Interview With an Avalanche Survivor

INTERVIEW WITH AN AVALANCHE SURVIVOR

On April 10th blue skies and sunshine greeted two experienced snowmobilers, friends who had spent years enjoying the Colorado backcountry on their machines. One small slip in their pre-ride checklist ritual lead to tragic consequences that day. The following is an interview with an avalanche survivor, recorded and written by avalanche industry associate Dori Welch.

In a small town, people have a tendency to know names, recognize familiar faces, and cross paths in various areas of life. Jeff Meyer moved to Breckenridge from Minnesota in 1997. A competitive snowboarder who mowed lawns all summer to buy his first snowboard, he eventually turned winning competitions into a career. He won the Vans Triple Crown in 2003 and appeared on Discovery Channel’s Stunt Junkies doing a 120ft flaming rail slide, among other TV and video appearances. If you ask anyone who has been around a while, they generally know who he is.

In 2006, Katie Knudsen caught Jeff’s eye at a local bar. After introducing himself and chatting her up, they realized they were from the same Minnesota town. While they had never met at home, the two had even graduated from the same high school a few years apart. The pair grew their relationship and they married in 2010.

I first encountered Jeff Meyer at Colorado Mountain College in 2000 while we worked toward associate degrees. Over the next two decades, we occasionally crossed paths in the backcountry, lived in the same neighborhood, and had kids attending the same daycare. Though privy to local tragedies through my work, I had not learned of his near-death experience in a fatal avalanche accident until collaborating to tell his story. Raised around avalanche disaster stories and education to prevent them, I arrived at the interview with curiosity and a knowing empathy. 

As a young child, I attended the daycare where Jeff’s child and my own would end up sharing a classroom decades later. Daughter of professional ski patrollers / Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster at the time, I can easily recall a day being sent home with another parent because mine was responding to an out-of-bounds avalanche that tragically took four lives. Over the years of my father’s career with the CAIC and teaching avalanche education, I was able to see and hear the event professionally presented many times. The snow science plus the humanity side of the many tragedies I learned about throughout my childhood and into adulthood fascinated me, and Jeff’s story immediately hooked me in on many levels. 

As a professional snowboarder, Jeff and his comrades used snowmobiles to access untouched slopes with their snowboards in the backcountry. Through the years, Jeff started focusing on the sport of snowmobiling itself and sought education specifically for snowmobile avalanche safety. He purchased all of the safety gear and practiced with his friends.  Snowmobiling recreationally remains high on his list of favored activities.

Spring Fever

On April 9th, 2018, Jeff had a considerably fun spring day on his snowmobile with a group of friends, including his frequent riding partner, Fritz Boehm. A storm had just moved through Colorado leaving fluffy powder covering Rabbit Ears Pass, a popular recreation area about 25 minutes away from Steamboat Springs. 

Before leaving the Rabbit Ears parking lot to go ride, the group went through a routine avalanche transceiver check. Jeff explained the safety check: “One person turns their beacon to search mode and makes sure each person in the group is transmitting. Then that person switches to transmit and someone checks to make sure they are transmitting, and off we go.” While Rabbit Ears Pass is not a notorious area for avalanche terrain, there are places to get into potential trouble. As a good habit, most backcountry groups who recreate together maintain a routine check (click this link for some solid information and tips for the backcountry that can apply to snowmobilers too) no matter where the activity is taking place, to ensure consistency. The group headed into the powder fields. 

“I recorded a lot of footage,” Jeff said. “I actually stayed up late making a video straight from my iPhone, there’s a lot of Fritz having a blast that day. He got to see it that night.” While the group covered many miles and laid fresh tracks for several hours, Jeff and Fritz decided to ride again the following day on terrain closer to home. “We didn’t leave it all out there,” he said, referring to having more energy and excitement for the next day. “It was probably going to be one of the last good days of the season.”

