When Things Go Wrong in the Winter

When things go wrong in the winter

10:00 am, January 30, 2015

Several friends and I, 7 in all (2 close friends and 4 friends of friends), decided to go up to Togwotee Pass to go run some laps and farm out Two Ocean Mountain. I personally have wanted to travel to Togwotee for some time now, being only about an hour away and hearing stories from friends of how wide open and empty these peaks would be (besides all of the snowmobile activity that goes on up there). Unfortunately things did not go as perfectly as we had hoped.

I was a little uneasy writing this as it has really nothing to do with me other than the fact that I was there at the scene. Also, at the time, I did not know what would happen to, we will call him, Jon. (for anonymity sake)

The day was as perfect as you could ask for. Windy but sunny, and a low avalanche danger with Two Ocean Mountain in our sights. This ridge/peak that is about 700′ in vertical with a plethora of options North, South and East facing. So even for 7 of us, there was plenty for us all to do and get a multiple of quick, quality lines in. We skinned from the parking lot reaching the base of the peak only a mile in, then switched to booting up the ridge to set a track that we could use the rest of the day. It was so easy to get to and my stoke was high to get a bunch of laps in.

winter backcountry

We all got to the top of the ridge, scoped out Breccia Peak across the way, took in the view, got our boards ready to ride and scaled down the first run of the day. The snow was good. Surprisingly good for the heat wave that has been hitting the entire Western part of the country. The coverage was pretty good but I did notice some exposed rocks and small trees poking out here and there.

Snow covered mountain
Exposed rocks and small trees a-plenty

winter pow turns


Steve weiss snowboarding

12:00 pm

It was only about 12:00 pm and I thought to myself, “we are going to get a lot of skiing in today!” The group hung out at the base, got some food and water, and headed back up. We stopped earlier than before and scoped out a booter off the top. I saw it and thought, “No way in hell” then looked at the skinny chute just below it but it did not motivate me much so I kept going up. I scoped a line just below the top and dropped in. I assumed everyone else had hit that line they were staring at and were waiting.

I got to the bottom and I see my two close friends looking up, and two guys in the other group start skinning back up. Apparently, because I didn’t see it, Jon had skied the chute just below the booter, made a toe side turn and slammed into an exposed rock.

“Yeah, he’s got a broken rib…for sure,” says one of the guys. To me, he seemed like he was in pain, definitely a busted rib, and the air was knocked out of him. He skated down to us and laid down making those noises that people make like if they just got punched in the stomach.

We made the decision to send one of the guys to get help.

One of the guys, I’ll call him Matt, started testing Jon for different stresses: ribs, neck, shoulder, etc. We started to discuss the out route. Should we make a stretcher out of his splitboard and poles and ski him out? Maybe we should send another out to grab some snowmobilers. So after about 10 minutes we sent two more knowing that we still had a crew there.

More tests and constantly checking Jon’s vitals was the routine for the next 30 minutes or so. What seemed like a pretty “casual” injury turned worse. Jon’s breathing became irregular and then would go back to being regular then back to irregular. Then he would “yell” from the pain. I say “yell” because it really wasn’t that loud but you can tell he really wanted to scream.

backcountry rescue

After hearing some gurgling-like sounds we sat him up with a shovel as a back rest. We stashed our packs under him to keep him off the snow and covered him in extra jackets and base layers. We also used our splitboards to make a wind barrier for his head.

Sitting. Waiting. Where are those guys? Did they get snowmobilers? I wish I had some cell service.

Some time goes by and I can hear snowmobiles getting closer to us. These guys showed up gave us some extra base layers and started slapping on glove warmers and boot warmers on his chest and feet. One of them is a former EMT and administers some tests of his own and calls in for help. To make a long part of the story short, he got a hold of emergency units near Togwotee. Another EMT shows up and checks Jon’s vitals and throws on about 5 big thick blankets to keep Jon warm.

At this point, Jon is shivering (I think) and his breathing is in and out of being regular and irregular. The pain seems brutal, and we do our best to keep him awake instead of letting him go to sleep.

Then a County EMT shows up, and I am just trying to help when it is needed and stay out the way when I should. This EMT does the same routine, asks random questions and checks vitals. He determines that the only way we can get him out is to get a helicopter involved.

Jon is still shivering (having spasms?) and I feel for this guy. I want to help but feel helpless other than just making sure that his body stays off the snow.

winter backcountry

3:30 pm

The medi-evac helicopter comes in and lands 50 yards away from us. Jon is still in pain. From the outside, the pain looks like it comes and goes as every 30 minutes or so as Jon yells because of said pain. We get Jon onto the stretcher and loaded him into the chopper.

I got a text when I got home of an update on Jon. Broken rib, yes. Punctured lung, yes. He went into surgery immediately.

 I write this story because of everything that happened. We were in the backcountry and someone got hurt NOT in an avalanche. Avalanches are always the main threat that everyone likes to talk about but the reality of it is, there are more dangers out there that are at times invisible, like a dusted with snow rock.

I want to note, that it took 3 hours to get Jon out. 3 hours. Those 3 hours for me really flew by, but when you really think about it, that’s a long time to be out there in the snow. Thankfully it was a sunny day and the below the peak was very calm.

Those what if questions entered my head. What if we were much further than a mile away from the road? What if we couldn’t flag down those snowmobilers? What if no one knew what to do to help the injured?

It was a stark reminder that no matter what you do, whether it’s climbing, hiking, skiing, etc, you need to have those basic skills of first aid.

What I bring with me on all of my days out in the cold:

winter hiking backpacking

  • Hand/body warmers
  • TETON Sports Rainfly (for sheltering the injured)
  • Ibuprofen
  • Columbia Turbodown Jacket
  • Med Kit
  • GPS (for coordinates, I use my Suunto Ambit 2S)


backcountry rescue safety

About the Author


Stephen Weiss

Steve W Weiss, a backcountry snowboarder, rock climber, travel-addict starting in Ohio but now based in Utah. Blogger at MountainEnthusiast.com. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for everything awesome.