Detailed Accident Report

Back to accidents page

Date: 2002-12-19
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Steve Baugh Bowl , Jedediah Smith Wilderness
State: ID
Country: USA
Summary: 1 skier caught, buried, and rescued with avalanche transciever



Skier survives backcountry slide

Toni Piva spent 12 minutes buried by snow before being rescued.

By Bill Curran

Skier Toni Piva almost succumbed to panic in the first few seconds of the 12 minutes he spent buried in an avalanche Thursday outside the Grand Targhee Ski and Summer Resort boundary.

With his mouth full of snow, and arms and legs pinned by the weight of the slide, Piva's adrenaline kicked in, and he started to hyperventilate.

But the five-year Driggs resident was able to cough out the snow and create a small air pocket by wiggling his head. "That gave me a little hope," he said in phone interview Sunday.

After a 12-minute search, Piva's ski partners dug him from as much as five feet of snow. He escaped injury.

Piva, a baker at Pearl St. Bagels in Wilson, triggered the slide in Steve Baugh Bowl in the backcountry east of Mary's Nipple. At around 3 p.m. Thursday, he and five friends legally accessed the bowl, located in Jedediah Smith Wilderness, from Targhee. The first four skiers dropped into the bowl one at time and safely skied to the bottom. But the skiers progressively ventured further from the treed east side of the bowl toward the exposed center, according to ski patrol reports.

Piva, 32, said he dropped in, made one, maybe two turns, and was swept off his feet by the rush of snow.

By "swimming" in the frozen, crashing wave, the experienced backcountry skier was able to keep his head on top of the debris until near the end of the avalanche when it flooded a stand of trees, flipping him, he said.

Twelve minutes later, which Piva said seemed more like three or four minutes, the buried skier heard voices and felt the weight of his friends and rescuers who had used their avalanche transceivers to find him. He yelled and they cleared two feet of snow from his face and five feet from his feet.

Piva said his lips were purple and had lost feeling in his extremities. "Maybe I was starting to freeze," he said.

But after a brief rest with friends, he was able to hike out of Steve Baugh Bowl and ski to the first aid center at the base of Targhee. Ski patrol wrapped him in a blanket, and 45 minutes later he was back on his feet.

Piva, who has surfed "pretty big" waves in Hawaii, likened his burial to being crushed and pinned by a relentless wave. "But the wave lets you up to catch a breath," he said.

The avalanche broke along a crown 14 inches deep and 210 feet wide. It swept Piva almost 1,000 feet down the north-facing slope, according to reports from Grand Targhee Ski Patrol and the Teton County Sheriff's Office. The slab cracked at an elevation of 9,700 feet and a pitch of 34 degrees, sliding on hard crust that formed during a period of warm, dry weather that spanned from before Thanksgiving to mid-December.

Armed with transceivers, shovels and other backcountry gear, Piva's ski party was ready for an avalanche. Their preparedness may have saved Piva's life.

But their choice of terrain almost killed him.

Earlier on Thursday, a snowboarder triggered an avalanche just west of the slope Piva and friends chose to ski, avalanche forecaster Bob Comey said Saturday. The boarder was not caught in the slide.

Dave McConnell, head of Targhee's ski patrol, said slides are clear indicators of the conditions within the snowpack.

Piva said he should have know better. "It was a bad call," he said. "I figured ... I would ski in the trees."

But once he linked with the group, Piva changed his thinking. "I guess once there was a group of us, [we decided to] just point it through the starting zone."

Avalanche danger Thursday was moderate, which means human triggers are possible, according to the Bridger-Teton National Forest Backcountry Avalanche Hazard Web site,

Piva said he has often skied Steve Baugh Bowl and let experiences from different seasons, and snowpacks, influence his judgment. "Instead of evaluating this season, we were going on past knowledge," he said.

As Piva felt the snow sweeping him down the slope, he recalled a conversation he had the night before with a friend about how to survive a slide, he said. They discussed various tactics, such as trying to outrun an avalanche and swimming to stay afloat in the debris.

Finally, Piva remembered, his friend came to a conclusion. "'No, you just don't get in an avalanche, that's how you get out.'"

He will remember that pearl.

"In the past, I've skied alone a lot, [and on] wide-open aspects like that," he said. "I'm thinking my choice of skiing lines and areas will be different."

Sometime after his terrifying first minute of burial and before rescue, Piva gained control of his mind. "I wasn't mad or angry. There was no fear," he said. "I knew everything would be OK if they got me out or not."

Piva said while he focused on breathing and remaining conscious, his thoughts swirled. "I kept thinking of my son and laughing and ... people's [smiling] eyes, and music and mountains and dancing," he said. Piva's son is 2 years old.

In trying to compose his thoughts, Piva, who has studied tai chi, recalled meditations from the day prior. "The prayer meditations I did the day before saved me," he said.

Through the darkness of what nearly became his snowy tomb, Piva recalls seeing a clear sphere of light. He said the vision is difficult to verbalize.

Fresh snow notwithstanding, Piva hasn't stepped into his skis since his burial. "When it was dumping the last two days ... I just didn't care," he said.

At some point though, he'll ski again. "Skiing is my favorite thing in the world, I love it."

Respond to this article by e-mailing