Jeff paused. After a few moments of silence, his voice was softer as he reiterated, “I am really glad I finished that video from Rabbit Ears. It shows how much fun Fritz was having on his last full day on Earth. I am happy he got to see it, too.” Tears in his eyes, he leaned back in his chair and began to recount the events of the following day.

Jeff and Fritz met at the parking area at the end of French Gulch Road near Breckenridge at about 9:00 am on April 10th. Blue skies and sunshine greeted the riders, and the temperature was expected to climb above 40 degrees. The storm had moved on two days before but temperatures had stayed cool, potentially preserving some fluffy snow to carve turns into. 

After unloading their snowmobiles, the two took off up a trail on Humbug Hill that eventually leads to a meadow where many trails meet. Jeff had been to a place up the Middle Fork of the Swan River and knew they had a chance to find some good stashes of snow. Partway up, they stopped for a break in another meadow. “We chatted about life, and what kind of things Fritz wanted to do,” Jeff said, looking into the distance while recalling the conversation with his friend. “He had some money saved up and planned to eventually buy a plot of land for his toys and to get more toys. For the moment, he was just out for a good time.” Whether it was confidence leftover from the day before, the knowledge each of them was wearing a transceiver, or the excitement to get fresh snow, neither rider brought up doing a beacon check that day. 

Jeff and Fritz continued to make their way up the Middle Fork, eventually coming to a drainage where they saw remnants of a prior avalanche. “We saw the debris and discussed how it was good it had already slid,” Jeff said. “However, with that potential safety in mind, we still agreed to cross the drainage and into another area while riding one at a time.” Jeff went first. “I cut across the drainage and came over a hill. I laid out a few turns. It was only a minute or two and I thought Fritz would be behind me. When he wasn’t there, I immediately turned around to go see where he ended up.” 

“AVALANCHE!”

Jeff crested the ridge between the two drainages and spotted Fritz below, helmet off, working on getting his sled unstuck. In the same second, Jeff saw the snow above them release. 

“AVALANCHE!” he shouted as loud as he could. As he turned his sled downhill and hard-left attempting to flee, he caught a glimpse of Fritz’s face as he, too, tried to escape to safety. The next agonizing moments filled Jeff with terror as he focused on getting into a group of old trees he had just passed. “I couldn’t see behind me,” he reflected, eyes wide. “I had the throttle squeezed all the way open, and I didn’t care if I crashed the sled into the trees. I just needed to get to them and not get hit from behind, at any cost.” As every layer of the entire season’s snowfall slid by, Jeff likened it to a river. “It wasn’t a cloud, and it wasn’t chunks like concrete, even after the debris settled. It was a steady, huge river just slipping straight down the drainage.” Thoughts raced through his head about his family, his wife Katie, and their 3-year-old son, Knut. With the pain of the memory looking fresh on his face, he described the fear. “It was overwhelming. I knew if something happened to me, I would feel so guilty, and I would miss them so much.” He looked away from me and down at the table.

When the river of snow had stopped, Jeff yelled out to his friend and called for him on the radios they were wearing. “Fritz! FRITZ!” There was no reply. Without hesitation, Jeff’s avalanche training clicked into action. “I immediately took out my beacon and switched it into search mode. Something flicked across the screen that may have been a number. I thought I had a signal from Fritz and hoped I would find it again.” Jeff traversed the debris field on his snowmobile, holding his transceiver over the snow. It kept searching, but no signals were popping into view. He discovered Fritz’s snowmobile partially buried and leaning against a tree. He quickly checked around and under it. He found Fritz’s tunnel bag separated from the sled, but there was no other sign of Fritz. “I was speaking out loud to myself the entire time. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong, or why the signal wasn’t connecting to my beacon. After about 15 minutes and 4 passes over the debris I told myself if there ever is a time to call 911, now is it.”

