Snowboarder recounts being caught in avalanche in Big Cottonwood Canyon

Jan 11, 2023, 11:38 AM | Updated: 3:20 pm

BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — A snowboarder is recounting the moments a slide swept him a few hundred feet down the side of a peak in Big Cottonwood Canyon, along with the intense video he captured of the ordeal. He hopes the backcountry community can learn from his experience as he shares a message of what he took away from the avalanche.

Sitting in his South Jordan home on Tuesday, Blake Nielson thumbed through photos and video he and a friend took Sunday as they hiked up Kessler Peak. At the top, he took a video panning across the snow-covered mountaintops.

“This was up on the ridge,” he explained while watching the scenic video. “You can hear it’s pretty windy that day.”

The wind may have been whistling and blistery, but the view was beautiful.

Nielson has learned there’s no feeling like being up in the mountains, deep in Mother Nature.

“There’s so much joy to be had in the backcountry,” he said. “It’s such an incredible experience.”

He’s also learned how to be in the backcountry safely. Nielson talked about how in his half decade of riding slopes outside ski resorts, he’s taken many classes through the Utah Avalanche Center and read several books.

Going in the backcountry involves mountaineering and route finding skills, which he enjoys, as well as knowledge of snow science.

Nielson said he reads the UAC website daily, even when he doesn’t plan to head out. He goes through avalanche reports and stays on top of the changing conditions.

On Sunday, he said the avalanche forecast showed a low to moderate chance for avalanche activity.

He and his friend felt good about conditions, but even so, still made sure to conduct snow stability tests as they hiked toward Kessler Peak.

“Because there has been some other avalanche issues throughout the season — some deep instability issues — we decided to dig a pit about the same aspect of the chute that we were going to ride,” he explained.

In fact, they tested the snowpack a few times in different spots, especially because of that wind and some cornices they noticed. Nielson said the wind was a red flag, and they wanted to see how reactive it was, and if it was causing slabs.

He said they didn’t get anything to propagate and didn’t see any other signs of instability on the surface of the snow.

When they reached the entrance of the spot they planned to drop into, they conducted some final stability tests. Nielson said they couldn’t get anything to move, even when he stomped on a cornice to get it to fall into the slope.

“We didn’t think there would be [an avalanche] based on all of the tests and everything we ran,” he said.

Then, Nielson dropped in first as his backcountry partner waited up top.

GoPro video from the viewpoint on top of his helmet shows the slopes breaking and beginning to slide.

(Blake Nielson)

“Logan, I’m sliding! Logan, I’m sliding!” Nielson yelled into his radio.

The snow sweeps him downhill.

I’m staying on top, but I am sliding!” he said in the radio to his friend.

“I tried to stop; that didn’t work, and it’s like, OK, well now I’m riding, so now let’s just stay on top,” Nielson said of what he was thinking. “My partner was at the very top, so I just wanted to communicate with him and let him know everything that I was experiencing in terms of where I was, where I was at in the moment, so he could, if he had to, he could find me.”

Nielson sailed past trees and estimates he was carried down about 300 feet before the slide slowed down and came to a stop.

He quickly updated his friend through the radio.

“I have stopped sliding. I am safe. I am OK. We’re OK,” Nielson said, taking a huge breath of relief, mixed with adrenaline.

Nielson’s friend took pictures of where the slide broke. It continued downslope from Nielson, and they estimate the entire length was about 1,300 feet.

The two made it down safely and submitted an avalanche report to the Utah Avalanche Center, along with pictures and the video.

Nielson expressed the hope that others would see that even in good conditions with great experience, there’s always something to learn in Mother Nature.

“Sometimes the avalanche problem is not as obvious as you might think,” he said.

In this case, his takeaways include: knowing isolated wind pockets may not be obvious, but can still break and carry someone a long way; cross loading can be a serious problem, even if not anticipated; making a ski cut can help mitigate hazard.

Nielson suggested others interested in the backcountry find partners and mentors they can learn from, take classes, read books, and know what to expect if something happens like what happened with him.

“Take the proper training, get educated,” he said. “And go enjoy it.”

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Snowboarder recounts being caught in avalanche in Big Cottonwood Canyon