Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2007-03-01
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Jewel Basin, Flathead National Forest
State: MT
Country: USA
Summary: 1 snowmobiler caught, buried for 8 hours, and rescued alive


Buried 8 hours, man survives avalanche

By ALAN SUDERMAN - Associated Press Writer - 03/03/07

AP photo - Ryan Roberts, 34, who was buried by an avalanche for about eight hours Thursday on the Swan Mountain Range, background, poses Friday at his Creston home.

HELENA - A snowmobiler buried by an avalanche for about eight hours emerged with apparently little more than scratches, after a relative using a probe found him in an area officials say was off-limits to motorized travel.

Ryan Roberts, 34, of Kalispell, said Friday he was astonished that he survived the avalanche, which swept over him late Thursday afternoon during a snowmobile trip in northwestern Montana's Flathead National Forest. He was found shortly before midnight.

''I guess I was just allowed to live another day,'' Roberts, a cement worker, said Friday in a telephone interview after his release from Kalispell Regional Medical Center earlier in the day.

Roberts was snowmobiling in the forest's Jewel Basin with his uncle and a friend, neither of them caught in the avalanche.

Roberts said he tried to outrun the sliding snow by driving his snowmobile at about 80 mph, but leaped off the machine as it sped toward trees.

He said he tumbled downhill and was buried face-up by about 4 feet of snow. After it became apparent that he could not move, Roberts said, he tried to remain calm and accept what he thought was his fate.

He said he remembered thinking, ''Well, I'm going to die.''

Roberts believes he passed out about five minutes later.

Companions immediately began searching for Roberts, who said Friday that he usually carries a transceiver while snowmobiling but did not have it on the trip Thursday. The device emits a signal that can help searchers locate a person under snow.

After searching for two hours, the companions used a cell phone to call for help.

About 18 family members and others traveled to the scene by snowmobile and searched for Roberts. A party that included members of the Flathead County Sheriff's Department also set out to look for Roberts, but officials said they searched in the wrong place after receiving incorrect information about the location.

Dan Root, a distant cousin of Roberts, said that when he reached the scene of the avalanche Friday at about 11 p.m. MST, he did not expect to find the snowmobiler alive. Several other people already had been combing the area for hours.

''I parked my sled, got my probe out and walked up the hill about 5 or 6 feet and hit'' Roberts with the probe, Root said. ''I probed him the first time.''

Root and several other snowmobilers in the search immediately dug through the snow, removed Roberts and put him near a fire. Root said Roberts regained consciousness, but still appeared disoriented.

Roberts credits his survival to a helmet that kept snow out of his face and to the use, on his back, of a thermal pain-relief pad that provided warmth. He also said quick thinking by his family and fellow snowmobilers helped save his life.

Three men sat by the fire and put their legs beneath Roberts so he would not be on the snow. In addition, members of the rescue group heated their clothes by the fire, then placed them on Roberts for warmth. Roberts said that after about five hours by the blaze, he felt able to ride out of the area on his uncle's snowmobile.

The 20-mile trip in rugged country took about an hour before Roberts got to a road where his wife, friends and an ambulance were waiting.

Robert's wife, Billie, said his temperature at the hospital Friday morning was 90 degrees.

Dr. Mark Rabold, an emergency physician in Helena who has cared for avalanche victims, called Roberts' survival ''quite extraordinary.''

''God was smiling on that boy,'' Rabold said.

An official at Alaska's Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center estimated at less than 5 percent the odds of surviving under the conditions Roberts endured. About half of the people buried by avalanches die within 30 minutes, said Carl Skustad of the Alaska center.

Ranger Jimmy DeHerrera of the U.S. Forest Service said the agency plans to cite Roberts and his companions for snowmobiling in the prohibited area. The maximum penalty is six months in jail, a $5,000 fine and snowmobile confiscation.