The 911 call was placed at 11:09 am. The operator informed Jeff that the SOS signal from his phone gave them a good idea of where he was located, and he was able to confirm. While he waited for help to arrive, he continued his frantic, but controlled and calculated search. “I turned the transceiver off and on again. I tucked my phone into my hat and set it to the side, in case it was causing some sort of interference. I got out my probe for attempts at a blind strike. The field was huge to keep running across, and I tried to keep drinking water as I went. I kept listening out for the help that was coming.” As he searched, he was struck by the sting of suddenly being very, very alone. “I was having another fun day with a friend, and in a split second, he was just gone. He was gone! I couldn’t find him, and I was looking as hard as I could. Time was passing too quickly, but also so slowly. I wanted to be anywhere but there. I told myself I was never going in the snow again. I was moving to Arizona. I had fears of what the future held … Is this somehow all my fault? Is this going to give me PTSD?” 

As Jeff scrambled over the snow, he heard a helicopter in the distance. “It was the most welcome sound I have ever heard.”

The Flight for Life helicopter landed at the bottom of the debris field and Jeff was there to meet them. Two people and a rescue dog got out. The rescuers introduced themselves as members of C-RAD, or Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment. One of the rescuers started the dog on a search, while the other began a transceiver and Recco search. Within ten minutes the helicopter was dropping off another C-RAD team, and they began to assemble.

Before the second C-RAD team had started searching, the dog alerted over a section of debris. Within minutes the rescuer had skinned up to the site. He put his probe into the snow then yelled firmly and loudly, “STRIKE!” Everyone sprang into action. 

Jeff and the rescuers swiftly dug about four feet to reach Fritz, and he was quickly declared deceased. Jeff said until that moment, he realized though his mind had told him the chances for Fritz were basically zero, his heart had still been holding onto hope. “Maybe he was in a tree-well with a pocket of air just waiting for us to find him,” Jeff said, almost as though he still hoped the story would end differently today. “But it was too much time. I knew it had been way too much time.” 

With help at his side, the search at an end, and exhausted from running up and down the debris field, Jeff physically collapsed. The magnitude of what was happening was hitting him like a freight train. Without the distraction of searching for Fritz, it began to come up hard and fast. He began screaming into the snow.

Jeff had experience with struggle and significant grief. He was already actively receiving counseling for the loss of his infant daughter. “I resisted dealing with the loss of my daughter Charlie,” he said, voice cracking. He stopped to reflect on his baby girl that he and his wife lost one day after birth in 2012. “I thought I could handle that loss with stoic masculinity. It didn’t work. I continually distracted myself by going in the terrain park as much as I could, then I started noticing that I had to apologize to people a lot for angry outbursts. Deep depression set in, making it difficult to get out of bed.” When I asked if the loss of Charlie directly affected his choice to accept the tough feelings in the backcountry instead of pushing them away, he gave a long pause and a deep breath. “YES,” he said loudly. “I already knew that wasn’t a healthy way to deal with such huge emotions. So, when I felt this wave come up, I let it take over instead of pushing it down. In the moment, I chose to fall onto the sword.”

At the insistence of a rescuer, Jeff helped uncover and pull Fritz out of the snow. “I told them, I don’t want to see him, I don’t want to see him. One of them took the time to tell me he had been in my place, and how much of a difference in closure it had made for him to help with the recovery. I trusted what he said, and it turned out he was absolutely right.” Shaking and dreading what he might see, Jeff continued to dig out the snow.

As they pulled him out, Jeff immediately noted how good Fritz looked. “He looked asleep. Nothing looked wrong with him, he looked perfectly intact.” While sobbing, Jeff sat with and hugged him kissed his friend’s forehead, and told him how sorry he was. He says those moments of getting to say goodbye made a huge difference in how he coped. “We loaded him onto the helicopter, and he got to just fly right out of that valley. He just flew away, and I never saw him again.”

