Survivor still healing 18 years after deadly Utah County avalanche

Dec 29, 2021, 10:53 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2021, 8:47 am

UTAH COUNTY — As forecasters cautioned of considerable avalanche risk across much of northern Utah and high risk in the Uintas, a survivor of a deadly 2003 avalanche said the potential toll is not worth the chance.

“Everybody wants to say, ‘oh, it won’t happen to me’ or ‘it’s not going to happen’ or ‘it didn’t happen this one time’ — we didn’t think that either,” said Matt Long. “It changed my life, families’ lives, friends’ lives in an instant.”

Long was snowboarding with a group of friends on Dec. 26, 2003, in an area outside of Sundance Mountain Resort near Aspen Grove and had planned to make just one more “big, long run.”

He was on the mountain with Adam Merz, Michael Hebert, Rod Newbury and J.D. Settle when the unexpected happened.

“Right about when we got to the mouth of the chute, I clearly remember I had my buddy, Mike Hebert, standing behind me,” Long recalled during an interview with KSL Wednesday. “All I heard him scream was, ‘avalanche.’ I looked up and saw a 50-foot wall of white. Scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life! The noise was unreal.”

Long said the first instinct was to turn and run, but the wind and wall of snow quickly overcame the group.

“I remember seeing Mike fall down in front of me and the last thing I saw was staring into his eyes and then it was a complete washing machine,” Long said.

Long didn’t know which way was up when his body came to rest, but he quickly discovered he only had about 4 inches of snow on top of him and the ability to try to free his legs, which were stuck in the compacted snow.

“Time during this whole thing, I have no idea — it could have been a half hour, it could have been an hour, I have no idea honestly,” Long recalled. “It seemed like an eternity.”

He angled toward a group of trees in case another avalanche came down.

It wasn’t long before another did. Then another. Then another.

Somehow, Long escaped all of them.

“When the fourth one finally ended, I was up to my armpits with how I was holding myself,” Long said. “By the grace of God, I was able to scoop snow away.”

Long said he was scared out of his mind, and as he walked the mountain looking for his friends he spotted a hand protruding from the snow.

“Immediately I started to dig and it was not one of my friends,” Long said. “It happened to be one of two brothers that were on snowshoes that night that I (dug out of the snow). He was one of the guys when I got him out and he could reach his phone, he did place a call to 911.”

Though searchers arrived on scene and attempted to locate Long’s friends, the only other one of the group to survive was Settle.

“It screwed me up emotionally, spiritually,” Long said. “My addiction got fueled immensely, leading to a lot of incarceration, destroyed relationships.”

Long said he ultimately found sobriety four years ago and has started to move forward with the help of friends and others.

He is now cautioning others to be prepared heading into the backcountry — including knowing the terrain and avalanche forecast

“Of course, I was a young, dumb kid and didn’t care to look at that,” Long said.

Settle soon after the avalanche acknowledged being aware of the risk.

Long also said it was extremely important to let others know where they’re going and to have the proper equipment.

He said he believed beacons could have made a difference on that day.

“Please don’t be too ignorant to put money into (it),” Long said. “If you’re going to do backcountry, take all the precautions necessary. You have loved ones. You are loved and it’s a loss — it really is.”

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Survivor still healing 18 years after deadly Utah County avalanche