On December 9, 2013 pro skier Amie Engerbretson was shooting photos with another pro skier and photographer Adam Clark on a bluebird powder day at Alta, Utah. Everything was going their way—perfect snow conditions, ideal weather and light, a great crew of people. And then suddenly, all of that changed. The three of them decided to dip out of bounds to a popular backcountry spot called Grizzly Gulch, a zone Clark had shot in many times before that was just a short bootpack from the Alta parking lot.
When Engerbretson dropped in, hitting a hard slash turn, the snow fractured underneath her, triggering a slide the Utah Avalanche Center later determined was 150 feet wide and two feet deep. She deployed her avalanche airbag and attempted to grab onto some nearby trees, but the slide dragged Engerbretson 100 feet downhill and into a terrain trap, where she was completely buried under a foot and a half of snow. She was uncovered within a few minutes, and she walked away from the incident forever changed but unscathed. Sportgevity spoke to Engerbretson about the underlying forces at play that day and why she decided to speak out about them.
Sportgevity: You put out a very thoughtful overview of what happened that day on http://amieski.com/2013/12/12/blind-spot/. Why did you decide to do that?
Amie Engerbretson: I never thought this would happen to me. I was disappointed in myself for ending up in that situation. And I knew if I put my words out there, it might help other people not make the same poor decisions we did. Plus, it was kind of therapeutic to put those words down on paper.
There’s often a degree of armchair quarterbacking that goes on after an avalanche incident, where others criticize and speculate online and elsewhere about what went wrong. Did you see any of that?
All of the negative comments that I was hearing and seeing came out before I put my side of the story up there. As soon as I was out of the avalanche, we were talking about how if we’d seen this online—knowing the avy report and knowing that not all of the members of our group had safety gear—I knew I’d probably be thinking, ‘What idiots.’ We made huge mistakes and we got incredibly lucky. I wasn’t sure what people were going to say, but I knew I had to get my side of the story out there.
What do you think are the advantages of avalanche victims like yourself speaking out about your experiences?
I was utterly humbled by the experience. I was so shocked that I could be that stupid that I had to tell people my experiences. I normally consider myself the most safe and cautious person. So I felt like I just had to share my experiences. Plus, the avalanche report was so factual and dry. I think it’s important that those accident reports are relatable, so I wanted to offer the back story of how I got into that situation. Human factors are more relatable when there’s a narrative, when there are people attached to the story. Otherwise, it’s hard to realize that this, too, could happen to you.
Human factors were obviously at play here. Can you describe a few of the factors that influenced your decision-making that day?
We were feeling over-confident and overly familiar with the terrain. Plus, we were in such close proximity to the lifts and I know I put too much trust in the local knowledge. We were just wrapped up in what a great day it was—it was just out one of those out-of-this-world perfect days. And it literally blinded us. We were getting good shots and it just didn’t cross our minds to think twice about heading into that zone, which the other members of my party knew super well. So we were feeling super comfortable and we let our guard down.
At that the top of the run, as you were about to drop in, bring us right into what was going on in your mind - what percent chance did you sense that this run was going to slide?
Honestly, zero. I think that is the problem, I was so wrapped up in what I was doing, and had put so much faith in my companions, that I wasn’t even thinking about avalanche potential at that point.
Of course we can all logically identify where avalanches can happen, but our perception can get quietly clouded by many forces. As you were slashing that tight right turn into the run, did the thought that ‘this is where avalanches can happen’ enter your consciousness, as if you felt you the need to get ready? Or did you have a sense of comfort, a sense of a buffer, that it wouldn’t happen here, at least this time?
I had a pretty complete sense of comfort on that slope. Due to the small size and proximity of the slope to the parking lot, it really didn’t feel dangerous. Also, my confidence in my other team members combined with the upbeat, casual vibe of the day, just made everything seem okay. We were going to get a great shot! That is what I was thinking.
What impacts, if any, did wearing an airbag have on your conscious level of decision making?
I have instilled a personal policy that if I am wearing a beacon, I am wearing an airbag. For me it is never a question of airbag or normal backpack. When we left the resort, there was no question for me. I said, “it sounds great, let me swing by my car and get my gear”. Because an airbag is standard operating procedure (I was even wearing one the previous day in bounds at Alta) I don’t believe it had an impact on my decision making.
What impacts, if any, did this being a photo shoot impact your conscious level of decision making?