They all started to make their way out. The Mountain Rescue group on the ground had staged at a trailhead off of Tiger Road, just north of Breckenridge. This was the shortest distance on snowmobiles to the accident site. Jeff helped get the skiers out who had flown in, giving one a tow behind his snowmobile. They came across the ground team, who had been unable to reach the remote location. They all reconvened at the bottom.

Jeff was overwhelmed with the number of people and vehicles at the trailhead. Most of all, he was astounded by the compassionate professionalism and support from the rescuers who came to his aid. “A mission controller said to me, ‘You are never going to see these people again, and certainly not all together.’ He walked me to every person there, and I got to shake the hand of every single volunteer.” This helped Jeff feel some sense of closure from the immediate trauma, and deal with the next steps.

As they packed up, Jeff thought to ask about why their transceivers had not picked up Fritz’s signal. It was then he was informed that Fritz’s transceiver had not been turned on. A rescuer said matter-of-factly, “When we checked, his transceiver was in the off position.” Jeff felt a huge weight lift off of him. He could go home knowing he had done everything he could do with what he had in the moments’ Fritz was buried. He had executed the search correctly with his training. He also felt the immediate sadness of it, as he knew it would have given him a fighting chance. “Nothing was wrong with him. He had no trauma or even a small broken bone. I had seen where his last location was. He wasn’t extremely deep, and I had been very close.” After another few seconds of silence, Jeff said firmly, “The checks at the parking lot are important. I won’t ever forget to ask everyone to participate in a beacon safety check.”

A volunteer gave Jeff a ride home, another gesture he found incredibly kind and helpful in this time. As they made their way back toward town, Jeff’s phone got a signal. He finally got to hear a familiar voice – his wife Katie’s. 

Aftermath / Takeaways

At work in her shop on Breckenridge Main Street, Katie Meyer received a text from a neighbor. “They asked if Jeff was snowmobiling and told me there had been an avalanche. I wasn’t worried at first. Jeff snowmobiles all the time and knows the backcountry inside and out. He takes all of the avalanche safety seriously.” She sent a text to her husband to confirm he was picking up their son from daycare, then returned to her work.

Time passed, and Katie realized she hadn’t received a reply. An uneasiness crept in. “I honestly don’t remember the timeline very clearly, it turned into a blur.” Katie caught her breath, as though trying not to cry. Mustering up the strength only a spouse of an extreme athlete would understand she said, “I know that the possibility of him not coming home is real. I love who he is, and a big part of him is his love for these sports and activities. I’ve always told myself if he met his end in the backcountry, it would be doing something he loved.” Steadying her voice, she went on, “I think I was already arranging for someone else to get our son when I got a call from Search and Rescue. They told me they had Jeff and he was okay, but they wouldn’t answer me about his friend. I figured that could only mean something terrible.” 

Upon reuniting, Katie immediately noticed the sunburn. While searching and stashing his phone in his hat, Jeff had exposed his bare head to the spring sun and bright reflection of the snow. “He was burned from the back of his neck up and over to his chin. It was like a visible mark of everything else he had been through that day.” 

As the heaviness of the accident moved into their home that night, Katie recalled the support that poured in from the community. “Friends kept our son so we could process what had happened, and other friends came over to be with us. The Hangar, a local pizza place, heard about the accident from The Crown, the coffee shop next to my store. The Hangar sent pizza right to our door. In an overwhelming and emotional situation, the love that people demonstrated was amazing.”

The day after the accident, Jeff was giving his account to a Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster for a report when his son Knut came home from spending the night with friends. The gravity of the situation hit Jeff again, and the reminder of his thoughts of throttling his sled as fast as he could toward the trees to save his own life. “He didn’t totally understand the situation of course,” Jeff said of his young son, “but he was shaken because he knew something scary had happened to Daddy. I couldn’t help but imagine what he would be thinking and feeling if it had been me.” He visibly shuddered at the thought.

