Off-duty firefighter digs out avalanche victim, stays during hourslong rescue

Dec 15, 2022, 5:40 PM | Updated: Dec 16, 2022, 6:07 am

SALT LAKE COUNTY — An off-duty firefighter who heard a backcountry skier caught in an avalanche screaming for help, says he was just in the right place at the right time. It turned into a complicated rescue that lasted more than seven hours as the rescuer and victim fought off the cold. If not for that firefighter, it’s possible no one else would have heard those cries for help.

“My plan was to go ski with my dog in Neffs Canyon,” said Tom Elbrecht, a firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority.

Elbrecht was scouting low-angle slopes in the canyon, checking out the quality and safety of the snow.

Tom Elbrecht, the Unified Fire Authority firefighter who was off duty yesterday when he dug a backcountry, skier out of an avalanche and tended to him while they waited for rescue.

As the off-duty firefighter headed up he heard a noise that at first, he thought it was either an animal or skiers talking with each other. As he got closer he heard “help!”

“I heard a very distinct ‘help’ from somewhere up on the hill,” Elbrecht said.

He shouted, and the skier, trapped in the avalanche yelled again. So, Elbrecht kept moving closer. He saw the slide path and debris field, extending a couple hundred feet and knew he had to be cautious.

“Came across the victim. He was pinned against a tree. He was buried. He was wrapped around the tree with just his head and arms exposed.”

Elbrecht dug out the skier, assessed his condition and called for help. He contacted his wife first because she knew his plan. She became a vital link in the ongoing rescue.

He made a bench for the injured skier and huddled with him in the cold for more than nine hours.

“I gave the victim, my extra down jacket, my vest and my jacket,” the firefighter said.

Avalanche danger complicated the rescue as the men waited.

“Just tried to keep the situation positive and keep the patient talking to me do the best we could,” Elbrecht said.

Mark Staples, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, said the survivor is very lucky because steep slopes are dangerous right now, even at low elevations.

“As soon as you leave the trailhead, there’s a good chance you can trigger an avalanche on a steep slope,” Staples said. “Other times of the year you have to go up higher on the mountain. Right now, as you soon as you take one step forward you’re going to be faced with avalanches.“

He’s urging all hikers to be aware, not just backcountry skiers and snowmobilers.

“If you’re in the mountains, near steep, snow-covered slopes, avalanches are possible, and especially right now, they are likely,” he said.

After 7 p.m., the men were finally rescued off the mountain.

“Enormous weight off our shoulders, and I think for everybody, because the general feeling was that we all wanted to do the right thing, but without causing more harm and causing more harm to him,” Elbrecht said.

Elbrecht said he always checks the avalanche forecast before heading out and avoids steep slopes on days like this.

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Off-duty firefighter digs out avalanche victim, stays during hourslong rescue