Buried in the snow
Summit Daily News
Vail CO Colorado
FRISCO, Colorado – Buried alive beneath more than 3 feet of heavy spring snow, Danny Ferrari knew he was in trouble.
Just before noon, on April 1 the avid snowboarder and Frisco resident triggered a massive wet-slab avalanche while riding Devil’s Tool, backcountry terrain near Arapahoe Basin. Within minutes, the slide sucked him in, leaving him trapped under the snow for approximately 45 minutes.
“I (thought), ‘Whoa, this is serious. You might die,” Ferrari said. “It just engulfed me.”
His chances weren’t good. Avalanche victims who are completely buried for more than half an hour stand only about a 34 percent chance of survival.
It was enough for Ferrari, who said he never stopped trying to fight his way out.
“I was mad as hell, because I was like, ‘I can’t believe this just happened,'” he said.
When mountains move
Ferrari, 42, knew what he was doing when he headed into the backcountry that day. He checked the avalanche forecasts, carried a shovel, beacon and probe and knew the area well. He had been riding the same terrain for the last two weeks.
On the morning of April 1, Ferrari was riding alone when he ran into a friend who wanted to do some filming. They initially split up and Ferrari did a few more runs on his own. A few hours later, they met up again at the top of the pass and decided to do a run together.
It started out uneventful. Ferrari’s friend, a skier, dropped into the chute first and filmed Ferrari coming down behind him.
“I was coming down and I felt a change in the snowpack,” he said. “I pushed down and the whole slope just released.”
At that point, Ferrari lost control as he was swept toward nearby trees by the cement-like snow.
As the slide picked up speed, he was slammed into a tree and knocked upside down into the cascading snow.
“Then I was in the washing machine,” Ferrari said.
When his body finally came to a rest, his head was pointing downhill, his arm was extended, his torso twisted and he was completely submerged. Unable to move, Ferrari had no way of knowing which way was up. What he did know was that he was quickly using up the small air supply stored in the snow around his mouth.
Unsure whether his friend was buried too or if anyone had seen the slide and called for help, Ferrari began trying to save himself.
He was able to create a small air pocket by eating some of the snow near his face. By moving his arm, which, fortunately, was extended toward the surface, he was able to dislodge some of the snow around him and catch a glimpse of blue sky.
In time, Ferrari managed to remove his gloves, giving himself more room to dig through the snow.
“Eventually, I felt like I was going to get out,” he said. “Whether I was going to have my fingers or not was the question.”
Then, finally, help arrived. Two Arapahoe Basin employees and friends of Ferrari’s who had joined search and rescue volunteers heard him yelling and were able to dig him out. The friend he was riding with when the avalanche was triggered had only been partially buried. Though his leg was broken, he was able to call for help from a cellphone.
Both men were transported out on toboggans by the Summit County Rescue Group.
Ferrari escaped, cold, bruised and with a gash across his nose, but otherwise unharmed.
“I think it comes down to three things,” Ferrari said of his survival. “If you’ve got good skills, good fitness and the one thing you can’t control is whether you’ve got good fortune.”
Ferrari, a father of two, said he’s grateful to be alive to see his kids.
While his close call certainly won’t keep him out of the backcountry, he says he did learn from the avalanche that could have killed him.
“It’s inherently dangerous and you’ve got to be prepared,” Ferrari said. “You always have to have your head on a swivel out there. Just because you rode it the other day, doesn’t mean it’s (safe) today. Things are constantly changing out there.”
Those traveling into avalanche territory are encouraged to evaluate the terrain and snow carefully and identify features that might be dangerous.
Certain tools and precautionary measures can help mitigate avalanche danger. Summit County Search and Rescue Group mission coordinator Jim Koegel recommends carrying a beacon, shovel, probe and cell phone on all excursions into avalanche terrain, along with other survival supplies.
“Be prepared,” Koegel said. “Have something you can make a fire with in case you get stuck out there. Have a space blanket.”
Anyone planning to travel into backcountry terrain should also make sure that other people know where they’re going and are informed if those plans change, he said. This helps rescuers narrow down a search area should something go wrong. Signing in at the trailhead whenever possible is also a good idea, Koegel said.
Unlike wildfires, it is not illegal to start an avalanche.
Additional avalanche information, including daily forecasts and observation reports, is available at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website at avalanche.state.co.us.