We definitely wouldn’t be going to that zone specifically if we weren’t taking photos. It is not somewhere you go just to ski, it is a one turn and done type slope. I was not intending to go in the backcountry that day. I had read the avi report that morning, and wasn’t planning on going out at all, so there wasn’t much of a decision being made. It didn’t feel like we were doing anything outrageous or dangerous for the shot. I had no element of “Kodak courage.” It was more about just happily getting shots and having a good time. It was a very casual atmosphere. In hindsight, obviously it was much to casual considering we were in the backcountry, in avalanche terrain, in dangerous conditions.
Would you have skied the run if you were alone? without a transceiver? or without an airbag pack?
No. I would not have left the ski area boundary alone, without a transceiver or without an airbag. It was never a question not to have my gear.
Did the fact that the photographer was Adam Clark, who is well renowned, well published, and excellent at what he does, have impacts on the decision making?
Yes. The fact that I was with Adam Clark and another experienced local had a huge impact on my personal decision-making. First, the decision to go out there, I defaulted to Adam. If he thought it was a good idea, then I agreed. He was local, new the spot very well, has a great reputation when it come to safety and is excellent at what he does. When we were out there and realized we didn’t have the proper gear, and the group went anyway, again I defaulted to the locals. I thought, ‘If they think its good, then it’s good.’
What was it like when you realized you came to rest under the snow?
It was clear that this was one of my worst nightmares coming to life. I knew it was bad, I didn’t know how bad, and I instantly began to hope for the best. It was scary for sure, but I was able to get control of my mind and breathing pretty quickly, just hoping I wasn’t too far down, and hoping they would find me quick. I closed my eyes almost immediately after the snow covered my face. I think that helped me.
How much of an impact did the terrain trap have on you being completely buried despite the airbag being deployed?
I think the terrain trap was the key factor of the complete burial. The snow was stacked really deep and I believe it was a direct result of the steep gully.
Was there any sense of claustrophobia?
Yes, obviously. The biggest surprise to me was that I couldn’t move at all, not even bend my fingers. When I first got covered, I thought, maybe I could punch trough or something. I found out right away, there was nothing I could do.
Did you feel panic? Was your heart racing?
There was a millisecond of panic. But I was able to push that aside quickly. My heart was racing, but I was actively trying to control my breathing and not panic. I do remember trembling, all over. I even peed my pants, a lot. Right as I was buried, I had a thought flash through that I was peeing, but I had greater concerns at the moment.
Did you get any snow shoved in your mouth?
I did not have snow in my mouth. As I was going down, I knew I was probably getting buried because of the terrain trap. I was able to grab across my face, holding onto my helmet, creating a “V” in front of my face. I ended up with a decent air pocket.
Did you ever feel that this is what it is like to die?
I never had the thought that I was dying. I just didn’t go there. It took all I had to keep calm. That was my main focus. After I was out, I had the thought that being buried in an avalanche would be a terrible way to die. It is amazing how alive your brain is under there, totally conscious and functioning a million miles a minute. My heart instantly broke for all those that have lost their life in that way.
Were you awaiting any bigger impacts with trees, etc?
I wasn’t. The main trees in my line were ones I was trying to get to. I got to them and held them for a moment, but then was ripped off them and tumbled down in the gully. The terrain was pretty short, and I wasn’t bracing for impact. My main concern at that point was an air pocket.
Was the slide more or less violent that you would have anticipated?
Both. At the beginning, I could feel its strength and power, but it didn’t knock me down and I was able to fight my way to the trees. After I was pulled off the trees is was more violent as I got tumbled and flipped. I probably did 4 rotations or so, so it wasn’t a long tumble before I came to rest. It was a lot like being taken in a wave in the ocean, a lot like what everyone says.
Many of the nations foremost avalanche forecasters have their own avalanche stories from years past, which helped spur their interest in deeply exploring avalanche science. Perhaps being caught in a slide is the most powerful way to gain experience and a motivation to remain clear of slides in the future. But for the rest of us, getting up close and personal accounts is a preferred substitute. How do you predict this experience will guide your future in professional skiing?
It was a huge and humbling wake up call. It is easy to just think, ‘I am a safe and cautious person,’ without actually being one. I was aloof and thought I could never be so stupid. That is what I will most take away from it; the absolute necessity to never stop using my brain. I intend to continue my journey with avalanche safety education, equipping my body and my mind with all the best tools. But I need to use them. That is the key. What we do is an exhilarating thing. We are often overly happy and excited while we are out in the mountains. I think it is imperative to find the line where we are enjoying ourselves, but not let it cloud our judgment. That is often challenge number one. I absolutely know I will be more cautious in the backcountry and avalanche terrain. The events of that day will stay with me forever. More importantly, the perspective I have gained from the experience will undoubtedly help me to train my mind and help me become a safer, more thoughtful, backcountry traveler. I am lucky to be able to make a good thing out of this experience.