with saving his life. He and his partners had QuikClot, which was vital to stemming the bleeding.
Know the rescue plan and which agencies can or will rescue in the area you’re skiing. For instance, Brede knew Two Bear Air worked in the area. That saved invaluable time. Since the accident, some of Brede’s friends have started carrying collapsible sleds that can be used to pull an injured partner if another rescue method isn’t available.
Brede emphasized planning. Before his fateful trip, he’d printed maps out for his partners and left a detailed map of his route with his wife. While doing beacon checks at the trailhead, he recommends discussing the route, risks and possible rescue options.
Part of the accident’s legacy is a heightened, bodily understanding of the power of nature.
“I do have this underlying awareness and fear that something like that can happen. I’m not sure I had that fear before the accident,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing to have a fear of Mother Nature. She’s pretty unforgiving.”