'Holy s*** I am going to die:' Surviving an avalanche

(Jackson, Wyo.) - On February 4, 2016, a skier was injured after he triggered an avalanche in the Spoon Couloir in Grand Teton National Park . Now, Jackson Hole resident and seasoned back country skier Rene Etter-Garrette, 32, shares his powerful story with us about surviving this avalanche in the Spoon. The story actually begins two weeks prior to the incident. Etter-Garrette's life-long friend Darren Johnson was killed in an avalanche in Montana. "Darren was like my older brother. He was always in my life," said Etter-Garrette. "From the moment that Darren died, it really cut to my core. It sort of shattered me. It really threw my whole relationship with the mountains into question." After returning from his friend's funeral in Montana, he was in a funk. He skied a bit, but wasn't really feeling it. Finally, after speaking with friends and family, he chose to head back out to the backcountry. “I wanted to get up to the mountains, but I was still a little scared so I eventually settled on the Spoon because I had been there four other times. I felt really comfortable with the line and the snow conditions,” he said. “It seemed like that was a safe choice.” Etter-Garrette headed out early in the morning of February 4 to Grand Teton National Park with friends Mike Bessette and Brian Close. The trio checked the weather and the avalanche forecast, which was listed as "moderate" for the day. The friends skinned as far as they could before boot packing up the couloir. Etter-Garrette dug two hand pits in different areas to check the snowpack for weaknesses. With confidence that the snowpack was in good condition, the trio made a ski plan and clipped in. [image: Inline image 1] *Mike Bessette and Brian Close starting the long slog up the Spoon.* *h/t Rene Etter-Garrette * “It all seemed to be fine. I have skied in the park for 5-6 years and nothing about that day or the snowpack concerned me," he said. “I said something like ‘wish me luck’ or something that I always would say, and set off to perform a ski cut of the slope." What happened next is best said in the words of Etter-Garrette, which he told to Buckrail in an interview yesterday: *Then all of a sudden I heard Mike and Brian yelling to me, just yelling my name and I looked up to my left and I could see that a quarter of the bowl on the right side, like 30 feet above where I had dug those hand pits, had broken. And I could see the crown, and I could see all the snow moving at me. I initially thought, "oh s**t this could be bad," and then I leaned into the slope. I thought "I can muscle my way through this." I really thought there was a chance that I would make it through and it would just be like a scare, but they were pretty dense blocks, so they carried a lot of force and volume. * *Initially, it was all soft snow running over me, but then something hit my upper boot and knocked me completely off my feet and I landed and started going down the Couloir. I just was like "Holy s**t I am going to die." I thought about my friends and all of the people I love and I just thought about everything. This is not the way I want to go. I just couldn’t believe that this was happening.* *I had this burst of realization that I was going to die.* *So then immediately I got pulled under the snow and I could feel that my skis were pulling me down. I was telling myself that I needed to try to swim to the top, and right around then, both my bindings released. For some reason I didn’t lock my bindings, and it saved my life. * *After my skis released, I could feel my feet rise up and I felt like I was riding down rapids. I tried swimming to the top, but realized I had my pole straps on and now my poles were pinning my arms down at my sides. I couldn’t raise my hands up, I was just trapped. I realized I couldn't swim and then all of a sudden my left foot smashed into a rock. * *I initially thought that I broke every bone in my leg. The only thing that did is it spun me and moved me so that I was no longer in control of where my body was. I started to roll and tumble and twist. All of a sudden, I was very aware that there were rocks all the way down this couloir.* Note: Etter-Garrette had a GPS watch on that later proved he was traveling nearly 30 MPH down the mountain in the avalanche. *I knew that if I hit my head or chest I was going to die. I had a helmet on, but that’s not going to save your life when you are going that fast. That is all I could think, "don’t hit your head, don’t hit your head."* *I was spinning and twirling and I was trying to swim but my arms were stuck down at my sides. * *Then, and this is the part that people have a tough time with, all of a sudden I felt everything stop. All of my energy went to my right wrist. Ever gently, I felt my pole strap slide off my right wrist. I really think that Darren was there with me and looking out for me. I am not saying he was there taking it off, I am just saying that something happened and my pole strap came off. That gave me a new found fight. I just started swimming with my right hand as hard as I could to where I thought the surface was. * *The avalanche was starting to slow and I was still under the snow. I just kept saying to myself over and over - "you're not going to die, you're not going to die.” At some point I realized that the snow was stopping. I needed to get my hand over my mouth to make an air pocket. I hadn’t taken a breath of air since I went under the snow.* *I held my right hand right in front of my mouth. The snow kept trying to pull it away, but I just held it there. Then everything just stopped and it was like a weird calm. I opened my eyes and I couldn’t see out of my left eye, but I could see out of my right eye. I realized I wasn’t completely buried and that I had snow all the way down my throat. At that point, I was starting to asphyxiate and I could feel panic going through my body. My hand was covered in snow except for my finger tips so I could just barely get my finger tips into my mouth to clear the snow.* *I coughed or something and a bunch of snow came out and I took a big breath of air. I was just repeating to myself, “you're ok” you're ok." * *I saw my friend Mike skiing down the couloir and taking out his beacon. I didn’t know why he didn’t ski right towards me and then I realized I was completely covered. Literally one third of my mouth showing and my finger tips and that was all. I made some sound like a screech, which Mike later said, “was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard."* [image: Inline image 2] *Photo h/t Rene Etter-Garrette * There he was, alive and breathing. He had survived an avalanche, but his battle was far from over. His friends slowly dug him out of the snow, concerned about his leg, neck and back. They struggled to get cell service to call 911 to summon search and rescue. When they did contact the rescue team, search and rescue wasn't sure if they would be able to get a helicopter up there due to an incoming storm. While waiting for help, Etter-Garrette was in excruciating pain, beginning to fall hypothermic and scooting through deep snow on his rear end to get to the possible rescue site. Finally, Etter-Garrette was relieved to hear the loud thud, thud, thud of propellers and see the helicopter circle overhead. Soon, Etter-Garrette was on the chopper and on his way to the hospital. [image: Inline image 3] *Photo h/t Rene Etter-Garrette * Today, Etter-Garrette is still on crutches recovering from the incident. He broke his tibia in 22 places during the avalanche. He is eager to share his story to raise awareness for the dangers of backcountry skiing. "One of my best friends, like my brother, died in an avalanche and I saw how much pain it caused and how hurt the whole community was by it," said Etter-Garrette. "I felt it and for me that was the first time it really hit home." "I love skiing, I absolutely love it, but there are real consequences to your actions and I just feel that by sharing this story about my survival, there are lessons to be learned about how we reacted and how we were prepared, and had the skills and tools to help expedite the rescue," he added. "Hopefully, people will think back to this story and realize that it isn’t always worth it. I would just rather ski another day." Etter-Garrette is working to raise awareness and funds for Teton County Search and Rescue , who saved his life, and also the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Montana, who worked to try to save his friend. You can read a more details and a technical account of Etter-Garrette survival on his blog . *Feature Photo: (Front) Rene Etter-Garrette, (center) and (back) Dane Etter-Garrette. h/t Rene Etter-Garrette / Pitchengine Communities* #buckrail #county10 #reboot #news