Steamboat Springs rescuer describes getting caught in avalanche
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County Search and Rescue member Jay Bowman now has a long plate with 13 screws holding his shattered arm together, some broken bones in his leg and five staples in the back of his head to remind him of the avalanche that nearly took his life Jan. 12 on Buffalo Mountain.
“It’s not my first rodeo with rehab,” the 54-year-old Steamboat resident said while telling the story of how the volunteer rescuer himself needed to be rescued during a mission to save an unprepared skier and snowboarder from Minnesota who had gotten lost in the backcountry.
Just four years ago, the same men had called Search and Rescue because they had made the same mistake in the Fish Creek Canyon.
“So, that’s very frustrating for us,” Bowman said.
This time, the lost men called 911 at about 3:45 p.m.
Bowman was shuttled by snowmobile to the top of Buffalo Mountain, along with rescuers Harry Sandler, Dan Gilchrist and Tyler Gilman. All are expert backcountry skiers.
“We had their GPS point, so we knew where they were, but we thought the easiest way was to track them,” Bowman said.
When they reached the side of the steep slope going into the canyon, Gilchrist dug a pit to test the stability of the snow.
“We got some immediate red flags from the pit,” Bowman said. “We knew at that point the snow was unstable. But also at that point we were still on the tracks.”
One at a time, the rescuers skied across the tracks the lost men had left.
“Basically, we had three sets of eyes on the one person that was in motion,” Bowman said.
He was the third to cross when the slope let loose, and Bowman said it felt like a wave.
“I was immediately carried downward and into some trees,” Bowman said. “It accelerated extremely fast.”
Rescuer Harry Sandler was fourth in line to make the traverse.
“I felt it, and I heard it,” Sandler said. “A woomph and a collapse.”
The light from Bowman’s headlamp disappeared, and the rescuers turned on their avalanche beacons to pick up Bowman’s signal.
They quickly reached Bowman, who had not been buried.
“I saw a red jacket on top of the snow and didn’t need my beacon after that,” Sandler said.
During the slide, Bowman hit a tree and shattered his humerus bone. If he had not wrapped his knee around another tree about 350 feet down, Bowman could have slid another 400 feet.
“I wanted to fight as hard as I could to come home to my family,” Bowman said. “I definitely thought about that and said it’s worth fighting to stay alive.”
The rescuers quickly found Bowman.
He was injured but fortunately he did not suffer a severe head injury. He was not wearing a helmet.
“One of the luckiest things was we were able to find both my skis at the bottom,” Bowman said. “I don’t think I could have post-holed out of there.”
The rescuers stopped Bowman’s head from bleeding and made a sling for his arm.
“There is nobody I would rather be in the backcountry with than these guys,” Bowman said.
The snowy weather made it too dangerous for a helicopter to fly in and help, which meant Bowman would have to continue skiing out.
“I was extremely cold, and it felt better moving,” Bowman said.
After finding the lost men, everybody made it to the Uranium Mine Trail, where a snowmobile was waiting to take Bowman out.
“That might have been the most terrifying part,” Bowman said. “To be no longer in control and trying to hold on with one arm and one leg.”
On Tuesday, Classic Air Medical volunteered its services so Search and Rescue could return in the daylight and see the avalanche aftermath from the air.
This will not be the last time a skier needs to get rescued in the canyon, and Sandler did reconnaissance to identify helicopter landing zones and a potential safer route into the drainage.
While the rescue group did use extreme caution during the mission, Bowman said the incident has prompted Search and Rescue to look at its policies, such as whether rescuers need to wear helmets during similar rescues.
Above all, Search and Rescue hopes the incident will help educate the public about the dangers that face the all-volunteer, nonprofit group.
Search and Rescue never charges for its services because they do not want people to be discouraged from calling for help, but it can be frustrating when people do not use common sense.
“They also have to realize they are putting other people in danger as well, and they have families,” Bowman said.
In addition to having made the same mistake before, the lost men did not have any of the necessary equipment, which includes a headlamp, fire-starting device, avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, food, water, navigation equipment and additional clothes.
“I had an extra down jacket, and that thing saved my life,” Bowman said.
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The tragic incident left a nearby camper wondering if more could be done to remove dead-standing trees from popular camping areas.