Utah man given Carnegie Medal for rescuing skier buried in Neff’s Canyon avalanche

Dec 18, 2023, 1:49 PM | Updated: 2:01 pm

Thomas Elbrecht, a firefighter for the Unified Fire Department in South Salt Lake....

Thomas Elbrecht, a firefighter for the Unified Fire Department in South Salt Lake.

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah man will be honored with the Carnegie Medal for heroism, after saving a skier buried in an avalanche in 2022. 

Thomas Elbrecht, a firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority, will be one of 18 individuals given the Carnegie Medal for this quarter. The award is North America’s highest honor for civilian heroism.

Thomas Elbrecht, a firefighter for the Unified Fire Department in South Salt Lake talks to KSL TV in the days following the rescue.

A heroic rescue

On Dec. 14, 2022, 35-year-old Travis Haussener was backcountry skiing in Neff’s Canyon when, all of a sudden, the slab broke loose, creating an avalanche 200 feet wide, and two feet deep. The loose powder surged downhill and completely enveloped Haussner. He was slammed against a tree and pinned there until he was buried up to his chest with only his arm and head above the snow.

Elbrecht, an off-duty firefighter, was scouting out a safe spot to ski in Neff’s Canyon when he heard Haussener’s cries for help.

The 31-year-old followed Haussener’s tracks to the bottom of the avalanche debris and hiked up the slope to where he was buried. Elbrecht dug out Haussener, called 911 for help, and then called his wife to let her know what was going on.

Haussner had a broken femur and other injuries that prevented him from being able to get down the mountain, so the two huddled together until rescuers could reach them.

‘I thought that was the end’, Man describes surviving Neffs Canyon avalanche

Elbrecht used a ski pole as a makeshift splint to stabilize Haussener’s leg and created a snow bench to rest on. Elbrecht removed some of Haussener’s wet clothes and provided him with dry clothes, including an extra down jacket he’d packed with him.

A rescue helicopter responded but was unable to rescue Haussener because of the slope and closely packed trees. Eventually, two rescuers hiked up to where the two were sheltering and Elbrecht helped lower Haussener to a spot where he could be moved, first by toboggan, and then by snowmobile, to a waiting ambulance.

The two were off the mountain, and Haussener was transported to the hospital at approximately 7 p.m.

They had huddled together for over seven hours.

Haussener spent several days at the University of Utah hospital with a severely fractured femur, a broken right arm, and broken ribs.

Elbrecht was cold and hungry but otherwise uninjured in the incident.

The award

“The Carnegie Medal is given throughout the U.S. and Canada to those who enter extreme danger while saving or attempting to save the lives of others,” a release from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission stated.

The award was established by philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie in 1904. Since it was established 119 years ago, the fund has awarded nearly $45 million in one-time grants, death benefits, scholarship aid, and continuing assistance.

Awardees are chosen each quarter. Each recipients or their survivors will receive a financial grant.

The organization explained that Carnegie organized the Fund following the Harwick mine disaster near Pittsburgh in January 1904, which killed 181 people. The victims of the event included an engineer and a miner who went into the mine in a valiant attempt to rescue others. Carnegie was so touched by their sacrifices that he promptly set to work on creating an award for heroism.

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Utah man given Carnegie Medal for rescuing skier buried in Neff’s Canyon avalanche