A snow biker buried by an avalanche was rescued by his fellow riders near Franklin Basin, Utah, on Friday, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
Codie Nelson, 43, had been riding snow bikes with Jonny Wolford and Jon Erickson in the Steep Hollow area in northern Utah near the Idaho border when he triggered an avalanche above him.
“I came out of the trees, slowed up, noticed that it was coming down,” Nelson says in a video interview on utahavalanchecenter.org. “I thought I had time to make it out. And I just pinned it, and it pretty much picked me up like a LEGO, set me in this tree (well).”
Nelson said he didn’t feel like he went very far, but the slide carried him about 50 feet downslope. He was wearing an avalanche beacon — a fact that likely saved his life — and an avalanche airbag, a device a rider can inflate to float them up to the top of an avalanche.
UAC Forecaster Toby Weed said the avalanche likely didn’t carry Nelson far enough for the airbag to really work, and Nelson came to a stop more or less upright with his head about 3 feet below the surface.
“I came to a stop,” Nelson said. “I feel like I was all sorts of skewampus. I know my ankle had some pain in it. I tried to move my fingers, I had a teeny bit of movement in my fingers, my head was on a kink down. I tried flexing my muscles, nothing would flex.”
He tried to slow his breathing. He remembers hearing Erickson radioing him, and he screamed once.
“Then I came to the realization, ‘This is it, I’m done.’ I said some goodbyes,” he said. “Then I heard this Jonny (Wolford) come over the radio and say, ‘Codie, we’re coming for you, buddy.’ And that’s the last I really remember. I went to Never-Neverland. I didn’t see the light, I didn’t see past people that have passed on. Ironically enough, I was riding a snow bike in a pristine, beautiful condition. And I was just riding and riding and riding. I swear I was riding forever.”
The next thing Nelson remembers is sitting upright after his friends had dug him out.
Weed said the riders were extremely lucky to rescue Nelson. Two of the three riders were carrying avalanche equipment, and if Nelson had been the one without the beacon, it would have taken them much longer to dig him out.
Erickson was riding behind Nelson and said he saw the avalanche but didn’t see it sweep up Nelson, so he rode down the hill. He said he “got down to the other side, and I saw my tracks, I saw Jonny’s tracks, and didn’t see Codie’s tracks. So we’re like ‘Where’s Codie?’ So that’s when we started radioing, ‘Codie, where you at?’ Hopefully he was out of there by then, but we didn’t see no tracks. Jonny came up this side, I went up that side of the fall. And you (Wolford) yelled over to me that his bike’s here. And at that moment, I said, ‘(Expletive).’ We know he’s in the snow.”
Wolford set his avalanche beacon to search mode and got as close as he could to Nelson’s signal. They used an avalanche probe — a long, thin collapsible metal pole. The first object they hit with the probe was a tree branch, Wolford said.
“Kept probing after we decided that wasn’t the right hole,” Wolford said. “And I stabbed him, and I’m just like, ‘That’s it. He’s right here.’”
The riders estimate Nelson was fully buried for about 15 minutes, according to Weed, but it took the men around half an hour to dig enough to lift Nelson out of the hole.
“I was spent,” Wolford said. “I thought I was about ready to give up, it was everything I had to get Codie out of that hole.”
“Codie was unresponsive, blue, and foaming at the mouth,” the Utah Avalanche Center preliminary report states. “Codie described feeling completely dysfunctional — his arms and legs wouldn’t work and he was hypothermic.”
Nelson’s condition improved to the point where he could ride his snow bike back to the trailhead — still without any feeling in his limbs — reaching the trailhead about two and a half hours after the avalanche.
The three riders returned to the site the next day with Toby Weed and Paige Pagnucco of the Utah Avalanche Center, which produced a six-minute video describing the event.
The riders didn’t realize that current avalanche conditions, with multiple feet of snowpack loading up a weak layer near the bottom, made remote-triggered avalanches more likely, the center’s preliminary report states.
“There were several reports of remote triggered avalanches in the Logan zone on the same day,” the preliminary report states. “After visiting the accident site, we observed two other large (persistent weak layer) avalanches in Steep Hollow around the same elevation but facing (east).”
Due to that layer of weak, sugary snow near the bottom of the snowpack in the region, the center has been urging caution in the backcountry for weeks. The avalanche forecast lists “considerable” danger for “previously drifted slopes at upper elevations. … Avalanches could be triggered remotely, from a distance, or from below. You’ll find safer conditions in lower angled, sheltered, and lower elevation terrain.”
Visit utahavalanchecenter.org/forecast/logan for more information and for avalanche education resources.