Bruce Edgerly, Co-founder and Vice President of Backcountry Access, Inc., the company that makes the popular transceiver the Tracker, says transceivers not being turned on is its own pandemic. 

“Besides wearing it just one layer off of your body, I have another rule when it comes to wearing the transceiver. Put it on, turn it on. Take it off, turn it off.” Edgerly pointed out that checks should also be done while still at the cars versus just leaving the trailhead, where people may not want to turn around to get a forgotten transceiver or retrieve new batteries. He carries an extra transceiver in his car in case someone forgets theirs or it has an issue. He also carries extra batteries. 

Edgerly said beacon checks are important even after a meal break. “Last season I was caught breaking my own rule, as I had taken off my transceiver at lunch. It was discovered because of the check when we were headed back out.” He laughs, “I did hear about that for the rest of the trip, though.” He highlights the value of batteries and the relatively minuscule cost of going through batteries versus potentially saving a life. “The transceivers really go through the batteries slowly. It doesn’t save anything to wait to turn on the transceiver at your destination. It only leaves room for error. I keep my transceiver next to my bed, to easily put on over my bottom layer. Put it on, turn it on. Take it off, turn it off.”

While he rarely runs into this issue, Edgerly also outlined the true danger of the use of obsolete analog technology for transceivers. They have a slower signal, which can cause anything from missed marks to false alerts of multiple burials. “It is worth it to upgrade with the new technology,” he insists.

Almost exactly two years following the accident that claimed Boehm’s life, two snowmobilers lost their lives just days apart in the Tetons. Neither rider had turned on their transceiver. 

As a longtime respected member of his local mountain community, Jeff Meyer is quick to point out the resources available and the supportive environment. “From the rescuers to the volunteer who drove me home, for what it was, they could not have been any better. People may not be aware of some of the support that is out there, including grief counseling through Bristlecone, and other places like Building Hope. This community is really incredible, and with mental health being highlighted in recent years I want people to know just how much support and resources are out there.”

Jeff also advocates for avalanche education and safety. “I had taken the Avy 1 course twice, and I have now taken it a third time. Between the training and practicing, the action of searching was automatic in a time of incredible stress.” The courses not only prepare for tragedy but more importantly greatly help prevent and avoid it. Education on how to read avalanche and weather forecasts, examine the snowpack, measure a slope angle, among other valuable information is readily available to backcountry recreationists. “Take advantage of it,” Jeff advises, “and continue to. I’ve learned that continuing avalanche education is as important as conditioning your physical body, to best prepare for the season. The entire experience was eye-opening and humbling. You can never have too much education on it.”

Each year avalanches claim the lives of approximately 26 people in the U.S. The recreating victims are frequently people with high-level skills. 

Avalanche forecasters and educators work hard to help people enjoy the backcountry as safely as possible.  Learning to read the forecasts and understand a moderate risk is important. For perspective, one forecaster said, “If going out to the bar on a particular evening came with a moderate risk of getting killed, would you still go that night?”

Human factor contributes to each disaster, and educators always point out the common ones. Advocate for beacon safety checks, every time. A false sense of safety with transceivers and other gear such as Float packs and Avalungs can contribute to deadly choices. If you have any doubt, always speak up in your group. Compared to life and safety, batteries are cheap.

Jeff again leaned back in his chair. Gazing down at the water of French Creek flowing near his Breckenridge home he said, “For almost 25 years, this community has been really good to me. That day really highlighted just how great community support can be. I want people to know how supportive it is, and what’s out there. It’s worth it to reach out.”

For avalanche education resources visit:

www.avalanche.state.co.us/education/

www.backcountryaccess.com/learn

www.backcountrybabes.com/backcountry-classes/

www.avtraining.org/

www.coloradomtn.edu/

For mental/emotional health support visit:

www.buildinghopesummit.org/

www.summitfirc.org/en/health-wellness/

www.1degree.org/summitco

by Dori Welch

*****

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